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How to talk food in the city

When city consumers want to know how to communicate about food, they go to Voula Halliday

Voula Halliday.
photo: Supplied

“At the core, you try to create something memorable and special. The possibilities are endless,” says Voula Halliday as we discuss food and events — and how using them together has so much impact when you’re trying to promote causes and make change.

It’s a Tuesday morning, and Halliday apologizes as she tells me it feels like Friday evening. She’s in demand and she’s tired. She has spent the past three days teaching and there’s been a full slate of student presentations. She says it’s been intense. And amazing. She’s clearly thrilled with how the presentations went and absolutely loved the stories in those presentations.

Halliday is a professor at Centennial College in Toronto, where she teaches students in the food-tourism and food-media programs. In one of the courses, about freelance food entrepreneurship, she gets students to develop a food business concept. “What’s your story? What’s your brand?” she asks as she explains the thought process. For example, a food entrepreneur could create a book, “as a calling card,” she says.

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Halliday becomes animated as she tells me more about the student presentations. She says they were very heartfelt. It moved her deeply to hear students weave in their own personal stories.

It’s the key point, she says. Food and stories must go hand in hand.

Food, events, change

It’s no surprise that the stories touch her. Halliday uses food and stories to get people together at events. Ultimately, it’s all about promoting a point of view or a cause, and it’s the sort of thing that makes her tick.

Halliday is a former co-chair of Slow Food Toronto and Slow Food Canada, and she is also a founding member of the Terroir Symposium, an event that brings together people from the tourism, hospitality, food, beverage, and business sectors.

Hers is a familiar name for many Canadians, having regularly appeared on radio and TV. She has been a regular guest sharing her recipes on the CBC show “Steve and Chris,” and has written for a number of magazines including Chatelaine, Canadian Living, and Reader’s Digest.

Her teaching role is more recent. “I’ve been cooking since I was seven and always loving it,” she says. At university she studied creative writing. Then she worked at CIBC making corporate videos.

“It wasn’t my thing anymore,” she says as she talks about leaving CIBC after a dozen years to go to Australia for Cordon Bleu chef training.

Halliday loves recipe development and loves the art of communicating recipes properly. She feels lucky to have brought together her two loves of writing and food. Food, words, stories — make change.

Eating at Home

Halliday is off today, Tuesday, because she teaches Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. She is ready for down time. For Halliday, winding down includes cooking. Tonight, she says, she’ll make a mushroom pizza.

I’m actually surprised that she is not having leftovers for supper tonight, but I don’t say so as we haven’t yet chatted about her cookbook, with its focus on using leftovers to make home cooking more achievable.

photo: Supplied

In the book, Eat at Home, Halliday sets out to make home cooking an achievable goal. The introduction starts with her listing everything she aspires to get done in the morning, from walking the dog, laundry, exercise, meditate, check the inbox… and continues with about a page of things. She goes on to say, “This is what I want. And I am exhausted just thinking about it.”

One day Halliday realized that her family was spending a lot of money having food delivered instead of cooking for themselves. And so began her focus on more home cooking — and on more leftovers. She embraces leftovers as a way to make home cooking manageable. “I’ve gotten so much out of cooking with the intention of creating leftovers that it’s become an ongoing personal challenge that thrills me,” she says.

Halliday advises to follow her recipes the first time, and then experiment a bit the next time. She explains how to swap-in different ingredients in some of her recipes — to encourage people to experiment in the kitchen. She believes that once people experience success, they become comfortable experimenting.

When I ask Halliday about food trends, she thinks for a moment and then says, “People do want to eat at home.” She goes on to talk about the current popularity of meal kits, where people order the pre-prepared ingredients required to cook a recipe at home: everything required, including spices, is in a kit.

While Halliday is glad to see the interest in cooking, she worries that meal kits include a lot of excess packaging. She thinks that will change.

So the trend now, she says, is that there is a generation of people who haven’t been in the kitchen. But they want to cook.

Farm-fresh for children

Halliday wrote Eat at Home after working as chef and food co-ordinator at Dundas Junior Public School. It’s an inner-city school in her Toronto neighbourhood.

The school hired a chef to prepare healthy meals for the children, but the chef, who hadn’t worked with children before, quit after just two days. Halliday was between jobs, so she stepped in and ended up staying for two years.

While at the school, her focus was using more locally sourced farm-fresh foods and telling children about where their food comes from. “Cooking for the children taught me so much,” she says.

A lot of parents asked her about home cooking. Her frequent response was, “You need nothing but a cast iron pan at home and you can make anything to eat at home.”

The positive parent feedback and the interest in home cooking moved her to do something. “I want to give back, so I’m going to write a cookbook,” she thought.

In her courses, Halliday talks about the importance of sharing stories. It’s advice she herself follows. When she was ready to have Eat at Home printed, she shared the story of the book on the online funding platform Kickstarter.

She told her story and the story of the book. She says it’s important to tell your true story. She told people that her Kickstarter campaign was so that she could pay for printing. “My campaign is to pay my Amex bill,” she explained to prospective funders. She shared the story of the school and that she would be sharing proceeds from the book with the school.

Eating at home

People want to cook, says Halliday. If you’re in doubt, just look at all of the step-by-step cooking videos on YouTube.

But there’s another critical point for anyone talking to consumers about food. Simplicity is a good starting point for cooking, Halliday emphasizes. And it’s a great starting point for food events.

Simplicity is how you make something memorable.

It’s linked to how Halliday tells her students it’s okay to start small.

The whole idea, Halliday repeats, has got to be both simple and obvious. It’s “to bring nourishment and joy to the table.”

About the author

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Steven Biggs is an author, writer, and speaker who shares stories from the food chain. Find him at stevenbiggs.ca.

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