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Three chefs take centre stage

Restaurant owners know disruptive change is coming, and that farmers have to be involved. But do they speak the same language? Hmmm, we sent a reporter

It’s shoulder-to-shoulder people, with barely enough space to bring a forkful of Peruvian spicy creamed chicken to my mouth. It’s great. So is the next taster I try, a vegetarian burger garnished with Peruvian chili aioli. The burger is made from pressed Canadian cottage cheese. Next are tables with cocktails, kombucha and Canadian cheese paired with beer.

We’re at the media preview for the RC Show. The show, put on by Restaurants Canada, is geared towards the food service and hospitality industry, and features food, food equipment, competitions and education.

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The program includes topics such as a look at Canada’s changing demographics, future opportunities with cannabis in food service, the health food movement, food trends, changing consumer needs, and culinary tourism.

For this, its 75th year, the show focuses on how to diversify and thrive in a rapidly changing landscape.

The mic is turned on for some opening welcoming words and Joe Jackman takes the podium. Jackman’s work is focused on company reinvention, and he asks the crowd if they sense much change in the industry. There are nods across the room. Jackman then talks about embracing change — not as a risk — but as opportunity.

If change means opportunity, what foods and food trends might be on the horizon? Here’s how the top chefs see it:

Chef La-toya Fagon

Founder and Chef at Twist Catering

La-toya Fagon.
photo: Supplied

Born in Canada, chef La-toya Fagon spent six years of her childhood living with an aunt in Jamaica so that she would grow up knowing her roots. Fagon’s company, Twist Catering, is known for fusing traditional Caribbean ingredients with Mediterranean flavours. Her specialty is high-end Caribbean food.

What food did she grow up with?

“We grew up with simplicity,” says Fagon, as she talks about Caribbean food made with fresh ingredients and simple cooking techniques. “All you need really is a pot and a knife and a cutting board and you can figure out everything,” she adds. She talks about oxtail as an example of a food she grew up with, then adds, “Now oxtail is more expensive than buying a striploin.”

I ask, what’s a dish you are really well known for?

“My jerk chicken!” says Fagon. She says that she went through 110 pounds of it the weekend before we spoke.

“I’m French trained and I studied in Italy, so I can do other stuff,” notes Fagon. She makes a great curry — both Jamaican and Thai curry.

Fagon is also well known for her lasagne. She puts her own twist on it with a simple base that uses green pepper, but no carrots or celery.

So what’s new on her ingredient list in 2020?

“I see more spices coming,” says Fagon, as she talks about more robust and earthy flavours — and more Indian flavours. She’s thinking of more heat too, and says more people now see the benefits of hot food, such as increased heart rate and the release of endorphins.

Fagon finds people are trying more spices. She considers this a good thing — especially since she’s come across a fair number of people who say they’ve never had curry before.

What new dishes is she cooking in 2020?

“I’m taking old-fashioned stuff and putting a twist on it,” says Fagon.

She says it’s similar to the movies, where we’re seeing remakes of classics such as Spider Man. As an example, Fagon talks about a chicken pot pie she recently tasted that had Moroccan spices.

What food trends has she noticed recently?

“I find that people are cutting back on red meat,” says Fagon, pointing to an interest in plant-based foods. It’s a trend that has her questioning whether consumers read ingredient lists.

“I know what’s in a ground chuck burger,” she says, noting that the ingredient list on some plant-based products is as long as it is for processed meats.

She thinks chefs can address trends such as plant-based food with simplicity. For example, a burger could be mushrooms with some garlic and onions and mashed black beans. “That’s a tasty burger!” she says.

What influences does she think will be big in the next couple of years?

“Hakka food, with its Chinese and Indian influences,” says Fagon.

She also thinks there will be interest in Caribbean food. She likes that, since her goal has been to provide high-end Caribbean food.

When it comes to diversity and its influence on food, she points to her own kitchen, where she is French-trained with a Caribbean background, her sous-chef is South Indian, the junior sous-chef is North Indian, the pastry chef and baker is Greek, and another kitchen helper is from Trinidad.

Of special interet to farmers, what is she hearing from consumers and other chefs about sustainable ingredients?

Fagon says some people care about sustainable ingredients — some don’t.

Those who care are interested in knowing about things such as sustainable food choices.

What kind of business thinking is needed to excel in the food and restaurant industry today?

“Number one is knowing your demographic, knowing where you’re located, and knowing what’s going to reach your area,” says Fagon.

For example, she says that in affluent neighbourhoods, she finds people associate higher costs with better quality. That’s important to know.

Fagon also thinks that focus is key. “Stay in your lane,” she advises. In her case, she studied Italian and French cuisine — but saw a need for really good, authentic, high-end Caribbean food. “I know my lane,” she says.

Chef Adrian Niman

Founder and Executive Chef at The Food Dudes

Adrian Niman.
photo: Steven Biggs

Chef Adrian Niman is at the show to speak about to how to thrive in a diverse Canada. As the owner and executive chef of The Food Dudes, Niman started out in the industry with a catering company, which has grown into a hospitality company that includes catering, restaurants, food trucks and ghost kitchens. The Food Dudes caters over 2,000 events a year.

I begin by asking what food he grow up with.

“My cooking career and my passion for food didn’t start until I was 15 years old,” says Niman as he explains that both his parents had demanding jobs. And he was inspired by cooking shows on TV — not by home cooking. It was after an apprenticeship at a restaurant that his passion for the hospitality industry took off.

What’s a dish he’s really well known for?

“We change our menu seasonally,” says Niman. In fact, he’s known for frequently changing the menu based on the time of the year and available ingredients. “In the winter we focus more on comforting and richer flavours; in the summer we try to go a little fresher and lighter,” he says.

If he had to pick just one dish he says it would be the “chop salad,” which was developed for one of the restaurants — but is very well suited to the catering business because it keeps well. To start, the bowl is lined with a jalapeno-feta spread, and on top of that, a salad of kale, napa cabbage, quinoa, cherry tomatoes, grapes, bell peppers, mint, cucumbers, parsley, red wine vinaigrette, harissa-dusted crispy chickpeas, and sumac. “It’s kind of like a party in your mouth,” he says.

What’s new on your ingredient list in 2020?

“We’re going back to our roots,” say Niman as he talks about using more preserved and fermented foods.

He says he will also be using more bitter greens such as endive and radicchio. “I think you’ll keep seeing a lot more of that in our cooking this year,” he says.

What new dishes is he cooking in 2020?

Niman’s menu is constantly changing, and 2020 is no exception. He says that cooking from scratch using traditional methods will continue to be a focus.

What food trends has he noticed recently?

“I believe that plant-based food will be a focus,” says Niman.

He feels that along with interest in vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free cooking, there will be more awareness of allergies. “Allergy-friendly dishes are an important focus,” he says.

He’s also seeing an interest by chefs in natural ways to create umami without MSG. He points to rice-derived koji as an example of how chefs are doing this.

What influences does he think will be big in the next couple of years?

Niman thinks indigenous dishes and ingredients are going to be big.

What dishes does he consider “Canadian?”

“Bannock is definitely a Canadian thing,” says Niman. He also points to dishes that use maple syrup.

What is he hearing from consumers and other chefs about sustainable ingredients?

“We’re trying to do the best job we can from a packaging standpoint this year,” says Niman, as he explains that to cut back on plastic wrap they have switched to reusable vinyl wrap. “We’re really trying to find things that are we can reuse to minimize waste,” he says.

What kind of business thinking is needed to excel in the food and restaurant industry today?

“I couldn’t live in Rosedale if it wasn’t for my catering business,” says Niman, as he explains that he started in catering instead of opening a restaurant because catering provides a better cash flow and higher profits.

“I’m extremely grateful for the catering business,” says Niman, which accounts for about 70 per cent of the business. “We are heavily involved in a lot of restaurant opportunities, but when you actually break it down at the end of the day, I mean catering is still the core of what we do.”

Niman says success in the hospitality industry takes more than good food and making guests happy. “It’s all the back-end stuff that will bite you eventually if you don’t do it properly from the beginning,” he says. That means watching what goes in and out of the bank account, and understanding cash flow and cash position.

Chef Philman George

High Liner Foodservice

Philman George.
photo: Supplied

Born in Toronto, Chef Philman George is influenced by its diverse array of cuisines, while also being anchored in a strong culinary tradition from his upbringing. A corporate chef for High Liner Foodservice, George will host a culinary competition at the 2020 RC Show.

What food did he grow up with?

“I would say my upbringing had a huge influence on my approach to cooking.”

George’s parents came to Canada from the Caribbean island of Barbuda shortly before he was born. While he’s been inspired by the diversity of food in Toronto, the culinary heritage of Barbuda has been very important.

When his parents came to Canada, he says, they were they were part of a small Barbudan community here. “Every Barbudan that travelled to Toronto would bring a cooler full of fish for the community,” he says, as he talks about growing up on a steady diet of pan-fried fish, stewed conch and stewed spiny lobster.

As he started to cook, George says he always paid attention when he was given fish or crustacean to work with. “I already had a comfort level with it,” he explains.

He is raising his boys to enjoy the traditional Sunday family seafood breakfast from Barbuda. George explains that a key ingredient is salted cod, which is soaked overnight. The salting process transforms the texture, making it a bit chewy. “It’s almost like this chewy texture that can continuously release its flavour as you work through it,” he explains. After soaking, it’s boiled to remove a bit more salt, and then mixed with stewed tomatoes, garlic and onion.

What’s a dish he is really well known for?

“My Caribbean-style shrimp tacos,” says George. While he’s a corporate chef, he sometimes cooks for events, such as when friends open a restaurant.

Using a traditional tortilla taco shell, he fills it with pickled purple cabbage that is topped with salsa that he makes from plantain — instead of the traditional pico-de-gallo-type salsa. The diced, sautéed plantain releases sugars. Added to that are Caribbean herbs, pimento pepper, and, finally, rum-flambéed shrimp. It’s topped with jerk aioli.

“It’s my take on what a taco would be if it had a Caribbean influence,” explains George.

What’s new on his ingredient list in 2020?

“Alaska pollock, which is a beautiful fish. I think it’s one of the most underrated fish on the planet.” George says it’s got a great sustainability story, with one of the world’s best managed — and largest — fisheries.

He finds the mild flavour of pollock is well suited to the Canadian palate. This mild flavour also allows chefs to do many things with it.

“That’s a major ingredient on my list for 2020 — and showing customers how they can utilize it effectively on in their menu,” he says.

On a personal level, George says he is looking at a lot of ingredients from West Africa, including a grain called “fonio,” and “moringa,” a plant with many edible parts. He’s also using cassava — both the leaves and the root.

What new dishes is he cooking in 2020?

George is busy spreading the word about the new Highliner Alaska Wild Wings.

“We’ve taken this beautiful Alaska pollock, and we’ve made it look like a fish wing but we’ve kept the core integrity of pollock,” he explains. It gets a crispy breading and a fairly simple flavour profile, with some pepper, onion and garlic — so chefs can customize it. When customers order wings, chefs can give it a dry rub, or toss with different sauces.

George laughs as he notes, “Chicken’s not going anywhere.” This is a novelty food that chefs can fit into an existing wing offering on a menu.

What food trends has he noticed recently?

“I don’t even look at sustainability as a trend anymore; I think that is here to stay,” says George, as he talks about both food and packaging.

He thinks specialized diets — including plant-based foods, plant-forward cooking, vegan, pescaterian and keto — will continue to trend in the years to come, making it important for the industry to keep them on the radar.

He is also seeing a return to a more simplistic approach to cooking. “There’s a heightened sense of awareness of the star ingredient of the dish, and just using a few ingredients to elevate it and make it shine,” he explains.

What influences do you think will be big in the next couple of years?

“I think West African cuisine is prime to be trending in the years to come,” says George.

He is seeing an evolution in Middle Eastern cuisine based on immigration. “That cuisine has more room to grow.”

George also points to the traditional Israeli condiment call “schug,” which he finds is making its way into Mediterranean cuisine in general. “That’s an example of a condiment that is transcending what we think of Mediterranean cuisine,” he explains.

What dishes does he consider “Canadian?”

“I think what makes a dish Canadian is utilizing the ingredients that are unique to Canada,” says George.

An ingredient-focused approach to “Canadian” cuisine leaves room for chefs to be creative.

Some of his favourite examples of Canadian ingredients are saskatoon berries, late harvest ice wine — and, most recently — pawpaw fruit. “Let’s let the ingredients be the star and let the chefs be creative — and that to me is Canadian cuisine,” he says.

What is he hearing from consumers and other chefs about sustainable ingredients?

“Millennials are the demographic driving food service — it’s imperative to cater to their needs, and they are demanding sustainability,” says George.

He says that he sees more chefs who understand the importance of everything on the menu having a good story. He says this helps customers have a good conscience while eating — and they can feel good knowing where it’s coming from.

“People who get it understand that your staff need to be sustained as well,” he explains as he notes that sustainability goes beyond ingredients. High staff turnover is a big problem in the industry, making “living wages” an important part of sustainability. “That might be something that gets lost in the mix of sustainability,” he says.

What kind of business thinking is needed to excel in the food industry today?

“The more stories that you can tell the better,” George says. “When people come in and they take a picture of your food and they post it, they are posting it because they feel connected.”

He believes he must connect eaters to farmers and fishers.

“They should be able to to see your vision, to see the story, to understand where the foods were sourced — that should be apparent from every touch point of your restaurant,” says George.

He points out the importance of technology, whether it’s leveraging social media to tell the business story, or allowing customers to order in and experience the restaurant without physically coming in. He says people may not want to just go into a restaurant: “They might come in and visit it once, and then eat at home on the couch after that.”

Learn more at rcshow.com.

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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