Carole Precious has a healthy respect for viruses. The seasoned falconer who raises partridges, pheasants, quails and chickens for restaurants, has witnessed the impact of deadly disease on her birds, which she rears on her farm Chassagne located in Puslinch, Ont.
“I have watched viruses and they’re devastating,” Precious says. “Very often, there are permanent side effects, even if a creature survives.”
The effects of COVID-19 on local food producers and the restaurants they supply have also been devastating, leaving many businesses struggling to stay afloat.
Although lockdowns have lifted in many regions throughout Canada, restaurants continue to face limitations, affecting the livelihoods of hospitality workers and food producers alike.
“I think there will be die off on both sides,” Precious says. “I’m not a doom-and-gloom person, but I think we are on a rough ride for the next few years until people’s mindsets change and more realistically appreciate how food is produced.”
Learning to be resilient
Purveyors of high-end food products, such as Precious, work in partnership with restaurants to support mutual success.
“I’ve always had a personal relationship with my chefs. I would call my operations intimately small, and I like it that way,” Precious says. “You’re an ambassador for your farm, and you only want the best for the restaurants you work with.”
As COVID-19 continues to impose restrictions on restaurants, Precious says she has watched chefs “drop like flies,” while others have gone to great lengths to reinvent themselves with prepared foods and take-out options. “The virus is bigger, deadlier and more powerful than any business or any person,” she says. “The effect has been massive on everyone and will continue to be. Nobody knows the end of this.”
To sustain Chassagne, Precious has reduced staff and taken on the bulk of the farm’s labour. Breeding performance horses and sheep, in addition to birds, helps keep her business going.
“We’ve all had to learn to be resilient and that’s what we do,” she says. “In the meantime, I will make my birds available, and be adaptable, and hope that my chefs and I can continue to work together.”
A stressful time for restaurateurs
In addition to Precious’ birds, chefs like Fraser Macfarlane turn to Chassagne, which is French for “the hunting land,” for chicken and quail eggs, as well as honey produced on the farm’s apiary.
Macfarlane is the owner of Quatrefoil Restaurant located in Dundas, Ont. Since the pandemic, his business has endured a full lockdown in addition to the province’s red zone classification, which limits the number of patrons he can serve in-person to just 10 at a time.
“It has been incredibly difficult to sustain the restaurant and, with the future being so uncertain, incredibly stressful,” Macfarlane says.
To adapt, Macfarlane has transitioned a fine-dining menu into a take-away model, leveraged patio seating in fine weather, and developed multi-course meal boxes for customers to enjoy at home during what would normally be the busy holiday season.
This pivot, however, has come at great cost to him and others in the hospitality industry. In addition to cutting staff, Macfarlane has also had to limit relationships with many of his suppliers.
“Unfortunately, because of the restrictions and the downturn in business, we are not able to support our producers as much as we’d like to,” Macfarlane says.
“We have had to be very careful with menu planning, ordering and keeping things tight as our margins are razor thin. It has been exhausting because we want nothing more than to support our suppliers.”
The farm-to-table connection
Not only do partnerships with producers provide the restaurant industry with access to some of the best local ingredients, they also encourage a greater respect for the foods produced.
“What I really look for in a producer is someone who is passionate about their product, has a deep knowledge of it, and trusts me to highlight it in the best ways possible,” Macfarlane says.
Prior to COVID-19, Macfarlane and his kitchen team would visit local farmers to tour their operations, and gain a deeper appreciation of how the food they cook with was raised or grown.
This farm-to-table connection, Macfarlane says, gives the ingredients he uses a sense of place and time, while inspiring the overall dining experience at his restaurant.
The connection, he adds, is expected of a higher-end restaurant such as his, and diners are eager to learn about where their meals are sourced.
“It gives us a story to tell,” Macfarlane says. “I think many of our guests like to hear about where this vegetable came from, or how that animal was raised, and maybe even a little something about the person who produced it.”
Every little bit counts
Before the pandemic, producers such as Patricia Kozowyk of Baba Link Farm in Flamborough, Ont., would turn up at kitchen back doors, like Macfarlane’s at Quatrefoil Restaurant, to offer samples from their harvest and sell their wares.
“I’m a curious farmer so curious chefs are ideal,” Kozowyk says. “I learn from them about items they are specifically looking for, and I can advise on seasonality and shelf life. It’s a working relationship that goes both ways.”
While Kozowyk downplays her selection of niche organic vegetables, fruit, herbs, edible flowers, and native plants as “silly little crops that are labour intensive,” she has a reputation in the local culinary scene for being a flavour-forward farmer.
“When I first started my business, my focus was that anything I grew had to be tasty and tenacious,” says Kozowyk. “That’s why the farm is a little bit of everything, because biodiversity is king. Whereas some people say that’s too small, I wouldn’t bother. I think every little bit counts.”
A new landscape to navigate
An artist who painted Baba Link Farm – a piece of the land on which she grew up – before tilling its soil for a living, Kozowyk likens farming her family’s land to painting.
“I’ve gone from a starving artist to a poor farmer,” she laughs, adding perspective plays a significant role in both her crafts.
To see if a painting’s composition works, Kozowyk views it from every angle. When a challenge arises on her farm, such as an infestation of weeds, she takes a similar approach to solve it.
“While a particular patch of weeds may look messy, if you pick the weed at a nice young stage, there isn’t a restaurant that won’t take it,” she says.
In addition to retailing to restaurants, Kozowyk previously sold produce at farmers’ markets, where her marketing strategy was, “if they taste it, they’ll buy it.”
With the pandemic underway, however, she stopped doing the market circuit, scaled back her offerings, and introduced an online store to distribute her products. As a ripple effect, she is considering semi-retirement.
“My concern hasn’t been so much for my sales, but the health of the restaurants I supply,” Kozowyk says.
Much like painting and farming, she applies her unique perspective to the new culinary landscape COVID-19 has forced restaurants and food producers to navigate together.
“We may not be able to dine out, and have time evaporate like when you are closing out a restaurant,” she says. “But we can still delight in the artistry of chefs, and what they are able to do with raw materials, with take-out dishes that support their business.”
About Farmwork to Feed Canada: Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.