Review of Dockside Dialogue #2 – July 14, 2016
by Sarah Hughes
There’s a lot happening with Victoria’s food scene. At least, that’s what I gathered at the second event of the Dockside Green Dialogues 2016 series at the Café Fantastico Bar and Deli. The venue buzzed and the crowd ranged modestly from ripening professionals to seasoned residents. I stumbled in in my farming attire and quickly snuck away to change into something less eau de manure and soak up the liveliness of the space.
As folks ducked to the bar to grab a last minute craft beer or cider, the room hushed and CBC Radio Victoria’s Khalil Akhtar made the introductions. Fantastico’s curator and manager, Kalynka Cherkosh, sat beside the beaming Hayley Rosenberg from Nourish Kitchen and Café. Cliff Leir, owner of Fol Epi bakery and new downtown restaurant Agrius, took a seat beside Daniele Mereu, the culinary specialist and brand manager at Sysco. And last but not least came rising urban farm star Chris Hildreth of Topsoil.
Dockside Dialogue panelists: Hildreth, Cherkosh, Rosenberg, Leir, and Mereu
The event opened with a broad question about what Victoria has achieved in the past 20 years. Mereu snapped it up and said technology and the ability to look up anything on the Internet has made consumers more informed and prepared. While Mereu’s answer was a bit ambiguous, Leir commented on the expansion of farms and local markets in Victoria, along with the population willing to support these producers.
Cherkosh agreed. “There’s a real push for businesses to produce quality, wonderful, and beautiful fresh food,” she said, “because consumers are far more aware and intelligent and more involved in the process of eating, and more appreciative.”
Growing consumer awareness around food has brought a positive mind shift, but also expensive trends. It’s something that I’ve talked much about with friends and colleagues—the dichotomy between affordable, well-grown food, versus the artisan products that throw my monthly budget out of whack. Mereu used Moss St. Market as an example of where novelty foodie culture has overtaken the notion of simple, affordable, but good, food. And I don’t blame him. Moss St. boasts stalls of perky, organic bunches of kale, felty green pints of heirloom tomatoes, and intricately woven braids of garlic, but those three lovely items also leave you short 40 bucks.
But maybe that’s just the case with some of the niche markets. Responding to Akhtar’s following question about the high price of food, Hildreth said that the market model is only one solution for farmers growing for urban consumption. Hildreth opted out of selling at markets and instead created a business model that brings in the cash and serves up his greens fast. Topsoil, originally intended as a rooftop agriculture business and now located at Dockside Green, uses urban spaces to efficiently produce greens for local restaurants in Victoria. Unlike conventional farms, Hildreth works within the inner city and connects with restaurant owners on an almost daily basis.
Dockside Dialogue logo with Topsoil growing space
“If we [farmers] want to produce a lot of food we need to make it efficient and we need to make it more profitable,” Hildreth said. “The proximity we [Topsoil] have to our buyers really makes a difference for us. We can get our produce into the restaurant fridges about three-and-a-half minutes after it’s been harvested.”
Working closely with restaurants instead of relying on a middleman to sell his food means Hildreth gets firsthand advice from the chefs and owners, and customers. This allows him to better plan crops ahead of time and adjust them as much as he can within the season.
Defending markets, Nourish’s Rosenberg, who seems to have grown up in the garden, said that places like Moss St. Market promote the feeling of community. Many people don’t grow their own food–for lack of time, money, or space–and farmers’ markets provide a place where folks can absorb the atmosphere and connect with growers and farmers.
“Growing food is a craft, and most people don’t associate that right now,” Rosenberg said. “It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of investment, it takes a lot of care and a lot of love, and going to Moss St. Market also offers that opportunity to see the care and see the love.”
Overhead view of Moss St. Market
The community theme progressed as the dialogue stretched into the dusky evening. Cherkosh discussed the changing nature of restaurants in the city, from table service to long-tables and counter service. Some restaurants are reshaping the concept of “bubble dining”–traditional table service–to make room for more personal interactions between customers and servers, and to expand the conversation around food. Leir, whose bakery shares the Dockside Green space with Fantastico, said customers once had to leave Victoria to find interesting and satisfying restaurants–now they don’t.
While some have predicted the farm-to-table or urban growing trends will die out, this dialogue described why they can succeed. Food quality is important, and when people are aware of that, they tend to care more. The gap between affordable organic produce and artisan goods is still wide, but it’s closing year-by-year because of people like the panelists, and those in the audience. The interest in local food and urban farming is picking up momentum and fuelling a culture that is changing Victoria’s restaurant landscape. It’s a landscape that ultimately aims to bring people together and eat good food.
Early in the discussion, Mereu said that “farmers will be the rockstars of the future.” I agree, but want to push that notion further. Farmers have been rockstars of our past; they are also ones today, and they certainly will hold that status for years to come. But they have never done it alone. The panel highlighted how Victoria’s growing food scene encompasses a community of passionate farmers and restaurateurs, but to ensure that local producers can continue providing the fodder, consumers need to bring the dialogue back to their own dining tables.