It has spawned countless copycats, and has earned Chef Marc Breton a local food hero award from the Toronto Food Policy Council. It brings together farmers and local food producers with the people who eat their food. It has created friendships and communities, and has taught urbanites how easy (and delicious) it is to eat with the seasons.
Harvest Wednesdays is back for its fourth year, offering up dishes made from locally grown produce, as well as locally-produced meats, cheeses, wines, beer and more.
Conceived in 2006 by Gladstone Hotel owner Christina Zeidler, the original idea of Harvest Wednesdays was to support local growers and bring them together with the public. Starting with one supplier, CSA-based farm Chick A Biddy Acres, the list of suppliers has grown to over 40, with farmers and food producers now contacting the Gladstone asking to be part of the series.
“The first year we had a lot of explaining to do,” says Executive Chef Marc Breton. “Even with who the Gladstone was, who I was, and trying to convince people to get on board.” He mentions Miriam Streiman who works with Slow Food Toronto and who has taken on the task of keeping track of the Harvest Wednesday partners. “A lot of people come to us, and Miriam takes a lot of the organizational work off my hands. She’s out there meeting a lot of these people and talking to them and finding out what they’re doing and explaining what we’re doing. Getting people convinced is so much easier now.”
Also easier is the whole process of putting together the meals – both the monthly tasting events and the prix fixe dinners.
The main premise is still the same; Breton talks with Sherry Patterson of Chick-A-Biddy on Mondays to discuss what the CSA will be delivering the next day, and bases his menu around what is available. He admits that Patterson allows him to modify his shares slightly, usually in terms of quantity so that he has enough product for the dinners.
“Because what I really like is the direct connection to the seasons and the harvest,” Breton explains. “People talk about what’s in season, well, I don’t have to wait, it kind of comes in the back door and I know exactly what’s happening in the market or the fields. I try to work with that – Sherry knows what we should be serving.”
Breton will meet and work with many of the new suppliers for the first time at the Tasting events. “We’ll obtain something from them, based on what’s available, and we’ll make one or two canapés. This gives us the immediate contact and then it gives me an opportunity to meet them and discuss, then we’ll definitely try to fit them in for a dinner where we would feature their product as part of, or maybe the main ingredient, in one of our dishes.”
The tasting events are a more social affair that Breton prefers to liken to a cocktail party. Besides the Gladstone staff offering a plethora of canapés made from the seasonal items supplied by the producers, many of the Harvest Wednesdays partners are set up at tables in the Gladstone’s second floor event space, further enabling the public to actually meet the people who grew their food. Community partners such as Foodshare, Slow Food Toronto, Local Food Plus and Green Enterprise Toronto (to name but a few) will also be at the Tasting events with information about what they do and how the public can get involved.
The prix fixe dinners that run in the weeks between the tasting events are more like a typical restaurant dinner, with a four course meal plus optional wine or beer pairings served in the Ballroom cafe. Breton and his staff always come up with interesting dishes that celebrate the season, and he also manages to offer a vegetarian option at each course as well, but he is still faced with the challenge of finding ways to use up those vegetables that people don’t like.
Beets can be a particularly tough one. “We try to think about ways to use up beets,” the chef says. “We try to disguise them as stuff.”
“When they come, they seem to come from everybody,” he explains, referencing the many produce suppliers, “and they’re kind of a hard sell on the a la carte menu. Obviously when it’s asparagus season or when there’s corn or tomatoes, you never really have any trouble moving them, sometimes though, the beets are hanging around.” The plethora of greens Patterson supplies can also cause some consternation, but Breton puts these into some fabulous empanadas that are extremely popular and nobody is the wiser.
But learning to like your greens is just one reason to take part in the Harvest Wednesday series. Zeidler’s original vision for the event was to create a community and to bring people together, and the series has done exactly that. Harvest Wednesdays has increased awareness about community shared agriculture (CSA) farms, it has allowed people to connect with the producers of their food, and in turn has helped those producers to increase their business as people seek out their products at farmers markets after having tried them at a Harvest Wednesdays tasting or dinner. And the series has even fostered friendships among guests – Greg and I now regularly spend time with a lovely couple who we got to know originally through Harvest Wednesdays events.
The Harvest Wednesdays series starts this week (July 8th) at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen Street West) with the First Harvest Tasting. Tickets for the Tasting events are $17.50 and include beer and wine samples. The prix fixe dinners are $48 per person and are available at two seating times (6pm or 8:30pm). And the Harvest Wednesdays Series culminates on October 22nd with a Final Harvest Table feast ($60 per person) where guests are seated at communal tables and are served dinner family style.
Tickets can now be ordered online, and, as many of the events sell out, pre-purchased tickets are recommended. For more information on Harvest Wednesdays, or to order tickets, please visit the Gladstone Hotel’s website.
Tomato platter and dessert plate photos ©Magda Olszanowski and the Gladstone Hotel.