Where Are the Chefs?


Today marks the beginning of two weeks of fantastic food-oriented television programming. Gordon Ramsay expands his Kitchen Nightmares series to try and get people to eat at local restaurants; Jamie Oliver takes on the pork industry in an effort to get producers to improve their husbandry standards; Heston Blumenthal has a 3-part series on his reinvention of the UK Little Chef chain of roadside diners; and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall revisits last year’s Chicken Out campaign to see if his efforts really did encourage people to choose free-range chicken and think about where their food comes from.

Too bad you don’t get to see any of it.

The Great British Food Fight series is an annual event on Channel 4 in Britain, and generally deals with politically-charged issues having to do with food production – this year’s series also includes a show called The True Cost of Cheap Food hosted by Jay Rayner of the Guardian.

Enterprising Canadians who want to see these shows will likely have no trouble finding them available for download online, but everyone else will have to miss out. Which is too bad because many of these shows are dealing with important issues that should be at the forefront of any conversation about where our food comes from, yet those discussions still aren’t really happening here in North America.

Oh sure, there are plenty of concerned food writers and activists doing their part to advocate for better quality food, humanely-raised meats, support of local farmers, and ways to make good food more accessible to people in lower income groups, but for the most part, we’re preaching to the choir. We have no means of getting these issues out to a wider audience to encourage everyone to think about where their food comes from – and, more importantly, to provoke change.

In fact, other than an occasional piece on shows like CBC’s Marketplace, or the nightly news in the case of disasters like the Maple Leaf Foods listeria outbreak, there is no real mainstream source of information on food issues that is directed at the general public. Plenty of books are written each year on food issues, and film festivals like Planet in Focus run films about food, but again, it’s a “preaching to the choir” scenario where only those with an existing interest in the subject are going to seek out this form of media.

Learning about food (political or not) just doesn’t seem to be on the radar of most Canadians. The Food Network thinks we’d all rather see spoon-licking bobble-headed hosts in low-cut t-shirts; while reruns of The Great Canadian Food Show, hosted by Carlo Rota, get buried by the CBC in the weekday afternoon clutter where hardly anyone sees them.

So where are the chefs?

We know there are many Canadian chefs out there living and working with the same standards and principles as their UK counterparts; chefs who promote local and seasonal food; chefs who support local farmers and who even run their own farms; and chefs who source their meat from heritage breeds that are raised free-range and organic. So why doesn’t the general population hear more about that?

Are we too complacent? Is it the stereotypical Canadian humility that prevents us from promoting ourselves? Or is it that Canada hasn’t yet made the move to create “celebrity” chefs who have the attention of the majority of the population? Whatever the reason, the end result is that Canadian chefs are not taking on the role of teacher and mentor to show the people of our country how to eat better. And with no great food leaders to guide us, we follow our US and UK friends down the centre aisles and load our carts with crap.

Where are the Canadian chefs with a message to share, and where are the Canadian media outlets willing to deliver that message? More importantly, where are the Canadian chefs willing to risk the criticism that taking a political stance would surely provoke? There has to be a few of you out there. Michael Statlaander? Steffan Howard? Jamie Kennedy? Anthony Rose? Brad Long? And surely there has to be a mainstream media outlet (c’mon CBC!!!) that could see the worth of creating shows, even on a one-off or seasonal basis as Channel 4 does, that cause Canadians to sit up and think about how their food gets to their plates.

So often, I hear foodies bemoan the fact that Canadian restaurants just don’t measure up to the Michelin-starred options in the UK, and I’ll adamantly defend Canadian food and restaurants until I’m hoarse from arguing because I truly believe in what we’re doing in our own country. But this is one area where UK chefs and restaurants leave us in their dust.

Our chefs have the knowledge and experience to show Canadians what good food really means, yet no one seems interested in taking (or making) that opportunity to create a dialogue that would encourage the country to think about what we eat. Where are you, chefs, and why won’t you join in the food fight?

(Image nicked from the Channel 4 website – follow the link above to view the hilarious promotional trailer for the series.)