A COUPLE of years back, Jamie Oliver (a.k.a. "The Naked Chef") had the brilliant idea of going into British schools to try to change the way kids, parents and educators related to their food. He did it by changing the way their food is sourced and prepared.
Under the leadership of 36-year-old chef Ben Kramer, Diversity Foods is taking the same experiment to the University of Winnipeg on a grand scale.
Kramer is working from a simple precept: Good food is transformative: physically, socially and culturally. If you want to teach people about the value of good, locally produced food, what better place to do it than a university?
It began a couple years ago, when big plans were being drawn up to expand the University of Winnipeg. But there was a big problem.
"The university decided that their food services were horrible," says Kramer. "They looked at their food services and a light bulb went off. They realized this isn't real food. There's nothing for us to sell here."
U of W president and vice-chancellor Lloyd Axworthy brought together University of Winnipeg Community Renewal Corporation and SEED Winnipeg (Supporting Employment & Economic Development Corp.) to look into whether they could sell at a profit and do it themselves. They needed an industry professional who could put the kitchen on track. Kramer was brought in as a consultant to help with the feasibility studies.
"It was an interesting project to me so I agreed to help them," he says. "Once it was all said and done they pitched the job to me which was a perfect fit. We had designed it in a way that was true to my heart."
Kramer's heart was in serving quality homemade food with a focus on sustainability that supported local producers, something he learned from the chefs he had been working with in British Columbia after he finished culinary school. He had cooked like this at every job, but taking on a university kitchen was going to be different in terms of its scale, and its clientele.
With his right hand man chef de cuisine Aron Epp at his side, the two of them set their sights at engineering a cultural coup. If they were going to transform the menu from the source up, they were going to have to challenge their staff.
"We wanted to use this as a training program, but more so to teach the next generation of Winnipeg cooks that there is another way to do it, and that the changes that have happened over the last 20 years aren't good," he says. "We're trying to bring it back to the old school."
Kramer can sum up "old school" in a word.
"I think the most important thing is taste," says Kramer. "Prior to us being there it was all pre-processed everything. The storage was full of jugs of salad dressing, the freezer was full of burgers that were already shaped and grilled that came in from the states and all they were doing was heating them up. It just became the norm, I think. You go to school and it's horrible food."
Going from pre-made to homemade was a huge shift.
"I think the challenge for me and my guys was 'Let's prove that you can do it!' You know you can do it in a restaurant when you're charging $35 a plate, but let's prove that you can do it at a price point that students can enjoy and at a level of volume that's never been done before.
"We're chefs, right? We're kind of competitive and so the challenge that this couldn't be done was one of the big appeals to it."
In securing the goods for the table, he turned to the local producers he's worked with for years. He's asked some suppliers to increase their order to him by as much as threefold, but because he can guarantee the market, there's no risk to the farmers in expanding. They're so involved that Kramer sits down with them to choose seeds purchases for the next year's menus.
Students have come on board with the new menus as well.
"We're getting food to kids who wouldn't normally even think about where their food comes from," he says. "That's the goal. If we can change even 10 per cent of where these kids see their food dollars go we're achieving something."
Chef Kramer and his team are looking to the future by running a sustainable kitchen, including a new full-service restaurant to be opened sometime in the next year in the new science building at Portage Avenue and Langside Street. This will be in addition to the three on-campus locations and the burgeoning catering business Diversity Foods. But they are taking it slowly. They are a stand-alone business with no subsidies. They have to turn a profit while meeting the needs of everyone on campus.
In addition to changing kitchen practice, Diversity's mandate is to alter business practice by hiring people in the community who might otherwise have difficulty finding work. They want to make the workplace sustainable. They wanted to break the "minimum-wage business mould."
"Within a year, we've got full benefits for our staff and pay above industry standards," he says. "We just set a different business model. I get asked all the time how we do it, and it's just the same as choosing better food. It's just a mind-shift. You set your business model up and say this is what we're going to do, and this is a priority, and you work everything else around it."
"Just because it hasn't been done doesn't mean it's not possible."
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Now let's eat.
Back in the fall, I attended a duck hunt that was sponsored by Travel Manitoba (www.travelmanitoba.com) and hosted by Delta Waterfowl (www.deltawaterfowl.org) After a chilly but beautiful morning in the marsh, we were treated to a sumptuous multi-course gourmet wild duck dinner prepared for us by Kramer and Epp from Diversity Foods. When this delectable dish arrived at the table, I knew this would be a creative idea for a non-traditional Christmas dinner and Kramer has kindly shared the recipes to prepare pan roasted duck breast with sweet potato hash, braised greens and cranberry-apple glaze. He says you can get the duck from De Luca's Fine Foods. You can contact Diversity Food Services for catering or for more information at www.uwinnipeg.ca/index/food-services-overview
Delicious Christmas Duck Dinner for Four
Sweet Potato Hash
2 large sweet potatoes
4 scallions (green onions)
50 ml (1/4 cup) cilantro, rough chop
50 ml (1/4 cup) chipotle pepper (tinned)
15 ml (1 tbsp) honey
In a medium pan, cover potatoes with water and bring to a boil.
Simmer for 25-30 minutes or until cooked.
Mash potatoes with remaining ingredients until slightly mashed together.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Divide into 4 equal sized patties.
Heat oil in sauté pan until hot. Sauté the patties on each side until golden brown.
Kramer says the key to cooking duck breast is to NOT overcook it and to let it cook skin side down so as not to toughen the flesh.
4 duck breasts, fat side scored in a diamond pattern
Preheat oven to 200C (400F).
Season duck on all sides with salt and pepper.
Heat an oven-proof sauté pan over high heat until very hot.
Add duck breast, skin side down and cook until skin is golden brown.
Drain fat (and reserve).
Sear the other side of the breast for a minute or two and then return to skin side.
Place in oven and cook until medium rare or medium. (approx. 10 min).
45 ml (3 tbsp) duck fat or olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 shallots, sliced
1 small pinch of crushed chilies
500 g (1 lb) of winter greens (swiss chard, collards, rapini etc.)
50 ml (1/4 cup) of sherry vinegar
50 ml (1/4 cup) honey
In a medium pan, heat duck fat and sauté shallots, garlic and crushed chillies until soft, but not brown.
Add greens and reduce heat to low.
Add the vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper
Cook greens low and slow until tender (30-60 minutes depending on the green)
Season with honey.
750 ml (3 cups) real apple cider
1 x 5 cm (2-in) piece of ginger, thinly sliced
250 ml (1 cup) dried cranberries
1 to 3 dried red chilli pepper
125 ml (1/2 cup) of molasses
125 ml (1/2 cup) of apple cider vinegar
30 to 60 ml (2-4 tbsp) cold unsalted butter, diced
Bring cider, ginger, cranberries, chillies, molasses and vinegar to a boil in a medium-sized pot.
Reduce to a simmer and cook slowly until reduced by half.
When ready to serve, whisk in cold butter and season with salt and pepper.
Place the sweet potato hash on the centre of the plate. Place the duck breast on top. Place the braised greens around the edges and drizzle the glaze over the duck breast. Pair this dish with a bottle of Canadian Inniskillin 2009 Pinot Noir, $14.99.