Food Day Canada is growing across the country.
On Saturday, Les Marmitons Niagara, an exclusive men's cooking group, held a celebration of food and things Canadian by preparing a meal for about 35 people.
The day started with Marmitons (which means cooks in French) picking fresh local veggies from the garden of Ryan Crawford, owner of Ruffino's Past Bar & Grill and BarBea. Also served up was Canadian lamb and chicken cooked over a peach wood fire.
Mike Berlis, president of the Niagara chapter of Les Marmitons, said it was an opportunity for the group to get creative with fresh local ingredients.
"The whole idea of farm to table has been promoted by most of the local chefs, and so we buy into that," Berlis said, noting the bounty of fresh ingredients grown in Niagara.
That was the emphasis behind Food Day Canada by founder Anita Stewart, "plus the fact that, obviously, this year it meant more because we haven't been able to get together physically for a year and a half," he said.
Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Jeff Stewart, whose mother Anita started Food Day Canada in 2009 (evolving from another event called the World's Largest Barbecue), was touring southern Ontario Saturday to stop in at as many Food Day events as he could squeeze in.
"It's been a heck of a run for the last week or so," said Stewart, who has been celebrating and promoting Food Day Canada more than ever this year in honour of his mother, who died in October 2020.
He started his day with a farm breakfast at the Grand River Agricultural Society in Elora, where they brought out harvesters and tractors to fly the Food Day Canada flag.
From there he headed to the Elora farmers' market where there was a tribute to his mother.
"One of the local instructors in the culinary school there was smoking up some Arctic char from the University of Guelph Research Station, and they're making a whole bunch of pizzas and stuff."
The pizzas were made from whatever was fresh at the farmers' market.
"They've built a great big oven down there as well too. We sort of call it mom's home oven."
From there he headed down to the Wooly Pub, near University of Guelph, where his mother was a food laureate. They were serving up a quinoa with Lake Erie perch, with some meats from Valeriote Market & Butchery.
His last stop was in Niagara at Crawford's farm for the Marmitons dinner. He said the whole experience really showcased Canadian cuisine and the connection of Canadian foods to the industry.
"It connects people to the land and connects people to the people who are on the land, providing so much for us and that's one of the (reasons) that we're so lucky to be here in Canada," Stewart said.
"It's the connection back to all the pieces of the chain of our food system … and a lot of that is credit to the great people who are from the farm, all the way through to our chefs putting food on our tables."
Really, Food Day Canada is about realizing what we as Canadians have available to us, he said.
"I'm so grateful to be here in this part of the world enjoying this, just being in the moment with good friends and good family and you know just soaking it up. The only thing that would make it better is if mom was here, but you know, she's here in spirit."
Stewart's three brothers have been keeping her tradition alive and stronger than ever. One brother, Brad Stewart, was also on a food journey in the Gatineau area, while his brothers Mark and Paul were celebrating in their own ways in Vancouver Island.
Another chef Stewart knows, Josh Crowe of Taverne Monkland in Montreal even got a tattoo with the name Anita on it.
"I had to call him like, 'Josh, Seriously, what's going on here?' And he's like, 'Yeah, I got this tattoo this morning for your mom so anytime I shake anybody's hand, and they look down and they see Anita written across my wrist, I can tell him what she meant to me.' "
His mom mentored Crowe and helped connect him "to some great people," Stewart said.
"Mom was always a great connector, and it was really all about bringing people together to celebrate the bounty that we have here in the north, and also study and learn and research about what we actually have here," he said.
"As Canadians, maybe we're humble, maybe we're really polite, but it takes somebody outside of Canada to say, 'You know what, that's special.' And mom was always great at pointing out all the special things that we have here."
The social media accounts for Food Day Canada have more than 50,000 followers, leading to "a mammoth engine of things happening around us," Stewart said.
"Twitter and Instagram is off the charts today and Facebook is just popping up with all this stuff, and it's always other chefs saying, 'Oh yeah I got this ingredient over here' — you know, I had no idea that we're doing organic wasabi here in Vancouver Island in Canada. And it's some of the best wasabi in the world. And there's all these little farms and farmers doing really innovative things that we wouldn't necessarily know about unless people were talking about it and amplifying their voices. And that's what Food Day Canada does."
Stewart sang the praises of Canadian food producers.
"When you pick a tomato ripe in July or August off the vine, and you taste that tomato, that's not a January tomato shipped in on a plane from Israel — no offense to Israeli tomatoes, they're sometimes all you can get — but we've got thriving industries now and the hot house industry here has just taken off," he said.
"And kudos to them for being able to figure out how we can have supplies of things like cucumbers and peppers and tomatoes year-round — local, fresh — and some of the ingenuity of the Canadian food system. There's some brilliant people doing some brilliant work."
The meal on Saturday was different than a typical Les Marmitons event, which usually sees members follow a recipe and menu by a chef. This time it was more of a "free for all," Berlis said, with Crawford guiding them on which crops were prime and ready to be used.
He said the event was such a success, they're considering making it an annual celebration of Food Day Canada.
Typically, using local ingredients is important to the Marmitons, he said.
"Even if it's done in a more formalized setting in the kitchen we like to know which butcher he's using and why, and which farmer he's using for that particular zucchini or those particular plants and so on," Berlis said.
"I think the other part of the beauty of this area is that we have so many options available, in all the farms, fruit farms, vegetable farms. The freshness is completely different to somebody who's not as fortunate to be in the area," he added.
"If you have to truck it for five hours and then you get it the next day in a store, that's very different to being able to pick it and have it that particular day."