For the past 25 years, I’ve been championing Canadian cuisine around the world; first as a chef and now as a consultant, I am always trying to build a great Canadian menu. I travel more than 250 days a year sharing culinary stories with international governments and the private sector advising on culinary tourism and hospitality strategies. I work on projects as diverse as collaborating with Greg Klassen and his team at Twenty 31 on the framework for Canada’s National Culinary Tourism Strategy; working with a private entrepreneur, the province of New Brunswick and Shediac businesses to create a world-leading Canadian Seafood Centre of Excellence and Innovation; and being a regular keynote speaker on culinary tourism around the world from Australia to Morocco.
It’s become clear to me that labelling your food as ‘Farm to Table’ or boasting that you ‘Buy Local’ simply isn’t enough anymore; not when even the biggest fast food chains on the planet talk about locally inspired menus. In short: it’s time to find new ways to stand out. According to UNWTO’s Gastronomy Network Action Plan, over 88% of destinations are considering gastronomy as a strategic element in their image and brand. That means almost 9 out of 10 of us are fighting for the same customers not only in our own markets, but with destinations around the world too. This makes for a crowded playing field, so how do you differentiate your business from your competitors whether they’re around the corner or around the world?
I believe that we have a killer advantage— we can offer a truly Canadian experience, and no, I don’t mean just moose, maple syrup and Mounties! The definition I use when talking about Canadian cuisine around the world is “local, seasonal and sustainable cuisine in the hands of many cultures”. Canada’s culture is a mosaic, not a melting pot. Each place and person bringing their own unique flavours and experiences, which form a more harmonious whole when combined with others. While Indigenous cuisine laid the foundation thousands of years ago for what would become Canadian cuisine, we now have hundreds of cultures represented from coast to coast to coast. The fact that we can blend all of these cultural influences into our cuisine with no rules speaks to who we really are – a land of opportunity, diversity, acceptance and creativity. And this should be the spirit of a great Canadian menu.
Sure, countries such as Italy or France have lengthy culinary histories, but we have creative freedom! Imagine a French chef trying to change up time honoured recipes? Jamais! But in Canada, we can have a dish such as Chicken Tikka Poutine on the menu combining multiple cultural influences into a single dish and no one even blinks. Canada is really no different than Italy and France, we just happen to be a whole lot younger, and I believe our lack of structure paired with our world-class ingredients offers Canada a great opportunity.
Here’s my ten-point plan to creating — and selling — a great Canadian menu.
1) Focus on your local geography
What does the land offer you seasonally, what can be foraged, what is special? Whether that’s wild chanterelles in BC, fiddleheads in New Brunswick or moose in Newfoundland, make those locals foods your menu’s seasonally changing stars.
2) Buy local whenever possible
And work with small producers and farmers (or wholesalers who support small-scale farming) to showcase their best products and make a commitment to pay top dollar for them so you are supporting them just like they are supporting you. Let the ingredient shine – we have some of the best ingredients anywhere in the world, so show them off!
3) Showcase and learn from local cultural influences
Be it a single culture or a range of cultures – pull from the best of each and make it your own. Think about spices and techniques from cultures other than your own. Showcase the diversity of Canada to create a great Canadian menu.
4) Don’t be afraid to try new things
Don’t be afraid to combine different cultures and techniques, but do try it, test it and treat it seriously. In Vancouver, Kissa Tanto who blends Corsican and Japanese flavours and techniques has been honoured with international awards and blessed with packed rooms since opening.
5) Put feelings into the flavours by celebrating the people and the story
Make farmers, fishermen and artisan producers the next rock stars, as without them we will not have a distinct cuisine or a culinary identity. Name producers on your menu, host collaboration dinners with farmers, winemakers, brewers, etc. and have them at the table talking to your guests. Edible Canada has become famous for these and other international events such as Outstanding in the Field offer a showcase for producers.
6) Price your food fairly to support the whole supply value chain
The days of $25 entrees need to end and the whole industry needs to significantly increase pricing on menus if we are to make farming and fishing more sustainable and have access to the best of our local products. Whether it’s mustard seed, PEI beef or spot prawns, we export most of our top-grade products because overseas markets pay top dollar for them. Guests come to Canada looking to eat the best of Canadian, so make sure you can serve it to them by fostering relationships with your suppliers which make financial sense for them. When you tell the story of the ingredients, you add value.
7) Stop trying to define Canadian cuisine
Instead appreciate the people, the ingredients and the no-rules style, and then own it! I don’t believe we will ever have a dish-specific national identity in the same way that French or Italian cuisine does: but what we do better than anyone is have an abundance of high-quality ingredients. This is the key to a great Canadian menu.
8) Share the stories of your dishes
Share it on your menu, on social media and anywhere else you can market it. Stories engage people and create a movement. Make it easy for your guests to share the stories too, with hashtags, social media handles, etc. on menus and free Wifi in your venues. At Edible Canada we have had huge success with our mailing list which tops 30,000 people, and we have great engagement on social media channels.
9) Collaborate with others to bring people together
Chefs working with chefs (both local and international), winemakers, brewers, distillers, producers and other industries for example. Create an opportunity for others to work together and help share the story. Our Cross Canada dinner series was hugely successful; we invited chefs and storytellers from each province to collaborate on a dinner with us at Edible Canada. Think outside the box: we partnered with Audi Canada to do food and wine driving trips and we host the Vancouver Island Winery Association showcase annually.
10) Everyone has to eat three meals a day, give them a reason why one of them should be with you
Create menus that give people a reason to come, host special events, add new menu items regularly and create occasions. Oyama Sausage on Granville Island does a great job of this, running different themes each week showcasing different products.
Finally, in your quest for a great Canadian menu, don’t forget that although Canada is a casual country, people still want to feel taken care of. Make Canadian dining a by-word for technically perfect service without pretension!