How Can We Help Our Planet Through Our Eating Choices? Sustainable Dining w/ Forage Chef Welbert Choi and Fable Diner Chef Josef Driemel
Do people ACTUALLY care where their food comes from?
Does it matter to people whether their fish is freshly caught or has been frozen for months? Whether their veggies are layered with pesticides and chemicals or are organically grown?
I think we, in Vancouver, do care. In fact, I know we do!
This past year, we have seen a remarkable shift in championing climate awareness, with thousands of Vancouverites marching as part of the climate rally. The disconnect is that some of us might not know how caring about our food sources relate to caring about our planet, and that’s okay!
Caring for our planet is something we have the privilege to learn how to do together. As avid foodies, we should think more about the role food plays in changing our planet, for better or for worse.
That is why we are extremely excited to get to share with you our interviews with Forage’s Chef Welbert Choi and Fable Diner’s Chef Josef Driemel on what exactly that role is! Both chefs who are as passionate about locally sourcing and sustainable dining as they are talented in running top-tier restaurants, share their expertise below to help us come together – foodies, chefs, and farmers – to keep our food yummy and our planet sustainable!
To start off, how would you explain the term “sustainable dining”?
[Welbert] Sustainable Dining to me is firstly about food source – where they come from, how they are processed, and how they are grown. After that, it’s about everything else you can see when you’re dining, even restaurant decor shows how businesses operate in a sustainable way.
Even our kitchen – are we using gas or electric? Are we conserving energy or using recycled material and using the least amount of energy we can to run this space? And that’s all included in “sustainable dining,” not just food, even though food is a large part of it.
Could you describe what your past year at Fable Diner has taught you in terms of farm-to-table dining?
[Josef] Well “farm-to-table” is something that I was already pretty familiar with. Whenever choosing a new restaurant, I usually try to do my homework regarding their values and whether they line up with my own.
As far as the learning experience from running the diner, I would say it was more from a logistical side. Actually sourcing the products and maintaining costs, working around the growing seasons and overall planning, sometimes over 6 months in advance, with the farmers for whatever project we have going on has been educational.
As you were one of the opening chefs at Forage in 2012, how was this vision for sustainable dining created?
[Welbert]: Well, back in those days, we noticed that we need a change in how we define going into restaurants to eat. Our definition of restaurant dining was, more or less, informed by our belief in sustainability, that when it comes down to it, it’s not just about the food. Back then, it was kind of a big risk to open a restaurant like this because not a lot of restaurants were looking at it that way, though some small restaurants were already doing farm to table dining.
In our vision, we looked at the bigger picture. For example, we looked at the bond with our local farms, and would look at how they operate and what kind of impact on the environment they have. Then, we selected a few suppliers who paralleled our sustainability philosophy.
As you have worked in a diverse array of restaurants, what is the difference working at one that focuses on local sourcing?
[Josef]: Restaurants are all pretty similar in the way they operate.
The main difference is that there is definitely more hands-on work because with local sourcing, most products come in whole and unprocessed. It’s a better connection to the food you are producing, I feel. You see the ingredients for beginning to end and have a better sense of ownership and pride at the end of the day.
What would you say are the benefits of locally sourcing your ingredients? Both for your restaurant on a personal level, and for society on a larger scale?
[Welbert]: I think the most beneficial thing is that we are able to support local farmers. We need to remember that local farmers worldwide are actually protecting our resources on the soil. When we lose that piece, it’s easy for farmland to become industrialized or commercialized to become less sustainable.
We need to remember that local farmers worldwide are actually protecting our resources on the soil. When we lose that piece, it’s easy for farmland to become industrialized or commercialized to become less sustainable.
Chef Welbert Choi
I believe this care for the environment and supporting this small group of people who really care comes around to us, maybe not directly, but it impacts the environment we all live in.
Also, anyone who has worked in our kitchens sees our produce from local farmers and the taste always amazes them.
[Josef]: Benefits are many to be sure. Overall quality of the locally sourced product will generally be better, at least concerning produce. It’s really just a matter of how far your food has to travel before you are able to consume it. Most mass-produced vegetables are picked well before their prime to ensure that they arrive more or less in good shape at the end of their long trip to your plate.
Personally, I prefer it when I can buy local. Obviously, living in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s not always possible, as I do enjoy fruits and vegetables even in the winter months, but I think it’s something everyone should think about. Supporting small, local producers is key to achieving sustainability.
How does the way you source your ingredients influence your approach to creating dishes? How do your dishes reflect sustainability?
[Welbert]: We always have our cooking knowledge in the back of our mind. The skills are always there. But what is tricky is how do we integrate this skill with seasonal ingredients? It creates a challenge for the whole kitchen, especially if you’re used to cooking in an environment with no seasonal limitations.
Locals tend to stick with something they are used to or is their favourite, like asparagus because it’s available all year round. But we try to switch up ingredients and put different and interesting things on the menu so people would learn that seasonality exists.
There is a cycle of sustainable dining, that’s bigger than sticking only with produce that you like. By doing that we increase the diversity of what people are willing to eat in a sustainable fashion.
[Josef]: It definitely plays its part. Here at the diner, we have a bit less flexibility as most of our menu is set. We try to keep it fresh with features and special dinners.
As a restaurant 100% local sourcing is difficult. Some items just can’t be found year round from local producers or are exorbitantly expensive. So it is a matter of finding the balance that works for you and your price point. However, we are blessed here in the lower mainland that we have many options for local products year round (making my job that much easier).
What difficulties, if any, do you encounter in maintaining this value of local sourcing?
[Welbert]: There are definitely challenges with weather and climate, especially in British Columbia, we are not necessarily the perfect climate for everything we want to use. For example, one of the things we always struggle with is citrus. It is very hard to have a replacement of this, and if there’s not enough supply in something, well, we have to use whatever is available, and make it interesting so people are more accepting of it.
For many restaurants, the financial cost of local sourcing is not insignificant. Anyone who has been to the farmer’s market knows that the prices of goods are easily double of one at a regular grocery store. But at the same time, you really can’t compare the quality of the produce.
[Josef]: Honestly, other than the seasonality, which I mentioned, it would be the price point.
What people expect versus what they are comfortable paying is an issue we come across quite often. Some people don’t understand or see what actually goes into these kinds of operations and maybe don’t see the value as we do.
Forage invests in our community outside of locally sourcing goods, for example, through your relationship with the Cheakamus Centre. How can restaurants invest in the community outside of their dining table?
[Welbert]: I think one big thing is spending more time trying to contribute to local events.
In Vancouver, there are tons of events, especially in the summer, related to local producers. This is a very good chance for restaurants to make connections with local producers.
The government has been helping this by holding this sort of menu-planning conference called “Every Chef Needs a Farmer, Every Farmer Needs a Chef.” It’s a great connection helping farmers understand what chefs need and vice versa. A lot of people just don’t realize how much effort is put into everything.
Small operation farmers and fishermen really care about what they catch.
How would you view the current state of sustainable dining in Vancouver and the lower mainland?
[Welbert]: Well, for sure, a lot more people are aware of sustainability now and I think it is still growing. Right now, everybody is still on a learning curve. Many people wonder why we should bother eating locally – not just in BC, but around the world.
Compared to seven years ago, there is this wave that exists to educate people. I remember when we first opened, people were saying we’re kind of out of our minds, wondering why we would spend so much money buying local produce instead of buying from big box groceries or middlemen.
This is a lesson for cooks too. Many people in our kitchen who have worked in conventional kitchen see our produce and realize a difference in quality.
[Josef]: I feel like the whole mentality about dining needs to change to achieve true sustainability. The expectation can’t be to have the perfect avocado on your toast in the middle of winter, it’s just not realistic. We need to consume less and enjoy it more, if that makes sense.
I feel like there are some wildly talented chefs throughout this city and their biggest obstacle is the people that they serve. Everyone has a close relationship to food and that is great. But us being culinarians, don’t seem to have the trust that any other trained tradesman or woman would get in their respective fields.
I think dining should be more about the experience rather than expectations and preconceived notions about the what and how.
In what ways do you think Vancouver restaurants need to improve regarding locally sourcing?
[Welbert]: I would say, you don’t have to commit 100% to local right away – it’s a big financial cost and not easy to do especially in Vancouver, where maintaining a profitable business is already hard. But think about parts of your menu and what you could implement locally.
Look at seasonality, that’s very important. You can easily make connections at the farmers market with local farmers. At any level, whether it’s a smaller operation or even a chain restaurant, there’s always ways we could improve sourcing locally, even by looking at our suppliers – they have lists of produce that are sourced locally.
Also, looking at our proteins, and asking where we are getting our fish from. What is important is trying to make the connections along the supply chain, but it’s not an easy task.
[Josef]: It’s not just on the restaurants to improve, it’s on everyone.
Restaurants are just here to serve people and so we study what sells and what does not and make up our offerings based on that. So long as there is a demand, there will be someone out there to provide it.
It’s on everyone to be conscious about the direction that we are going as a greater community. Restaurants play their part yes but the responsibility rests on all of us.
It’s not just on the restaurants to improve, it’s on everyone.
Chef Josef Driemel
What is the must try or couple of must try dishes on your menu for a first-timer at Forage? Seasonal dishes?
[Welbert]: One thing that is coming up soon in seasonality, is a really special ingredient called the Stinging Nettle. It is not something you can easily find at a grocery store, but you might be able to get it from the farmer’s market.
But it’s something that is grown in the wild and is very high in nutritional value. It is also very sustainable because no energy is put into growing it at all, since it’s grown in the wild. I can’t say much more because it has a unique taste in a good way, everyone should try it!
Don’t be afraid to pick up a pound or two and treat it as you would spinach. See what you can do with it. These are the kind of interesting ingredients we love to use. In Forage, we make an ancient grain risotto using this stinging Nettle.
Are there any amazing seasonal dishes to have at Fable Diner right now?
[Josef]: Yes, we are working on our spring/summer offering now. we have a lovely salmon dish, potato salad, olive oil dressing and marinated egg and I am currently working on a new salad – details to be confirmed. We also offer specials everyday to play off of seasonal ingredients.
Any Final Comments?
[Welbert]: I have to say, we are here to make people. We are trying to give them great and delicious food while educating them about what the right track to sustainable dining is. So we are ecstatic and honoured to serve and provide people with great dining experiences, we just ask for good and open mindsets.
At Noms magazine, we share with our readers and restaurants this deep love for food and all that it brings – the amazing tastes, insta-worthy aesthetics, the conversations and knowledge we gain from just sitting down for a meal! The connection between a dish presented at a restaurant, and the many processes that bring it into existence, all the way back to the soil or the ocean, should be impossible to ignore. That’s why it is only natural for us, as foodies, to love our planet, our oceans, our land, our farmers, and our chefs, who all work to create this delightful part of our lives.
This doesn’t necessarily mean a dramatic sudden change in the way you eat, but perhaps just a pinch more of curiosity, and a sprinkle of appreciation!
Arlene Yang is a student of International Relations at the University of British Columbia. Growing up as a Korean-Canadian in a Beijing international school, she discovered a passion for learning about different cultures and cuisines early on. After high school, she has nurtured this passion through meeting new people, studying history, and avidly following foodie accounts on Instagram! As much as she loves the thrill of finding a new great restaurant or cuisine, she also finds excitement in the depth and familiarity of a warm and well-frequented menu. In her free time, you can find her exploring Vancouver for new cafes, restaurants, and perfect spots to watch the sunset.