As a chef and owner of the Fat Sparrow Restaurant Group, Nick Benninger has always been an advocate for farm to table, as well as products made locally in Waterloo Region.
“My entire cooking career, I’ve always been sort of fiercely proud of what happens in KW. I think that comes from having spent some time in other parts of Ontario that looked at KW as, like this off the highway blip on the radar that didn’t offer much from a cultural or culinary point of view. So when I returned to this area back in the early 2000s, I just had this built-in desire to always showcase what was local. And it doesn’t hurt that so many things here are quite amazing,” Benninger said.
As part of this advocacy, Benninger recently hosted a six-part documentary series production in conjunction with Stratford-based Ballinran Entertainment and Explore Waterloo Region. Each 10-minute episode of “Farm to Fork” will showcase Benninger’s visit to a different farm in the region. Each visit included Benninger learning about the operations of the farm and seeing the creation of a meal with ingredients produced at that location.
“We’re lucky to be surrounded by such agriculture and the farmers’ market, and this history of connection to the land, whether it be through the first settlers or the Indigenous people beforehand. So when they approached me with the opportunity at Ballinran Entertainment, I couldn’t help but say yes. To be the person that gets to help tell the story in such a well-produced way, I think anyone would say yes to that,” he said.
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One location that Benninger visited was the Oak Ridge Acres bison farm and store in Ayr. For store manager Jessica Gerber, supporting local farms means supporting the local economy.
“As a small family farm here, where we do raise animals, but also as a small family store who works with so many other producers, when you shop local, you buy local, everything stays local. The money goes back into your community so these family farms can continue to hopefully grow and operate. We hire all local people to work here, as do all of our suppliers. So it’s helping the local economy as far as giving jobs to them,” Gerber said.
Locally sourced products also means fresher ingredients, she added.
“You’re not going across borders; you’re not going into different countries. There’s no fumigation process to get things from point A to point B because they’re just coming from an hour away. You don’t need to do any of that stuff. There’s not the amount of preservatives used in our products. I think our farthest supplier away is not even an hour and a half. Our philosophy here is as natural as possible, as local as possible and small family farms,” she said.
While Benninger’s career has allowed him to build personal relationships with food producers, the documentary series furthered that connection and gave him a better understanding of who these food producers are.
“It’s the people and the details of which goes into their work….That’s where you never know any details about anyone if you’re buying everything you need at the grocery store or at Walmart. But when you go off the beaten path, and you come to know these people, you start to learn these things. So it’s the nuances and then the level of work that goes into all of these things and understanding that,” he explained.
“I think that’s the storyline we’re trying to share too is the message like the people behind these things and why they do them, which also makes the food taste that much better too when you know someone and how much pride they put into it.”.
That personal connection is also an important part of what Oak Ridge Acres does, said Gerber.
“I can name 90 per cent of my customers that walk through the door – we greet each other with names and stuff like that. It’s a very different shopping experience than when you go into your big conglomerate stores,” she said.
Benninger also visited Wisahkotewinowak, an Indigenous garden collective that works with Indigenous youth. Working with White Owl Native Ancestry Association, Wisahkotewinowak has several gardens throughout the region, including at Steckle Heritage Farm where Benninger made his visit.
Sydney Keedwell is a former employee of Benninger’s and is now White Owl’s food and nutrition coordinator. For Keedwell, who is Indigenous, the idea of locally sourced food goes hand in hand with Indigenous food and agriculture.
“I think part of what makes it so important for us is not only just the importance of the Indigenous culture and how we share and this community over that, we’re also teaching [to youth] skills that I feel like are becoming more lost. And I feel like we’re becoming more and more distanced from the source of food and where it comes from and how to grow food,” Keedwell said.
As the head chef at Fat Sparrow’s recently closed Taco Farm restaurant, Keedwell was able to incorporate Haudenosaunee white corn grown at Steckle Heritage Farm into her menu.
Farm to table has long been a part of the region’s food scene, even before it was a marketing ploy of the restaurant industry, Benninger said.
“I’ve always said we were cool before we knew it. We were accidentally cool because we just did farm to table, we went to the farmers’ market, we shopped at farm gates, we did all those things as chefs, and as home cooks. And I think today one of the things that’s changed in the last 20 years is people can see food culture in an apple fritter at the shop or beautiful tacos,” he explained.
“The consumer is willing to see beyond the linen on the table and they look for food culture to come from all different kinds of places. And that’s where Waterloo Region really shines.”
Benninger recently completed the voiceover work for the series, which is expected to debut in the spring on Bell’s Fibe TV1.