Think globally, eat locally

At Chives Canadian Bistro, Craig Flinn serves a (delicious, exquisite) helping of politics on every plate.

photo Scott Munn

He's the local food dude. And his regulars know it.

"I think that if people walked in and saw a New Zealand lamb shank on my menu," says Craig Flinn, owner and head chef at Chives Canadian Bistro, "they'd be like, "What are you talking about New Zealand lamb!? You've had local lamb for six years!'"

And, man, would they be pissed off.

Craig Flinn's taught them to be. Without even really intending to.

"I don't want to be a political chef," says the 36-year-old, who left a masters in cartography to go to culinary school and apprenticed in Europe and New York before opening Chives, on Barrington Street, in 2001. "The reason I choose these ingredients is because they taste better. Pure and simple. And I think there's a responsibility for chefs to support local growers and local producers because those are the most attentive, knowledgeable growers. That's the way you're going to keep the good cooking traditions and growing traditions alive."


Long pause.

"Humph. It is a little bit political. I just totally contradicted myself."

But he didn't. Not really.

His restaurant might be primarily local, but Craig Flinn doesn't push food politics at his tables or scream about them in the streets. Not much, anyway. He saves the bulk of his proselytizing for the kitchen, where he tells his cooks and apprentices to go local (and free range). The celebri-chef only selectively makes public his stance on supporting local growers.

"I truly believe that 50 percent of the work on a good menu is in the product," he says.

That's the crux of his reasoning. It's also the challenge.

"Cooking in season and local whenever possible—both in terms of produce and seafood and proteins, meats—I must say it's been difficult to do that at times in the restaurant.

"I can put on local free-range chicken," he says, "but I can't necessarily have the nice and tidy and neat eight-ounce boneless breast of chicken most people look for on a menu."

That conundrum gets at the heart of the way we've become separated from how our food is raised and grown, how we've become separated from food itself—we forget that the breast is part of the whole. We forget, perhaps, that the breast is from a chicken, from a living thing, from a bird that's raised somewhere, by someone.

In a restaurant, it's as if the chicken breast materializes from thin air onto our plates. And so we come to expect it (because, Flinn says, diners see the breast as a healthy choice, plus they don't want the bother and mess of bones while they're in a restaurant). But chickens are more than their breasts. And it's the breast plus all the rest that chefs usually get when they buy from small, local producers. And that's why Craig Flinn has to find a place on the menu for the remaining leg and thigh quarters.

The other side of this supply issue is availability. With beef and pork, Flinn says, "literally they might not have it one week and the next week they'll have tonnes." That's the nature of smaller-scale farming. But Flinn's menus don't change weekly, instead they change by the season; each one lasts three or four months. To accommodate the menu, Flinn looks to the Maritime and then the Canadian marketplace for his meat.

For example, consider free-range chicken. "I'll buy local chicken," Flinn says. "And when they run out, I'll see if I can buy it from New Brunswick or Quebec. Sometimes I'll go as far as Ontario." So in the spring, when chicks are just arriving in Nova Scotia, Flinn gets his free-range chicken from Ontario. But as the warmer weather moves east, his chicken comes from closer to home. "At points, there's no free-range available. Our winters are cold; you can only breed chicks between May and November. You can't have free-range chicks out in the snow in February. They're inside."

There are more decisions to make on the free-range front.

"I like free-range chicken because the muscles get a bit of a workout. It's more flavourful. It just tastes better; it makes better broth. However, there are definitely some Nova Scotia chicken suppliers that supply grain-fed. They're not organic but they're good grain-fed chickens and the facilities are very clean.

"So I do use those chickens from time to time. So, if they can supply me for three months I'll put it on the menu. I'll say local, grain-fed chicken."

Flinn says, "You can follow guidelines of organic, free-range and local as much as possible, look beyond that."

Flinn's guiding principle, then, isn't to always have local, always have organic or always have free-range. It's to always make educated choices about the food he serves at his restaurant.

And he hopes people can do that more in their own homes. "If we're going to eat chicken, let's just know where the chicken's coming from. Let's not go in and blindly say, "OK, great, chicken's on sale.' Only to find out later the chicken was raised at an uninspected plant in New Jersey where there's no light and the chickens have one leg and half a wing."

This non-political chef is serving his customers a political meal whether they know it or not.

And that goes not only for ingredients, but for dishes and recipes, too. "Chefs are now the grandmothers of the world," Flinn says.

He doesn't take credit for the catchphrase. It's something he heard at Terra Madre 2006, the second annual Slow Food conference in Turin, Italy.

"Chefs have to teach other chefs how to keep traditions alive," Flinn says. "Or there are going to be huge gaps in the cultural traditions of people all over the world.

"That is why when I do a menu I try to incorporate Acadian French recipes and Scottish Nova Scotian recipes from Cape Breton. I apprenticed in Switzerland so I have a lot of Swiss-German influences and obviously there are a lot of Swiss-German people here in the Lunenburg area. That's my way of helping to keep the traditions alive."

Also keeping the traditions alive, he says, is the simple act of cooking a meal and eating together as a family. And Flinn isn't picky about the details. "If you're rushing the kids to hockey and all you can manage is chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese, great. Grilled cheese is fantastic. Just avoid the drive-thrus, avoid the ease of never sitting down and having a meal together. If we can do that once a week, I don't think we'll lose the cultural aspect of dining."

That's a lot of lessons from a chef who serves local because it tastes good, puts no labels on his restaurant and refuses to call himself political.

Simply, Flinn says, "It's our responsibility to choose wisely."

This story is the second feature in this issue's look at meat by Lezlie Lowe.

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