Artists’ Corner: Food for Thought

Thinking about food as art is nothing new.

The Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts School asks its students to use the plate as their canvas. But some argue that art is of the mind. Jonathan Jones, a writer for the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper, believes that food cannot be art because it is trapped in the physical world. He concedes that meals are creations, but asks: “Can food move us? Can food change the way we see the world?”

I challenge you to gaze at the photographs on this page and breathe in their accompanying descriptions without feeling moved. Jennifer Heagle would argue that certain foods can indeed change the way we see the world. She lives with her family in Old Ottawa East.

Along with her friend and business partner Jo-ann Laverty, Heagle created and co-owns the Red Apron gourmet food shop at 564 Gladstone Avenue.

She came to the food industry after an initial career as a high tech business owner.

“The Red Apron came out of me being in transition and realizing how much I love to cook,” Heagle said. “Whether I was feeling happy, sad or frustrated, creating in the kitchen made me feel calm. I also love feeding people almost as much as I love eating! When I left the high tech industry, I decided to do something for me. I had no plans for a new career when I attended the Cordon Bleu in 2003 and 2004.”

The school encourages creativity, and invites its students to gain knowledge, discipline and understanding of technical skills so that their natural talents can blossom.

Heagle chose to blossom by throwing herself into the deep end. In July of 2005, she teamed up with a fellow Cordon Bleu student to open Gambrel, a fine dining restaurant, in Val-des-Monts, Quebec.

“We offered local seasonal cuisine such as duck and bison and Quebec produce,” she said. “We learned menu planning, staffing, sourcing and advertising, not to mention how to get people to travel 40 minutes outside of Ottawa to dine.”

The restaurant was well reviewed by Ottawa food critic Anne DeBrisay and made En Route magazine’s top ten finds of 2006.

“But by the end of a successful first season, we realized that it wasn’t sustainable,” Heagle said. “For one thing, I learned that I didn’t want to own a restaurant because it was inconsistent with family life.”

That was when Heagle met Laverty.

“Jo-ann had owned the Emerald Bakery in the west end of Ottawa and was looking to strike a better balance between work and family life,” Heagle said. “She approached me to ask if I would like to join her in a food business and I took the leap.”

Heagle had one unmovable guiding principle.

“If I was to be in the food business, I wanted to promote the ideas that I felt were important about food: that the food had to be of good quality; that we had to care where it came from: how it was raised and/or produced; that we had to know the people who grew/raised/produced it; and that we had to understand the connection between food, our health and the environment. Jo-ann was completely in line with that way of thinking.”

“We could both cook and our families ate well,” Heagle added. “People often asked us how we managed to put such good and healthy food on the table before tearing off to take our kids to soccer and other after-school activities. Women, especially, seemed to feel guilty about the foods they were feeding their families. Even the people who were cooking rather than buying fast foods told us that they felt limited to things they could cook in 15 or 20 minutes.”

“It was through this kind of feedback that we conceived of the Red Apron’s original service,” Heagle said. “We began making sophisticated comfort food – the food we were making for our own families – available to others. People could either come to our retail store to buy the meals and take them home or they could subscribe to our dinner service where the food would come to their door.”

“We don’t really consider our meals gourmet,” Heagle said. “They are healthy. They take time to prepare and they are beautifully presented. Our challenge has been opening peoples’ minds to the fact that these meals can be everyday food.”

Heagle admitted she sometimes misses cooking when she gets tied up with computers, customers and staff.

“But when I have a tough day, I just dip into our client feedback file and it reminds me how our food has changed peoples’ lives,” she said. “We may hear from a parent who feels great because his kids ate well and then got to spend extra time with him, or we may hear from a senior who can continue living at home independently because she is well-fed.”

“In five years we have grown from our little closet of a place in Old Ottawa South to our wonderful new location on Gladstone where we now cook for approximately 500 people a day,” Heagle marvelled.

To support such growth, their staff went from four in number to 18.

“We try to create interesting and challenging opportunities for our amazing staff,” Heagle said. “In a way, I think we cultivate commitment.”

Heagle and Laverty have worked hard to stay true to their core beliefs.

“It’s like exercising artistic integrity,” Heagle said, providing an example. “Over the years, many parents have asked us to include more kid-friendly menu items. But we are clear on this point. We make macaroni and cheese, yes. But our macaroni and cheese has sundried tomatoes, green onions, organic whole-wheat pasta and aged two-year-old raw milk cheddar. Why wouldn’t your kid eat that? It’s good! I think people who lose their passion or idealism in their work or their art lose it because they have compromised.”

facebooktwitterby feather
Filed in: Culture, Features Tags: 

You might like:

Mainstreeter Questionnaire: Tanis Browning-Shelp Mainstreeter Questionnaire: Tanis Browning-Shelp
Steve Fick’s religion Steve Fick’s religion
Author’s juggling act the biggest mystery Author’s juggling act the biggest mystery
More Blood on the Moon More Blood on the Moon

Leave a Reply

You must be Logged in to post comment.

© 2019 Mainstreeter. All rights reserved. XHTML / CSS Valid.
Proudly designed by Theme Junkie.