It’s been a wild ride since joining Marben back in Spring 2017. Coming on board as the head chef for an established restaurant with a good reputation is tough. Just getting up to speed with the operations takes some time, but, getting a sense for the more intangible aspects of a restaurant is a lot lengthier. To explain myself better, let’s use the analogy of moving into a new house. When you first arrived, everything feels different, almost to the point of discomfort. Items are not in the places that you are familiar with and everyday tasks such as getting dressed takes you that little bit longer. Even cooking in a different kitchen takes more time as you have to actually think about what you are doing and where ingredients and equipment are stored. It takes a good amount of time to really make a house ‘a home’ and for you to feel a symbiotic connection to your shelter.
It was much the same for me and the start of my journey at Marben.
During my tenure, I have experienced good and bad. 100 hour weeks? Yes. Staffing problems? Yes. Spontaneous catastrophes? Of course. Most chefs will go through these, and luckily for me, they quickly became fewer and fewer. Challenges were in abundance, but grossly outweighing them are the rewards. In the same way that you feel so comfortable at home that you walk around naked, I have come to feel the same freedom of expression. Although my clothes stay firmly on, I have the opportunity to be creative and express my own opinions and philosophy.
Marben has always had a ‘farm to table’ philosophy. This phrase has a great deal of ambiguity. A small Ontario farm who grow organic heritage varieties of beets can technically be classed as a farm the same way that a US intensive cattle operation using steroids and hormones can be called a farm. A restaurant can buy either of these products, have a direct relationship with the farmer, and have the same freshness of product. My opinion is that one of these is bad: bad for the wellbeing of the cattle, bad for the environment, bad for taste and just generally bad for humans to consume. The latter is what some restaurants in Toronto will gravitate towards. Not because they want to support poor farming practices, but because of the demand for cheap food and the rising costs of doing business.
Here’s my philosophy: buy good ingredients that haven’t traveled far, from people who care about what they do. If it is more expensive, it is probably worth it. Farmers who care about their animals and their end product will not give them antibiotics and hormones. They will even go so far as to grow their own feed for their animals to ensure that they know exactly what they are consuming. I have spent the last 18 months building relationships with farmers and suppliers, finding products that fit with this philosophy and we are now at a point where we have changed so much that we can honestly back up everything we say. Each dish on the menu has a story. Each ingredient on a plate has a story. The plates themselves have a story. It is my goal to share these stories here. While it is great to be able to speak to guests about what they are about to eat, not many have the time to listen to a 20-minute diatribe about our single herd non-homogenized milk. This way, I am able to share the wonderful stories about the products we use and the relationships we hold and hopefully help a wider audience to make informed choices about what they put into their bodies.
I am very excited to share all these wonderful stories. I assure you, there are many.
Chef Chris Locke