Monday, January 18, 2010

Chef Profile: Alex Johnston of Provenance Regional Cuisine

Alex preps some halibut

During my time at Jamie Kennedy Kitchens, I was fortunate to learn a lot about food, work with some amazing chefs and get inspired by the local food movement. One of my fellow JK team members at the time, Chef Alex Johnston, was also very inspired by the local food movement -- so much so that he has since started his own business specializing in local, regional cuisine. Alex's passion for food began at a young age and it has continued to grow with every step in his life and career. His latest venture is Provenance Regional Cuisine, a grocery home delivery service that is focused on fresh, regional food.

braised pheasant, packed and ready to be delivered

Growing up in the Kensington Market area of Toronto, Alex had fantastic food memories from a young age, in large part due to his mother who cooked everything from scratch. As a child, he often took in the vibrant food scene of Kensington Market, visiting cheese shops and getting the free samples of cheese, tasting olives and cured meats. This experience really helped shape his culinary point of view later in life, but it would be a while before Alex realized his desire to become a Chef.

At first his professional life led him into the industry, but after 9/11, everything changed. The economic landscape was affecting many industries, and people were wondering what to do next. For Alex, the decision became clear; he was feeling the lure of the kitchen. Culinary school soon followed, and then Alex decided to live and work in France for a year. With the large food markets and the seasonal, regional focus there, Alex was inspired. "I became 'tuned in' to food, especially the idea of local food."

marinating the duck confit

After returning to Canada and working for Chef Jamie Kennedy for five years, Alex decided to begin his own culinary venture with Provenance Regional Cuisine. While he was working at JK, he met some great food producers and really enjoyed that aspect of the job. In his own venture, Alex decided he wanted to focus on local food, and to help make it easier for people to eat locally and sustainably without disrupting their busy schedules or breaking the bank. "I thought to myself, 'There’s got to be a way to get this food to more people, and at a better price'", so he decided on a grocery to home system, and thus, Provenance Regional Cuisine was born.

ham hock braise ingredients

A Quick look at Provenance Regional Cuisine:

Provenance means the origin of something

Regional is the next step in Canadian food culture. We are beginning to identify certain regions and know them for their food, much like the French appellation system. For example: Perth County pork, Quebec cheese, Niagara peaches, and so on.

Cuisine, not catering. The PRC model is a retail delivery service, much like the idea of a CSA.

How it all works: There is a menu of 3 dishes per week, and customers prepay for 4 week periods. Some examples from the current menu include: Ontario Harvest Venison Ragout with Pancetta and Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Sustainable Fish Soup with Saffron, Organic Fennel and Leek, and Cumbrae Farms Beef Round Medallions wrapped in Cured Pork Belly.

The Fresh Factor -- He can have fish that was caught on Wednesday on the table on Thursday.
Sustainability and Culinary Technique -- He uses the entire animal and butchers everything himself.
Community -- Since it's a subscription model, there's a dialogue that exists between himself and the customers, which brings added value to their experience.

filleting the halibut

A Brief Q & A with Chef Alex Johnston:

After the Harvest (ATH): What made you want to focus on local, sustainable food?

Chef Alex Johnston (AJ): I wanted to give a true identity to what people were actually growing here, as opposed to the multicultural cuisine that Toronto has been known for, which is great, but fresh ingredients start here in Ontario. I wanted to rediscover the heritage of Ontario food. If people are conscious about where their food is coming from, we’ve come a long way.

ATH: What inspires you to stay creative and passionate about cooking?
AJ: I am inspired by the craft of cooking; the technique. I prepare everything from scratch and I love working with my hands. I'm inspired by the food producers, the land, the farms, the seasons and wild foods. I was also inspired by Chef Jamie Kennedy because he really believes in the local food movement and has put it first on countless occasions.

crepinettes in caul fat, caul fat above

It seems it's not just local food that inspires Chef Alex, it's the powerful feeling that comes from sharing his food with others: "When I bring [my customers] food, I feel like Santa Claus!” Alex's passion is clearly evident and I'm sure it will spread like wildfire throughout Toronto. If you're not in Toronto, why not seek out other CSAs or local food Chefs in your area! Let's help progress our Canadian food culture by supporting local producers and creating that regional identity.

*All photos provided by Chef Alex Johnston