Foodies, and restaurants, in Waterloo Region need a manifesto

(Kate Bueckert/CBC)

The culinary history of a city or a region can be documented in phases. First, there are a few ma-and-pa diner-style joints, family restaurants and corner-store sandwich shops. Next, national chains move in when the population is right (and parking is available). Then, some independent "chef-driven" restaurants pop up and the identity shifts to more crafted cookery.

Out of that wave, we get some notable higher profile cooks and restaurateurs who put their mark on the local industry. Eventually, in part because of these businesses, the local and farm-to-table movement can grow in concert with organic producers and distillers, vintners, brewers and allied purveyors of artisanal products such as ice cream, chocolate, or heritage breeds of livestock. 

Now, only a small percentage of the population cares about food and restaurant dining (or can afford it) for anything more than sustenance. However, when there's a critical mass of those folks, then the food and beverage scene is ready to grow again – and the time is right for a "food manifesto."

Revolution

Manifestos are revolutionary and forward looking. Think only of Martin Luther's "Ninety-Five Theses" that started the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s and changed the course of Western civilization; or Marx and Engels' "The Communist Manifesto," written in 1848, that outlined the nature of class struggle.

A food charter for Waterloo Region already exists, the creation of the Food System Roundtable, and it is an important document that focuses on sustainability, access to food and social justice.

Those are vital pursuits. But I'm envisioning a manifesto that guides and unifies Waterloo Region restaurants and food producers with an eye to creating great food in restaurants that represents our three cities and four townships and which helps build and promote better food businesses from production to dining to tourism.

The rising tide lifts all boats – and a unified approach to the dining scene, through a manifesto, can be an economic driver. According to Statscan, $1 spent in a local restaurant translates into $1.85 spent elsewhere in the economy. Across the country, the restaurant industry generates $63-billion annually. It makes sense to boost this part of our local economy, and a manifesto can assist that.

Other examples

Entire countries have food and restaurant manifestos. As well, the organization known as Slow Food International has a manifesto that calls for slowing down when it comes to food "to escape the tediousness of fast-food."

That bit of prescription is only part of what a food manifesto for Waterloo Region (or any region) should entail. Whether or not one is part of the manifesto doesn't matter: we all have to eat. But in cooking and eating, we can focus on this region (not to the exclusion of coffee, avocados and pineapples, mind you) and what we grow and produce here very well. We are, for instance, good fermenters, picklers and brewers, to name just a few of our talents.

The manifesto should draw on the historic, geographic and cultural qualities of the region and focus on specific ingredients that we grow here or produce. Nostalgically, we are Pennsylvania-Dutch settlers whose collaborative efforts built the region in the early 1800s. But we now have a rich international cross-section of cultures from around the world that currently help define our food culture.

The proposition

Below, I've begun to chart out several of the manifesto points in a working draft. It remains then to get chefs, restaurateurs and food producers and purveyors to sign on. We can embrace the cultures along with the seasons and local produce, as Slow Food would put it, in order to "rediscover the rich varieties and aromas of local cuisines."

The Manifesto | A Working Draft

  • To seek, use and respect the unique and seasonal ingredients of Waterloo Region and surrounding areas 
  • To draw on the culinary, geographic and agricultural history of Waterloo Region
  • To build connections between chefs, farmers, agriculturalists, producers, purveyors, hunters, manufacturers and teachers
  • To make food and restaurants collaborative and more than just neighbouring businesses
  • To educate our communities about food and restaurants
  • To embrace technology but keep tradition alive too 
  • To inform those outside the region and publicize what we do here with food and beverage
  • To embrace Waterloo Region's food and beverage businesses and personalities with pride