By Luke Hayes-Alexander
Hello everyone. My name is Luke Hayes-Alexander and I am a Chef. I cannot tell you what a privilege it is to be standing on this stage today. When I was first asked to be a part of this event I had a small panic attack. What in the world could I talk about, for 10 minutes, that others would find interesting. A friend said I should simply talk about what I know. Well, I know food.
Since the age of 11, I've immersed myself in the mysterious, beautiful, sometimes confusing, delicious world of food. It was then that I decided to devote my life to food & cooking & to teach myself all that I would need to know. I also decided to not eat anything unless I had sourced the ingredients locally and prepared them myself. I can't tell you the looks on my parents' faces when I mentioned all of this at dinner one night 8 years ago. Their primary concern was that I would starve...or have to survive on carrots and hummus, which, thankfully, I already knew how to make. The hummus, that is, not the carrots. I had to agree to 2 concessions that night. First...I agreed to let my Mum source out ingredients. She argued that if I had to spend time making phone calls and searching online, I 'd have no time to cook and would eat nothing but... I saw this coming (rolling eyes)...carrots & hummus. Second...I agreed to continue eating the organic peanut butter we always had in the house. They were rather unyielding on this, and I could see their point... I did eat a lot of peanut butter & couldn't possibly grind that many peanuts, it would cut into my learning/ cooking time...which led us, conveniently, back to the looming carrot & hummus debacle.
And so my journey began. I was very lucky that my parents owned a restaurant that already used a fair amount of local foods. Luckily, they also owned a lot of cookbooks & food history books. That night, while brushing my teeth, I realized that if I wanted bread the next day, I'd have to bake some. Into the kitchen I ran with a bread cookbook, some locally milled spelt flour I had found in the pantry, and way too much confidence. I had often watched my Dad making breads at the restaurant...how hard could it be? Three hours later, covered in flour, I turned out the kitchen light, sadly glancing at the sorriest loaf of bread I had ever seen.
For four years every waking hour was spent reading books, researching, experimenting, and cooking. Wow, did I cook...I braised, sautéed, sliced & diced, julienned, pickled & poached. I butchered and boned, trussed and trimmed, peeled & pureed. I had decided to start at the beginning of the food timeline and to teach myself the techniques I would require to cook my way through the history of food. So, while other kids my age were riding their bikes & playing video games, I was teaching myself how to butcher animals, bake peasant breads, churn butter, emulsify, confit & brine. I was travelling the world without having to go through customs. The Middle East, North Africa, France, Italy..... each day brought new wonders, new experiences and new tastes. It was exhilarating and challenging.
And I got to know and love, in spirit, the great Chefs whose books guided me day after day. The first time I trussed a chicken it was Julia Child's voice instructing me. On the days I tackled the craft of Charcuterie I had the presence of Jacques Pepin guiding my hands. Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Harold McGee...so many mentors. I may have been alone in my kitchen, but I was never alone.
When I turned 15, after 4 intense years, I became Executive Chef, and another journey began. That brings us here, today. The theme of today's talks is Heroes. I thought long & hard about what that meant to me. I quickly realized that I have 3 sets of heroes...those from the past, those of the present, and those of the future.
To identify my heroes from the past I have to step back into my years of training. As I progressed through the food timeline I became more and more aware of the sacrifices made by, and the resilience of, people involved in the artisan production of good foods. The bakers, butchers, fishmongers, Chefs, farmers, and foragers. The families, villagers, and people in communities who would do everything in their power to put good food on their tables. I felt humbled with every story, every recipe I read. It also saddened me to think how far we, as a society, have moved in the opposite direction....into the open & welcoming arms of Big Food. It never mattered how arduous their days were...they would devote hours to producing amazing foods. Whether the ingredients were meager or plentiful, time and love were given without complaint to produce healthy and delicious meals. These people are my heroes.
My heroes of today? When I first started my journey 8 years ago it was a challenge finding a lot of the foods I needed locally. Today I can say that 95% of all ingredients I use in my kitchen come from local sources. That blows me away. Cheeses, meats, produce, flours..... all produced and grown by local artisans. Hard working people willing to take the chance that enough people will want their products to justify what they are doing. People who are painstakingly producing foods from our past all the while hoping we'll hear their message today. What a simple message it is..."Support us and we'll continue growing foods that are better for our bodies and souls, better for our communities and better for our environment." To that I'd like to add, as a bonus, they just taste better.
Obviously I've never farmed. But when I was 7 my parents purchased land in Prince Edward County and decided to plant grapevines. For a couple of years we did all the work ourselves. Irrigation during droughts, pruning, weeding, harvesting, hilling up after harvest, unhilling in the Spring. It was hard back-breaking work. I tried unionizing but was out voted 2 - 1. We always managed to make it fun...singing songs, telling stories, playing word games... but it really made me respect farmers. The heat...the cold... so much rain I'd be slipping and sliding in mud that almost seemed alive. And the droughts. Waking up in the morning, running to my window and wanting to weep because it was another hot & sunny day. You'd start so fresh and energetic in the morning and by 2-o-clock you'd be ready to have a nap on an end post. I did that once...actually leaned against a post, wrapped my arms around it, strategically leaned my head between the wire screws, and slept. Come to think of it....one of my finest naps!
So, my present day heroes are our farmers and small artisan producers. I've met so many of the wonderful people who supply my kitchen with a cornucopia of foods and who never cease to amaze me with their dedication and perseverance.
Lastly, who are my future heroes? People often ask me what I see as the future of food. That's what I call a "big" question...one that has no easy answer. I read somewhere recently that Forbes has predicted that by 2018, 20% of all foods eaten in the United States will have been grown in rooftop and parking lot gardens. That filled me with such hope. 20% ? That's a lot of food! I think it is safe to say that we can apply the same percentage to our own country. That tells me that the movement towards local, sustainable foods is not a fleeting trend, as so many naysayers have predicted. This is here to stay. We, the enthusiastic proponents, are here to stay. The people, families, communities, and organizations embracing this new/old way of nourishing ourselves are definitely not going away. On the contrary, they are growing tomatoes on balconies, harvesting eggs from heirloom hens in their backyards, and tending to beehives on rooftops.
So, as a 19 year old Chef...how do I see the future of food? I see farmers' markets growing exponentially and flourishing. I see the farmers who supply and work in those markets being, finally, rewarded for their endeavours. I see more communities, worldwide, planting sustainable gardens, with the encouragement and financial support from all levels of government and, when necessary, from NGO's and other support groups. I envision us slowly going back to our future, food wise, that is. The people who embrace and support this coming food revolution are my heroes. They will carry it forward until it simply becomes a "way of life"...I hope my story can help inspire and encourage them in some small way. Teach, and help, a community, city, or village, to grow their own food...allow them the independence and dignity of providing their own nourishment. We need to applaud the future proponents of this food revolution. These people are my future heroes.
I have so much respect for the ingredients I have at hand that I choose to make my plates avant-garde in presentation. I take months when designing a new dish. Have I contrasted flavours, textures, temperatures, colours, concentrations? This is my way to pay homage to the producers and what they lovingly produce.
In closing, I can't stress enough how important it is to have heroes. We all need people to admire, aspire to, respect. It's what moves us forward. We gather speed from other's momentum, and their thoughts and ideas. Our ways of feeding ourselves is changing. We need to embrace those from the past, present & future who steer us down this path.
Thank you for sharing this time with me.