Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
Trade Secrets for Developing Sustainable Restaurant Food Programs
You’ve travelled all over the world, working in some of the most renowned kitchens from Fogo Island Inn to now Cluny Restaurant; both of which have very distinctive food programs. Describe your process for developing a new food program and the elements that must be considered.
For me, it’s a combination of years of cooking. I was born and raised in Newfoundland in a small town where family meals were a big part of my life. I then started getting into professional cooking through the culinary school in PEI. I've worked in PEI, Ontario and then even left Canada to cook in Bermuda, Grand Cayman, Cook Islands in the South Pacific, New Zealand and Mexico.
What I learned in my travels is that when you're developing a food product or program, you need to try to just go to a place and take it all in; the local aspect, the people, the vibe around cooking and what's available in the area.
After travelling the world and coming back to Newfoundland, the question behind my process was, “how do I showcase Newfoundland to the world?” We dove into that aspect by looking into recipes by peoples' grandparents; my biggest influences had always been my grandparents. Reaching out to other grandparents, we learned what they were all about, some of the more forgotten dishes and the philosophies in their survival.
Moving to Toronto and Cluny where cuisine, delivery, dairies and other food companies are more available; I still enjoyed the aspect of walking into an already-established, already-succeeding restaurant and figuring out which dishes are the most classic, the most guest-loved and which could be removed, updated, or more local-seasonal. In this, we want to be casual, French, quirky, still make everything from scratch and be welcoming to families, have them come on down to the Distillery District and have fun.
Each part of the world that you’ve worked in have had very different cultures and environments. Share with us the impact that your surroundings have had on your food programs in terms of ingredient and flavor selection.
Every place is different. When you're in Newfoundland, you're surrounded by nature and take inspiration from that aspect; the rural-ness, the beauty, what you have had to live with to survive, things that over time made Newfoundland food what it is now.
When you're in cities, you want to try to transport people somewhere else so we ask ourselves at Cluny, "how can we transport people to France with funky, cool food from Downtown Toronto?" We then take inspiration from our surrounding and new, fresh items our suppliers can come to us with.
What is the most unique ingredient or flavor you have come across since coming to Toronto?
One thing that made me really happy when I arrived was Cluny already having salt cod on the menu, that's our staple in Newfoundland, it's even tattooed on my arm. At the same time, I forgot that salt cod is also a big part of Europe and a vast region of France. Cluny was offering Salt Cod Beignets so I was able to add Salt Cod Eggs Benedict to the brunch menu.
It might not necessarily be a new ingredient but, for me, it's so familiar and ties together my time born and raised in Newfoundland and the quirky French cuisine of the restaurant.
Now that you are stationed in Toronto, where do you find flavor inspiration to continue to evolve your food programs and give your diners a taste of the unexpected?
For that, we have a small garden to pick fresh herbs from while also working with great fresh food suppliers from across Ontario. One really cool thing we do at the Restaurant Corporation is taking field trips where myself and/or my staff head to supplier locations for fruit, foods and wines in Prince Edward County like Norman Hardie Winery, and Campbell's Orchards. We also visit pizza places, cheese makers, butcher shops. This lets my team and I meet suppliers, say hi, put a name to the face of the person we’re dealing with.
Basically, this allows us to see where our food comes from, how it's raised or made and in the end, enables us to put more love and care into what we get create at the restaurant. All of this as a whole is very inspiring to me.
What are a few tips that you would provide fellow chefs working on developing their own sustainable food program, and the challenges they should be aware of?
I'd say, don't stop trying and don't get complacent. Keep trying to push things forward, embrace change and imperfection, go through the stages and find what's better for your dishes, your restaurant and what’s more sustainable. Always keep learning, even from your own staff.
Food or ingredient security can be the biggest challenge, especially in more rural places like Newfoundland where one ferry shutting down is a major loss of food but hopefully we can all get to that state someday.