Interviewing Claire Gallant

I first met Claire Gallant last year when she was a chef at fressen restaurant in Toronto.  After we interviewed two meat focused chefs last week, I thought it would be interesting to get the perspective of someone who has a background in vegan cooking. Like in SEEDS, we wanted this series of interviews to feature opposing opinions on the GMO showdown, and thus spark continued debate and dialogue. Here is Claire’s take on the same questions:

1. Five years ago, there were only a handful of sustainable and/or organic restaurants. Since then, the scene has kind of exploded – there are MANY of these kinds of restaurants and chefs. So, Claire, in your opinion, what came first: the market demand for “organic” or the forward-looking chefs?

I think the demand came first. I remember when the President’s Choice Organics line came out in like 2002, or somewhere around there, and certainly in Halifax (which I admit is a limited demographic for these things), the city’s first organic-focused, mainstream restaurant (there was already a vegetarian organic place) opened in late 2004. It seems to me though that ‘organic’, as a trend, is not nearly as explosive as ‘local’. If you want to bring ‘local’ into the picture (falls under ‘sustainable’, I’d say), I think that’s really taken off in restaurants in the last, say, 5-7 years. There still aren’t that many fully organic restaurants, whereas every chef and his dog is always talking about being focused on local food. That said, it sometimes seems to me that it’s a very easy statement to make, when it’s a rare restaurant who is seriously focused on local cuisine. It’s harder for chefs to do local than it is for individual consumers to buy local – another reason I think the market demand came first. For a chef, it means sourcing and getting deliveries from a large number of small producers, instead of one big easy shipment from a conglomerate. And supply issues (say Ted’s greens didn’t grow this week) mean less consistency. I think it’s absolutely worth it to do that extra work, but it is extra work. And can be more expensive – in a restaurant the bottom line is something one always keeps in mind. (Organic is even more expensive than local).

2. Like myself, there are lots of folk who have the best intentions of make smart, sustainable food choices. Yet the choices and retail promotion can be overwhelming and often confusing for consumers… ‘organic’ , ‘local’, ‘natural’, ‘sustainable’, ‘GMO-free’, etc. Claire, when you are cooking, what do you value most?

I don’t generally buy organic, for budget reasons. Since I love to experiment with lots of different kinds of recipes, both complex and simple (right now I’m teaching myself how to cook French food), what excites me most when I am shopping is specialty food stores, with things like fabulous selection of olive oils, vinegars, cheeses, etc. I would say that’s where I budget splurge, is prepared items like these, and dips and spreads and jams and things, when I don’t make them myself. Since I’ve started introducing non-vegan foods into my diet, it is important to me to buy free-range eggs, and locally-raised, antibiotic-free meats and fish, from local butchers and shops. But as for produce, I look for fruits and vegetables that look healthy and delicious, at reasonable prices. What I value most, I would say, is a wide variety of foods – like being able to find Asian pears and escarole and fresh tarragon in my local grocery store. That is exciting to me.

3. There are some who argue that GM Foods are actually a good thing for the vegan community (they argue that the implementation of GMO technology would ultimately help to abate animal testing, provide more alternatives to animal sources for medicines and food, and help vegans by providing plant-based sources of nutrients that vegans traditionally struggle to obtain) and others argue that GM Foods can actually not be considered Vegan. Claire, what is your opinion of the impact of GM Foods on the Vegan community?

A familiar argument from those who seek to discredit veganism is that nothing is really vegan, given the insects that were killed to harvest that produce, the small animals driven off the vegetable farm, etc etc. I think that’s the same point that leads to “GM food aren’t vegan”. I disagree. If it doesn’t contain animal products, it’s vegan. Whether or not its production affected animal lives is something almost none of us can control, and each person does the best he/she can. I know that many vegans are against GM foods, in the same way that they are against commercial agriculture and conglomerates, and by extension globalization in general. I’ve met many vegans with this outlook, and it is of course very political, and it’s easy to see GM foods as inherently negative, especially when one has done little to no research on the subject. I think GM foods can indeed provide alternatives to animal sources of nutrients, and from what I’ve read, will help to feed the ever-expanding world, in a way that a return to small-scale farming and a focus on consumption of animal products – an inherently inefficient source of food – certainly will not.

4. Do you think the arts have a role to play in the sustainable food movement?

Yes, I do think the arts can play some role in the sustainable food movement. Both the arts and sustainable food are political, and often (for lack of a better term) non-mainstream aspects of society. Arts organizations and their operations can choose to support and to ally themselves with any number of causes and other businesses, and even direct artistic collaborations can happen. (One of the topics my husband has pursued in his Masters and PhD research in Theatre is the theatricality of food, and how the two fields are connected!) There’s a Spanish theatre company who did a huge production of Titus Andronicus where food was served onstage. (Though those examples don’t focus so much on sustainable food.) That said, I certainly don’t think that theatre is compelled to have social and moral messages behind it; I’m a big fan of art for art’s sake, without the need for political import. After all, great theatre, whatever the subject, is a statement in itself.

More about Claire:

Claire Gallant is a chef and a professional cellist. She has cooked at Toronto’s fressen restaurant, Halifax’s Fid Resto, and San Francisco’s Millennium Restaurant. She admires Heston Blumenthal and Julia Child, among others.

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