Interviewing Cowbell & Marben

Working on the arts management side of theatre has provided me the chance to learn vicariously through artists and often expand my grasp of issues that I may never have delved into on my own.

For SEEDS, I started contacting food type folk as early as 2010 for marketing and outreach networks. That exercise COMPLETELY changed my relationship to food: where I shop, where I eat, and how I eat.

I thought it’d be interesting to interview a few of Toronto’s REMARKABLE chefs who have been real vanguards for local, sustainable food.

First up, I interviewed Mark Cutrara (Owner & Chef at my fave Toronto restaurant COWBELL) and Ryan Donovan (Director of Operations & Butcher at MARBEN, which is our Hilary Green’s fave).

Given that Cowbell and Marben are both leaders in meaty eating of the organic, local kind, I thought it’d be neat to get their responses to the same set of questions. I find their shared and dissenting opinions really interesting. Below is Mark’s via video, and Ryan’s below that.


Ryan, five years ago, there were only a handful of sustainable and/or organic restaurants, particularly those focused on “good” meats and livestock. Since then, the scene has kind of exploded . So, Ryan, in your opinion, what came first: the market demand for “good meat” or the forward-looking chefs?

In my case, I was interested in the skillset before I was asked by any customers about how to find such products. I considered butchery another skill that a chef should have, like baking bread. At the time, I had to go to a butcher shop to learn this because there were no chefs doing this type of work. Now, we teach it to young chefs at our restaurant: this is what I wanted to achieve. It was just a coincidence that the market ended up wanting more of this style of food.

Like myself, there are a lot of folk who have the best intention of making 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. Ryan, for you and for Marben, what do you value most?

Buying food directly from the farmer has always been my focus. Half a century ago, most people bought their food this way. In many parts of the world, this is still true. Be it tomatoes, milk, eggs or meat: it’s a great idea to buy things from the people that produce them. If you do this, then you shouldn’t be overwhelmed or confused: you simply ask the person the questions you want answers to. If you are not satisfied with the answers, you keep shopping. No amount of pretty labeling and pastoral metaphor will replace the effectiveness of that conversation: both for you as the consumer, and for the farmer as a supplier. This conversation will help them as much as it helps you.

Canada as been playing a leading role in the development and commercialization of genetically-modified meat… This includes the “EnviroPig”, which will mark the first genetically modified animal in the world. Hypothetical Question: Let’s say one of your trusted farmers had pigs fulfilling ALL OF the conditions you normally require… BUT it was genetically modified. Would you buy it?

Yes. I put my trust in the farmers to make the right choices for their land, their herds, their family and to treat their farm like a business. Usually if a farmer makes a bad choice, it shows up in their product.

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

Of course. If it is sustainable, it will necessarily be around for a long time: the key is endurance. Can art help a practice endure? Of course. Problematically, art can also help industrial food production take over enormous amounts of market capital. Art has been deployed to help advertise processed foods, quick meals, imported meats, and all sorts of nutritionally devoid substitutes for real fool. Art doesn’t discern whether a subject is good or bad, the artist does.


No comments yet