In an era where upmarket dining is king, indie chefs bring a new, empowered approach to food.
In a Mount Pleasant apartment kitchen overflowing with crockery, Todd Graham spends his days making sauerkraut and bread—the kind of food, he says, previous generations used to make simply to get through the winter.
“The original folks were doing it with a cabbage, a little bit of salt, and a hole in the ground. And that was enough to sustain you over the winter,” he says. “It’s really easy.”
Graham is on a mission to demystify the kinds of foods often billed as “artisanal” and sold at a steep price. Staples like sourdough bread, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and beer, he says, were once commonplace homemade pantry items. But these days, those basic foodstuffs are hotly marketed as trendy back-to-the-land luxury goods.
Every month, he hosts a communal dinner out of his home, where people pay by donation for a three- to five-course meal of locally sourced, mostly fermented food. He calls his underground restaurant project Hand Taste Ferments.
Graham says he cares about making good food. He cares about using high-quality, ethically sourced ingredients. But most of all, he cares about making food people can afford—and he wants the people he cooks for to realize how easy it can be to make the same food at home.
“I love the concept of having something I could help teach to someone. I don't like the idea that I know how to do something and you're going to pay me a lot of money so I can give it to you. I love the idea of [telling someone], you can do this,” he says.
It began with breakfast
When he was 18, Graham enrolled in culinary school in Victoria. After realizing he was too restless to be in school, he left and started working odd jobs in the restaurant industry. He washed dishes and spent a brief stint at Victoria’s famous vegetarian and vegan restaurant Rebar. But the culinary project that would take up all his weekends for most of the next decade came from a conversation he had with his friends on a Sunday morning.
“We were pretty much just sitting around trying to figure out where we could go eat breakfast,” Graham recalls. “Some ofus had money, some of us didn't, some of us were employed, some of us weren't. We had all come very early into wanting to try to eat organic food, try to eat local. And we basically just were like, ‘There's nowhere in the city we want to go.’”
Then one of his friends pointed out the obvious—they had a backyard. They had a kitchen. They liked to cook. So why didn’t they just do it themselves?
For nine years, Graham and his friends ran a pop-up breakfast restaurant in their backyard. The yard changed three times as they moved from place to place, but the core idea remained the same. They served simple, organic breakfast food for a suggested donation of $5 a person. Kids ate for free. People who couldn’t afford to pay were never turned away. At the project’s height, they were seating 100 people a day.
The backyard breakfast project marked a turning point for Graham. “More than I cared about being a chef,” he says, “I just kind of loved the idea of making food and hanging out with people.”
An affordable alternative
“We weren't even trying to make anything that great. We were just trying to make an alternative for people to eat food together,” he remembers. “We wanted the food to be tasty, and wehad some pride in that, but we did just want to make food that was accessible to people and would be fun to eat.”
Eventually, Graham left Victoria.The backyard restaurant continued for two years after he left. In Vancouver, Graham has been involved in a range of culinary projects, including a former stint as the brewer at R & B Brewing Company. But when it comes to Hand Taste Ferments, he has worked to keep the low-key, affordable experience of that backyard restaurant alive.
“The biggest thing that we always decided [with Hand Taste Ferments] is that we don't actually charge—we put a jar out,” he says. “There's zero control as to what you put in that jar. Nobody's monitoring it, no one's watching it. If you don't have the money, that's fine.No one's ever going to notice. That one will always be what it is. It will always be hopefully more accessible to people.”
Super-pricey ice cream? No way!
One of the early people involved in Graham’s backyard restaurant project was Autumn Maxwell—perhaps known better today in Victoria as Ms. Cold Comfort. Maxwell started experimenting with making ice cream at home and she would bring new flavours to test among people at Devour, a downtown restaurant serving gourmet comfort food, where she used to work.
Soon, customers were coming in just to eat her ice cream. So she began running a delivery service out of her van.
Today, Maxwell’s ice cream has made a permanent home in her storefront headquarters at Cold Comfort Ice Cream in Victoria’s Fernwood neighbourhood, but she still loves the freedom that comes from running her own operation. She sells her ice cream at different restaurants and farmer’s markets across the city. And if peoplehave a serious craving, she says, she’ll still occasionally drop it off at their door.
“I feel like I am more creative whenI have time by myself to play around a little and try things,” Maxwell says. “It's a bit constrictive when you're working for somebody— they have their own agenda. I don’t have to worry about which ingredients I can buy. I am responsible for all of it.”
In her time making small-batch, mostly organic ice cream, Maxwell has experimented with over 340 flavors, from Scotch whiskey with butter caramel to blueberry and Earl Grey. But when asked about her process, she laughs and says there’s nothing to it.
“Ice cream is easy to make. It’s like a blank canvas,” she says. “I do an anglaise, so it's an egg-based custard with heavy cream and milk. What you really want to do to it after that is up to you, and that's what makes it so exciting.”
Maxwell wasn’t sure how much to charge at first, but since choosing a price that felt affordable to her, she has stuck to it—and she says she’ll keep it the same, regardless of inflation. She sells full-sized ice cream sandwiches for $6 and smaller ones for $4.
“I want to make sure that all the stores I supply sell it at the same price, so I actually turned down one retailer that wanted to have my products in their store because they wanted to have a bigger margin and hike up the price,” she says. “I said well, I'm not going to sell to you because a single mother could never afford to buy an $8 ice cream sandwich.”
Brewing the revolution
Graham continues to plan and host Hand Taste Ferments dinners out of his home, but he says he’s especially interested in expanding his operation to offer regular fermentation and cooking workshops.
He is determined to help keep the tradition of fermentation—one of the oldest cooking methods in the world, with roots in almost every culture— alive. He’s worried that community-oriented approaches to cooking are disappearing.
“I'm happy there's a million different ways you can eat food in Vancouver. I have no ill will towards the way that anyone else does anything revolved around food, but this over-complexify-ing of food...I really just want things to get simpler,” he says.
“We rent apartments now that don't have kitchens. That is a really bizarre switch in how we see the world. If you bake bread now, you're considered an artisan, whereas 20 years ago or 50 years ago everybody baked bread. It wasn't weird, and it definitely didn't warrant it costing $10 a loaf.”
He says he learned an important lesson from the early days of his backyard restaurant: cooking is easier than it looks.
“The best way to eat is with friends”
Graham and his friends were determined to only serve organic food. But they were cooking in a time and a place whereyou couldn’t find things like organic bagels and English muffins at the store.
So they would look up recipes in the library, buy organic flour, and see what they could come up with themselves.
“That was our Saturday night. We would cobble together a little bit of money to buy some beer, and we would just sit at the kitchen table and make like a hundred bagels,” Graham recalls. “I wouldn't trade it for anything. It taught me such a great lesson...like, you can just make it. I mean, someone's making it. Somewhere in the world, someone's making a bagel. You can probably figure it out.”
Maxwell mostly helped out in the backyard breakfast restaurant by washing dishes. But she says she always wanted to be involved because it provided community.
“It's nice to have a community of people who have like-minded ideas about food. It's different than just going outto a restaurant that's concerned about their bottom line,” she says. “It's friends. The best way to eat is with friends.”