By Camille DePutter
Lisa Kates is a food consultant, caterer and a passionate supporter of local food-based businesses, whose moniker is “A Food Gypsy”. I sat down with Lisa to explore what it’s like to work hard and play hard, all when it comes to food. – Camille DePutter
Food depends on community. Food is community. Collaboration is important. The industry can be competitive, that’s just the nature of business; but it’s important to remember that everybody is trying to put out a product, and work hard, and make something good. We need to respect each other. – Lisa Kates
Q. When / why did you decide to make a career in food?
It started with being a home cook. I had never really cooked before but when I was first married I started doing a lot of dinner parties. I was inspired by the original Moosewood cookbook – it opened me up to experimentation and fun in the kitchen.
I moved into professional kitchens and catering. For a while I worked as a personal chef for the President of Canada Post, which was interesting.
Ultimately my passion led me in a slightly different direction. I started working with a non-profit called Operation Come Home for street youth where I initiated a program called Food Matters, which engaged the youth in the cooking process. Whoever cooked with me could eat what we made, and we served the rest of the food at the drop-in. All the foods were healthy, with lots of fruits and vegetables. Many of the kids had never even seen these types of foods before.
Today I maintain a small artisan soup business, where I deliver my fresh, homemade product for select cafes and shops. It’s freeing because I make everything from scratch, and I make what I feel like making based on the seasonal ingredients available.
I offer consulting services to help food-based businesses and organizations grow, implement sustainable projects, and achieve their vision. These efforts often include edible agriculture, and urban gardening – it’s something I’m deeply passionate about.
Q. When is food ‘play’ and when it is ‘work’?
People glamorize what it is like to work in food. There is this glamorized vision of what it’s like to work in the food business. Yes it’s fun. But it’s still work.
Working in artisanal food (as I do with my soup) is fun and creative because it’s yours. It’s your recipes, your ideas… And you can take time to really appreciate it. When I make a soup, I stop to admire the colour and the texture of each ingredient. The colour of a beet, for example – it’s so beautiful.
That’s why I take a lot of photos, when I am cooking but also when I’m shopping at the farmers’ market. Food is beautiful. Food is art.
Q. What makes a positive food culture?
Food depends on community – food is community. Collaboration is important. The industry can be competitive – that’s just the nature of business – but it’s important to remember that everybody is trying to put out a product, and work hard, and make something good. We need to respect each other.
Farmers’ markets are really important. They are a big source of inspiration for me: baskets full of radishes, wild leeks, what could be better? And it’s not just the food, it’s the stories behind it. I like to connect with the producers, with who is growing the product, and how they do it, and why.
Urban agriculture is playing an increasingly important role. Many restaurants (like Ursa in Toronto, for example) are growing their own vegetables and herbs, and are sharing that knowledge, that leadership.
Food is innate. Working in the food business is about love for food – about tapping into that innate appreciation for food and bringing it outwards. You learn what to do with the ingredients – technique can be learned – but you need to have the passion. That has to come from within.