Chef Ben Kramer on Sustainability and Cooking from Scratch

Written by Jessica Antony – August 8th, 2019

Photo credit: Charles Venzon

“Being from BC, I like the seasons [in Manitoba] a lot. I like the extreme from winter to summer – it does drastic things to people and to food.” Winnipeg-based Chef Ben Kramer is not one to complain about the city often known for being cold and isolated. “I love the people here,” he explained. “I know that’s cheesy – everybody says that – but it’s true. I’ve got a good community and network of people here. I’d rather travel to see other things and then come back home and bring all of that here.” We sat down with Ben at Little Sister Coffee Maker to talk about his experience in the industry, his (infamous) dedication to local, organic food, and how his experience in cooking dinner with local, organic ingredients for thousands of guests can be applied to the ways in which you cook for yourself.

Early Years

While he was born in Regina, SK, Ben cut his teeth in Vancouver. After completing culinary school at Vancouver Community College, Ben dove into the BC service industry, working on movie sets, as a sous chef, and eventually as head chef at Med Grill in Victoria. In 2000, he moved across the country to Winnipeg, MB. “I moved here because I was chasing a girl – anyone I know who lives here and wasn’t born here has a similar story,” he laughed. Not long after establishing himself in the Prairies, Ben opened Winnipeg’s first organic restaurant, Dandelion Eatery. Praised with five-star reviews by the local newspapers, named one of Canada’s “Best Restaurants” by WHERE Magazine, and included in the 2008/2009 edition of Where to Eat in Canada, Dandelion Eatery shot to success.

It wasn’t without a struggle – unlike BC, Winnipeg did not have the infrastructure to make sourcing local, organic ingredients easy. “When I moved here from BC, where I was buying eggs off the back of a pickup truck at my restaurant, there was nothing like that going on here and that was a big shock for me,” Ben explained. “But for me, doing that kind of food was something that was at my core. To me there wasn’t another option … I thought, ‘if I’m going to live here, I’ve got to figure this out’.” So, he did just that, meeting farmers and other chefs in the city who could point him in the right direction.

He began driving out to farms to pick up ingredients and slowly built up a network. “Doing that, I realized how the system is set up against access to food for people unless you’re a huge multinational, and that didn’t make any sense to me. So, I just did the work to make that happen for me and for my restaurant. I needed to do this because that’s how I wanted to cook.”

“I think access to food is important for everybody. Everybody should be able to afford really good food and have access to it daily.”

Overcoming Roadblocks

Just over four years later, after establishing a sustainable restaurant model at Dandelion, Ben moved on to an entirely different challenge: restructuring the University of Winnipeg’s campus food services, include two cafeterias, a full-service restaurant, and a café. Diversity Food Services, the first of its kind for large-scale food services in an academic institution, focused on using local, sustainable ingredients and hiring people who faced barriers to employment. It was so successful that it was used as a model for Ryerson University’s and the University of Victoria’s food services. In 2010, Diversity was awarded the Manitoba Excellence in Sustainability Award and that same year Ben and his team at Diversity won Winnipeg’s Iron Chef title after a two-day competition.

Ben developed a reputation for being outspoken about accessibility to local, organic, sustainable food, although he admits he didn’t intend to be. After finding that policy and bylaws ended up being the major roadblocks to obtaining fresh food, Ben started speaking up, explaining “I think access to food is important for everybody. Everybody should be able to afford really good food and have access to it daily.” The risks for Ben to raise awareness about these issues – specifically the regulations that make it hard to buy directly from small-scale farmers – are decidedly lower than those faced by the farmers themselves who could be subjected to blowback from regulators. “It just grew from there and then the next thing I know I’m at the [Legislative Building] talking to the Minister of Agriculture.”

Sustainability Starts with You

After six years with Diversity Food Services, Ben left to pursue freelance work. Since 2015 he has been cooking in a variety of capacities, from preparing the food for 4,000 musicians and volunteers at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, to cooking for the annual Table for 1200 or RAW: Almond pop-ups, to doing custom catering for small groups of people in their homes. His focus on sustainability in food choices has not wavered, however. While there is certainly an uptake in the availability of local foods, organic restaurant options, and even farmer’s markets, the evolution has been slow.

Ben explained that it is the policies, the importation of food from other parts of the world, and the accompanying financial priorities of those who make decisions around where our food comes from that shape our access to it. “The fact that I can buy chives from Israel that have been flown in by a multinational company for cheaper than what it would cost a local farmer to grow them is not a result of the farmer charging too much because it’s local,” he explained. Our system has been designed in such a way that we have been, in fact, underpaying for food. “I’ll be at the [farmer’s] market and I’ll hear people haggling over a price because they can get something at Superstore for a dollar less,” Ben told us. Part of changing this landscape requires public education about what is involved in growing the food we eat and who benefits from the choices we make.

Another barrier to sustainable food is a matter of supply and demand. “The reason I can get factory pork for so cheap is because there’s so much of it,” Ben explained. Walmart recently became one of the biggest purchasers of organic foods in the world, and while some people may be ideologically opposed to the retail giant stepping into the organic food arena, “it has meant that prices have come down because there is buying power and demand.” Essentially, the more we as consumers look for and ask for sustainable options – which could mean fair trade coffee, organic vegetables, or locally and ethically raised meat – the more places will start to provide it. Ben explained “now, if I have salmon on my menu, a client is going to ask ‘is that wild?’ which was never a question before. In BC, a restaurant would never put farmed salmon on their menu because the public wouldn’t allow it. So, the more that people are educated about food and ask the right questions to the restaurants and stores, the more they’re going to try to meet that need.”

Open the Conversation

Learning which questions to ask and how to best incorporate sustainable food choices into your diet can be tricky. Part of that is due to the fact that there is no universal definition for what makes a food “organic” – generally speaking, however, it refers to food that is grown using environmentally and animal friendly methods. Many people associate “organic” with food grown without the use of pesticides (which can have devastating effects on soil, watersheds, animals, and humans), but it often also includes how soil is cultivated and how animals are treated.

For Ben, his focus is local and organic foods. “My philosophy has always been that, when possible, I’ll take local organic first. If I can’t get that, I’ll take local over organic … I’d rather support a local farmer that I know is doing things right than a huge multinational organic farm out of Mexico or California.” He also understands, though, how daunting it can be to find the information you need to make the right choices – often, the more research you do and the more you uncover, the more overwhelming it can be. The key, he argues, is to focus on what is essential to you. “I’ve found peace with choosing my battles and focusing on what’s important to me. For some people, food waste is really important to them, but I think that as long as you’re focusing on something and not ignoring everything, that’s a step in the right direction.”

Start Small and Build

While the vast amount of information available to us surrounding food sustainability can be overwhelming, it’s important not to take everything you read at face value. Online articles, documentaries, and news pieces can easily be one-sided or focused on the issues specific to their country of origin – like the United States – so it’s important to educate yourself. The best way to do this, Ben argues, is to actually talk to farmers.

Visit farmer’s markets and ask questions about how their food is grown and how their animals are raised.

Recognize that food production is complex and not always as straightforward as it may seem. As Ben notes, “just because there are chickens being abused in Arizona doesn’t mean you have to swear off eggs. Just find someone who’s doing eggs better. And you can only do that by having conversations.” Additionally, once you meet the people you’re buying your food from, you’ll feel better about and more connected to the meals you make for yourself and your family. “For me, the more I get involved and the more I get to know [farmers], the more excited I get about supporting them.” It’s also important to be realistic – that is, start where you’re at and slowly build on your skills and knowledge from there, incorporating more sustainable food choices as you go. “Just start cooking your own meals from scratch,” Ben said. “To me that is way more important than where you get your food. I’d rather see people cooking unprocessed food, and then build from there.” If you love hamburgers, start making your own instead of buying them frozen, and then start looking into who you’re buying your meat from.

While we may not all have the time or resources to invest in our grocery shopping that we’d like, incorporating sustainable foods into your diet doesn’t have to be difficult. Ben’s philosophy is “cooking in season” – that is, build your weekly meals around the foods that are available to you. They’ll not only taste better but will be more accessible. Choosing the best quality foods you have access to and can afford – whether that’s at your local farmer’s market or your grocery store’s organic section – and cooking easy meals from scratch is a great first step on the path toward long-term sustainable food choices.

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