On Thursday September 24, the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce held its 19th annual Savour Niagara event at the Niagara Regional Airport in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The event was an overwhelming success and was well received by the community members who were in attendance.
“The Chamber of Commerce has been funding it for the last four years,” said Mishka Balsom, president and CEO of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce. “We have about 40 vendors here tonight. We have everything from local wine, to beer, to culinary arts. We usually have around 400 people in attendance. We usually have a good selection of all different people. We usually run it the Thursday before the Grape and Wine festival. It’s so that people who might not get a chance to do all that Grape and Wine has to offer can still have an opportunity to part of this event instead.”
Every year the Chamber selects a chef to have as a special guest to the event.
“The demonstration changes almost every year to focus on a different chef,” said Balsom. “We change it up over the years.”
This year the special guest was Chef Adam Hynam-Smith, co-owner and Chef of the food truck, El Gastronomo Vagabundo, and also author of the cookbook, Curbside. He was there doing a cooking demonstration for all in attendance, revealing the secrets of his culinary arts as well as signing books.
Tamara Jensen, wife of Chef Adam and co-owner of El Gastronomo Vagabundo, was there in attendance with Chef Hynam-Smith. Tamara was able to give insight into his career and how he got to where he is today.
“A lot of [Curbside] is food that we served in the food truck and the rest is from Adam’s cooking career, which spans twenty years,” said Jensen. “He was cooking in restaurants before we had the food truck but he’s always been drawn to street food. He travelled to North Africa, Europe and South-East Asia and was always drawn to the community food and street food. So the recipes are either inspired by what we served or is a street food take on food Adam served in the restaurant. He was approached by a food writer in Toronto who was working with a publisher on a street food guide and said, ‘you need to put your recipes in a book’. So he arranged a meeting with a publisher and we put together a proposal to pitch the idea and the guy said, ‘don’t worry about that, you’re writing the book’. It was just this serendipitous string of events… This is our first year doing the demonstration.”
Don’t let the term food truck fool you. There is often a stigma attached to the words ‘food truck’ and ‘street food’. It tends to hold negative connotations regarding its quality. However, even if this was true at some point, recent years have shown otherwise. There has been a serious increase in the number of food trucks that are making high quality meals in the past few years.
“This business has probably improved and increased twenty times what it was five years ago,” said Jensen. “When we started our food truck we bought it off a gentleman who built chip trucks. So we went to him asking for very simple equipment and although he thought it was weird we didn’t need ten deep fryers he customized our truck. The following year, some folks from Hamilton called us asking about naming a food truck. We sent them to who made our truck and the prices had tripled. I guess he realized there was a market for something beyond just chip trucks.”
Some of the growth in the street food industry may be due to the recent phenomenon of cooking shows that focus on street food, such as Eat St. on the Food Network. However, in the Niagara region at least, the boom in food truck popularity is directly due to the efforts of Jensen and her husband.
“In 2012 we had the by-law in St. Catharines changed, then in 2013-14 we presented to the Niagara-on-the-Lake council and had those by-laws tweaked so trucks and restaurants could operate in harmony,” said Jensen. “At the same time we also helped in Hamilton and Toronto. We had worked very closely with the St. Catharines city council and did tons of research. We got letters of support from the community, businesses, restaurants, the Chamber of Commerce, and so on. We put it all together and presented it at City Council saying that we wanted food trucks. It passed unanimously.”
“Tamara was instrumental in allowing food trucks into Niagara. So when you see food trucks out at the market and around town you have [Tamara] to thank,” said Balsom.
Aside from the fabulous cooking demonstration by Chef Hynam-Smith, the Savour Niagara event also contained a large concentration of vendors of various kinds from the Niagara region. Whether you wanted wine, beer, coffee, or food there was a vendor not only serving it, but revealing the secrets of its intricacies. ‘Who knew that this dessert went with this drink?’ was a common phrase throughout the night. But that is only to be expected from a community that so proudly celebrates its reputation for good food and drink.
“It’s all in support of the community,” said Balsom. “Niagara has developed in the last five or ten years to be known for becoming a culinary haven. It has also been many years since Inniskillin started up the wine industry and it has grown on that end of it as well. We now have the craft breweries that are coming here more, and as Tamara mentioned, we also have the food trucks coming here now as well. Culinary masteries are evolving in Niagara and it’s excellent to be a part of it.”
This event is more than just a celebration of the culinary expertise that thrives in Niagara. It’s also an opportunity for the various businesses and the community as a whole to network with each other. Something that is often difficult to achieve when trying to run a restaurant or winery.
“There are a lot of people who are looking to showcase the products that they are offering,” said Balsom. “No matter if it’s wine, beer or food, this allows them to do it. If you’re in a restaurant you have to depend on people coming to you, but when you go to this event you have an opportunity to go to the people. It is a benefit to everyone because they have the opportunity to talk to you, you can talk to them, and they can talk to each other. They don’t usually have the opportunity to do that.”
The chance to have a first-hand experience with the culture of Niagara and to network with the larger community, is something that Brock students shouldn’t take for granted. It can be helpful for those interested in pursuing a career in the culinary arts, business, or entrepreneurship, since many of the vendors at the event have first-hand experience, and, at one point, likely asked some of the same questions.
“If you are interested in the culinary and wine industry then naturally it would be great for you to see,” said Balsom. “Also, for those interested in business, it allows people to network and see how others are running the business. There are plenty of little bits of knowledge to find here that you may not find elsewhere. That’s something that I think makes it important for students to attend.”
This year, Savour Niagara was held at the Niagara Regional Airport in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It may seem like an odd choice of location for such an event as most would likely expect it to be held in a convention centre or a hotel. There was a reason for this though.
“The airport is a treasure of Niagara,” said Balsom. “We try to find places that people might never go to and I think everyone who lives in Niagara knows we have an airport but most have never been to it.”
The amount of work needed to equip the airport hanger to hold such an event was tremendous. There would have been more than enough work to go around even if it was being held in a space meant for such gatherings and equipping the airport would prove to be no easy task. Luckily, there was plenty of community support to ensure that the event was a success.
“We have a staff of eight people at the Chamber who mainly put all of this together, and we have a huge number of volunteers as well,” said Balsom. “We started today at about 7:00 a.m., getting everything ready since there are a lot of procedures and health codes to follow, and we will probably be here until three or four tomorrow.”
Now that this year’s event has been successfully enjoyed and cleaned up, plans are already in the works for the Savour Niagara event next year. Especially since the event next year will mark the twentieth anniversary.
“We are going to do something great for our 20th,” said Balsom. “Don’t ask me what that is yet, but it will be something great.”
Having experienced the success of this year’s event, its safe to say subsequent years will be equally, if not more, astounding.
For more information on the Savour Niagara event or the other events held by the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, check out their website at greaterniagarachamber.com/Events. For more information on Chef Adam Hynam-Smith and El Gastronomo Vagabundo, check out their website at elgastro.com