Barns, Farms and Wicked Chefs in the press

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Laura Robin writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Thursday, August 16, 2012

For a dozen years, Judy Dempsey ran The Hungry Planet restaurant in Perth, a place so good that it was listed in Where to Eat in Canada each year it operated. Now she's cooking again in Perth, but her meals are served for free and she says the job is even more rewarding.

Since January, Perth's food bank has been transformed into a community food centre called The Table, which offers everything from after-school programs and gardening workshops to advocacy workshops, cooking classes and free suppers three days a week.

The new Perth centre is the first of 15 planned Canadian spinoffs modelled after Toronto's The Stop Community Food Centre, which has won the admiration of everyone from Jamie Oliver to the New York Times's Mark Bittman.

"Now we're getting visitors from other centres coming to see what we're doing," says Nancy Wildgoose, the Perth centre's executive director. "The Stop has even adopted some of our ideas. We're so proud. For some time, we've known we wanted to make a change. Food banks are very necessary, but they're not the answer."

Dempsey is the resident chef at the Perth centre. Three nights a week, when the food bank is open downstairs, she and three or four volunteers (of a total roster of more than 110 regular volunteers) cook a free dinner in a spacious room upstairs. They hope that food-bank clients will stay for dinner, but welcome anyone.

"I've made 4,000 healthy meals in the last six months," says Dempsey. "In some cases, for seniors, it's about having company, not that they can't afford the food. In other cases, we've had people with means stay for dinner, but they inevitably become converts - they donate money or become volunteers."

When they began serving dinner, about 30 people showed up. Last week, more than 80 attended. Meals use local products including produce from the centre's two gardens, which were largely planted by children in the after-school program. Dishes have included every-thing from Thai chicken satay to pulled pork, and Dempsey has used recipes from The Stop's cookbook as well as ones she made at her acclaimed restaurant. "The food is fantastic," says Wildgoose. "

One of the diners said to Judy, 'You treat us like kings and queens.' It's really lovely. "

I had no idea how much I would enjoy the people here. Often we can't tell anymore who are participants and who are volunteers." Dempsey and Wildgoose also pick a food of the month, to high-light what's in season. Then Dempsey makes a dish that capitalizes on that ingredient - such as a fabulous kale salad last month - and samples are given in the food bank, as well as the recipe and ingredients so that clients can make the dish at home.

On a tour of the food bank area, which looks like a tidy grocery store with shopping carts and check-in area, but no cashes, Dempsey picks up a handful of red-and-yellow streaked heritage tomatoes that have been donated. "Who wouldn't want this?" she asks.

Wildgoose says that while they used to give out wieners, now with their new mandate and new funding, the offerings are much better. "Nobody wants to eat tube food. Now we have packages of ground beef, tofu, tuna and fresh local eggs. We want people to feel welcome and feel valued. There's enough stigma al-ready about visiting a food bank."

Wildgoose said it was a food-bank user who had attended an advocacy workshop who spoke up when some board members were hesitant to change the name of the centre from "Perth and District Food Bank" to "The Table Community Food Centre." "She said how hard it was to visit a food bank and she thought the new name would reduce the stigma. There was silence among the board members. I asked her after if she had ever spoken up at a meeting before. She said she'd never attended a meeting before. Now she works here as a volunteer."

The new centre aims to get its funding from a variety of sources, as well as generate its own revenues. On Aug. 25, it will hold what's to be-come an annual event, a summer gala called Barns, Farms and Wicked Chefs.

"The goal is to bring funding back to the organization and to get the message out," says Wildgoose. "We want to use the power of food to improve the health of this community."

Dempsey is in charge of the food and the mood and it promises to be an outstanding evening. Seven food stands will be manned by top chefs offering fresh local fare.

Live music will include folk and jazz, with the Tim Murray jazz quintet stationed high up in a hayloft at Ecotay, a beautiful farm that's been converted to an indoor-outdoor reception centre.

Dempsey will be serving a Summer Rice Terrine with Thai Flavours, while her younger brother, David Dempsey, chef at Ottawa's The Pepper Garden, will be making pork tacos, and Andrew Chat-ham, a catering chef at Ottawa's The Whalesbone, will be serving sword-fish meatballs, using Canadian-caught sustainable swordfish and Lanark County tomatoes. Other dishes will include Seed to Sausage charcuterie from Sharbot Lake; cheese from Milk House Farm, a sheep farm near Smiths Falls that's producing its first cheese this summer; wood-oven pizzas from chef David Andoff of Perth's Bistro 54; Scotch Line lamb prepared by Jessie Denton of Ottawa's Back Lane Café; and sweet treats from a Perth chocolate maker and Temple's Sugar Bush.

"It will be a movable feast," says Judy Dempsey. "Diners will move around the site from one delectable to another, while being entertained by summer music." Wildgoose says the gala "feels like an extension" of what's being done at the new Community Food Centre. "It's a signature event that tells the same story of great local food that we're living every day."