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Manitoulin baker feasts on local ingredients

Genevieve Sartor is out to bring regional producers together as a regional food and farm coordinator

Over the course of a decade, Genevieve Sartor was steadily bouncing back and forth between two equally intriguing, but very different, worlds.

At home in the realm of academia, she had earned her master's degree from Scotland's University of Edinburgh, followed by a PhD in psychiatry from Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.

But when not in the classroom, Sartor would find herself working on a farm — several in fact, including at operations in Portugal, Spain, and France.

In Australia, she spent a year working at large cattle stations in the Outback where ranchers wrangled livestock while perched on horseback, on the back of a dirt bike, or from the cockpit of a helicopter hovering above the herd.

"This sort of twin reality, I never really understood how I was going to merge them,” said Sartor, sharing her story at the 2023 Northern Ontario Ag Conference in Sudbury on Feb. 16.

“But in any case, I always appreciated the alternative between being in the library all of the time versus being in the middle of nowhere.”

In early 2020, she found her answer, on Manitoulin Island, where she's now the owner-operator of Gore Bay's New Grain Bakery and Kitchen, and the freshly appointed northeast regional coordinator for Local Food and Farm Co-ops.

Not long after her first plump loaves of sourdough were pulled from the oven, Sartor's kitchen creations started garnering her a loyal following.

But she was soon looking beyond bread to figure out how else she could use more local ingredients in her dishes and, by extension, how to get more people to appreciate Manitoulin's local food scene.

“Look, I love a pogo; I love poutine,” she laughed, referencing the fare commonly served to tourists during the summer months.

“But at the same time, there's only so many chicken nuggets you can eat on holiday before you actually want to have something fresh and you want to learn about what's available specifically on the island.”

One by one, she began visiting farmers across Manitoulin to learn about their operations and the commodities they produce. And then she began to cultivate menus out of whatever foods were available at the time.

“Instead of coming at it like a chef — because I wasn't really trained as a chef — I just came at it as somebody who frickin loves food and really likes people,” she said.

That meant incorporating surplus ingredients that farmers had trouble selling and, in the case of meat, using as many parts of the animal as possible — shank, bones, beef cheek — to avoid waste.

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Initially, farmers and customers alike were hesitant. But once the idea caught on, “people actually kind of went nuts for it,” Sartor said.

Soon, more farmers were contacting her to get involved, and her kitchen was busy enough filling orders for local diners that New Grain stayed busy through the winter.

When she couldn't find certain items being made on Manitoulin, she extended her search to other northern locales, often visiting producers in person to taste their products.

Sartor brought back artisanal cheese from Kapuskasing, Lonza pork loin from Thunder Bay, and sauerkraut from Bruce Mines, among other goodies, and began incorporating those products into her menus.

Using fresh ingredients from northern producers made her food pop.

“This is incredible,” she said. “This is what Europeans thrive off of. Why aren't we completely taking advantage of this?”

In the midst of building up her own business, she's tackled a number of side projects to help others, too.

Sartor's opened up her kitchen to budding food entrepreneurs who want to test out a commercial kitchen and get a feel for the business. And a pair of feasts she hosted featuring local ingredients were wildly successful.

At Nic Harfield's farm, every ingredient in the meal, save for olive oil and salt, was produced at the farm, an approach she described as "micro-local.”

Because it was during grape-harvesting season, Harfield pressed grapes and talked about his operation, while Sartor served the meal. It's a model she predicts will gain in popularity in the North.

“No southern chef in Toronto is getting to know farmers like this,” she said. “They're not going out to the middle of the field and learning what's the surplus, what's the issue, what's the difficulty. They just can't.

“So this is a very, in my opinion, unique way to provide an excellent and premium dining experience that everyone is crazy for.”

This past fall, after opening a second location at Split Rail Brewing Co. in Gore Bay, she experienced some growing pains when she stood her ground in supporting local producers.

When she would run out of an ingredient, Sartor said, she refused to substitute it with an off-island equivalent, frustrating those who expected a set menu.

But that type of scenario perfectly illustrates the challenges of the food supply chain, she noted: if something's not available, then simply change the menu.

“People need to know there's a limit to things, that we have issues with processing meat and you have to wait,” she said. “That's how it works.”

All this collaboration and promotion comes naturally to Sartor, and so it likely wasn't a total surprise when the Local Food and Farms Co-op came calling.

As the not-for-profit organization's new northern regional coordinator, Sartor will be responsible for doing basically what she's already done for the last two years, just on a regional scale.

She'll work with farmers, co-ops and other stakeholders to figure out how to better move Northern Ontario product and get it to consumers.

With such a huge geographical footprint to consider, it won't be an easy task. But Sartor is excited about the possibilities it presents.

“The idea is that by dialoguing with each other, we can find ways to aggregate food regionally, which I think would be fantastic for small-scale producers.”