When accomplished chef and restauranteur Yasser Qahawish of Guelph finally found a reliable and fairly local white asparagus supplier, his clientele was ecstatic. He had developed a simple signature dish with this unique Ontario food variety, and customers were getting attached to it. But when word got out about the white asparagus supplier’s bountiful harvest, Qahawish braced for some competition. And he got it – one of the province’s major supermarket chains cleaned his supplier out. Everyone, it seems, wants local food.

               Being a David in a Goliath-like industry sometimes slows down Qahawish, who considers anything within 200 miles radius “local,” but it doesn’t stop him. In fact, if anything, it gives the passionate entrepreneur more resolve to keep his dream alive of offering nothing but local fare, and supporting local farmers. It drives him to further build his network of area suppliers, so certain commodities (and restauranteurs, like him) are less dependent on so few growers.

Qahawish’s dream has manifested itself in a local-food establishment he and his partner Allison Mitchell call Artisanale. It officially opened Wednesday, September 26, to the delight of those who stand in support of local farmers and sustainable farming practices.

            To the region, Qahawish and Mitchell have been known for sometime as local food advocates. When the doors swung open to their restaurant, they took big steps towards joining local food pioneers Bob Desautels, Anita Stewart and others in our area who proclaim the goodness of Ontario farm products.

            And they are indeed bent on supporting small farmers. For years, Mitchell, who apprenticed with Toronto chef Jamie Kennedy, and Qahawish, long-time chef for Toronto’s prestigious Osgoode Hall Restaurant, regularly made forays into rural Ontario and farmers’ markets to source ingredients. Their contacts with small, regional farmers, as well as the city’s roots-like culture, kept drawing them closer to Guelph.

            But despite the area’s allure, Qahawish and Mitchell had to be realistic about its ability to maintain the requisite staples. After all, with our seasonal climate, local food doesn’t regularly leap out of the ground. So they searched out an array of suppliers, both organic and conventional, from farms spanning the Durham region to Stratford, and points in between (Fergus, Acton, Dundas, and two near Guelph). They only had to go out of province to get the kind of duck they wanted, but they hope they can help nurture a local source for that, too.

            And to Qahawish, nurturing is what it’s all about, developing a supply network of farmers and supporting their efforts. He needs farmers to be productive and know they’ll have a reliable market – that is, him – if they take the plunge into naturally grown food. To that end, he’s planning an information night later this fall for area farmers, to explain his vision and get more of them onside. As a local food entrepreneur, his lifeblood is his food supply, and he’s counting on farmers’ support.

            He thinks the local food approach will resonate in particular with small farmers, the group that the recent Statistics Canada farm survey says is on the rise. After all, he doesn’t need copious quantities of anything, but he does require a steady stream of some very special items, and small farmers have the flexibility to grow or raise them.

            Coincidentally, as Artisanale was opening, across town the University of Guelph was announcing it has created a special research position to focus on issues in tourism and hospitality. Matters such as the looming labour shortage, the environmental impact of travel and changing consumer attitude and motivations were raised as part of the announcement. And no doubt, local food will be a hot item on the research agenda.