In 2003, the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture identified culinary tourism as a major development initiative for the entire province, articulated three years later in its 10-year Ontario Culinary Tourism Strategy & Action Plan. On paper, the plan, subsequently updated by the Ontario 2011-2015 Culinary Tourism Strategy, is an economic blueprint for transforming Ontario into “the premier international culinary tourism destination.” In practice, it is a showcase study—a celebration, really—of the power of shared purpose along the full length of the literal food chain.
Rebecca LeHeup is Executive Director of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance (OCTA), the Toronto-based non-profit established to implement the plan. “Working closely with Ontario’s agricultural, tourism and hospitality industries, OCTA provides an extensive networking, communications, consultation and resource platform for businesses along the culinary tourism value chain,” says LeHeup, who also serves in advisory roles for the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership and the Canadian Tourism Commission, and blogs for Huffington Post Canada Living.
Animated by deep-rooted ties between food and culture, this fertile program is about connecting travelers with Ontario’s heritage, its land, and its produce. By harvesting its agrarian past, the province has set a bountiful table for the future.
Initially, the alliance comprised five founding culinary tourism destinations, including Ottawa, Greater Toronto and Niagara. Today, under LeHeup’s determined leadership, OCTA currently encompasses 27 member regions and organizations across the province, representing thousands of businesses including farmers, producers, retailers, wineries, breweries, restaurants, cooking schools, attractions, festivals and events.
Key organizations belonging to OCTA include the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA), Canada’s largest provincial hospitality association with over 4,000 members representing more than 11,000 establishments across Ontario.
Individual hotels and lodging properties are essential links in the chain, too, working directly with OCTA or via one of the local and regional culinary tourism organizations. “To date, we have some 300 member properties offering local culinary experiences, along with other hotels that serve local food,” LeHeup says, “and we are confident that these numbers will continue to increase.”
One shining example is the Fairmont Château Laurier in Ottawa, which belongs to the award-winning Savour Ottawa, a highly successful initiative spearheaded by Ottawa Tourism, the City of Ottawa and Just Food, a local non-profit focused on rural and urban food issues.
“Working with a range of Ontario suppliers for ingredients including honey, strawberries and peas, we design our menus around local ingredients as they come in season,” says Deneen Perrin, director of public relations for the fairytale property, which celebrates its centenary this summer and offers culinary draws such as the acclaimed Wilfred’s Restaurant and afternoon tea in Zoe’s Lounge. The Château’s emphasis on using locally sourced, organic or sustainable ingredients reflects in part alignment with the Fairmont brand’s long-running commitment to environmental stewardship, but as Perrin explains, it has much to do with meeting customer expectations as well.
“Increasingly, our guests arrive knowledgeably informed about food and wine, and very interested in exploring the culinary aspect of their travels,” Perrin says. “In particular, they want to know that their food is being prepared with fresh, locally sourced ingredients.”
Underscoring this trend is data from Zagat’s 2011 America’s Top Restaurants Guide, in which 68 percent of the 153,000 diners polled nationwide identified the importance of locally sourced food, organic or sustainably raised ingredients, with 60 percent willing to pay more for such ingredients and 31 percent devoted to seeking out restaurants specializing in such fare.
“The hotels that have embraced the local food movement and are working in partnership with their local and regional farmers are helping to strengthen our local economies and offer the consumer a true taste of place,” LeHeup says.
Across Ontario, hotels form strong links in this most egalitarian of food chains. In the four-season Blue Mountains resort some two hours northwest of Toronto, the Westin Trillium House, through its Oliver & Bonacini Café Grill, participates in and supports the award-winning Apple Pie Trail, a 32-member organization providing local culinary products and experiences year-round.
“Combining culinary, adventure and agricultural attractions, The Apple Pie Trail provides visitors with the unique opportunity to experience our beautiful landscape, meet our locals and taste our terroir,” says Patti Kendall, manager of marketing & events for the Blue Mountain Village Association. “Drawing repeat visitorship, the Trail drives significant tourism for the region.”
Some two hours west of Toronto in pastoral, farm-rich Perth County, Savour Stratford is another award-winning culinary tourism organization, with participating hotels include Relais & Châteaux member Langdon Hall Country House & Spa. Here, celebrated Grand Chef Jonathon Gushue harvests the property’s own vegetable, fruit and herb gardens for seasonal offerings at the five-star Dining Room, with weekly menu changes also incorporating locally grown fare.
The biggest winners of all are the small and struggling farmers who have established vital new supplier relationships after connecting with hotel and restaurant chefs via the OCTA network. The program may be industry-driven, but OCTA and its members ultimately practice at the local, community level, a core value exemplified by the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto.
On the culinary front—actually, the 14th floor rooftop—the Royal York continues to be a brand leader with its honeybee program (at least five other Fairmont properties have rooftop apiaries, with Waldorf Astoria and other brands now catching onto this growing trend). Since 2008, Royal York’s bees, when not pollinating downtown Toronto’s plants, have sweetened the hotel’s cocktails and cuisine with well over 800 pounds of honey. The hotel recently partnered with local craft brewer Mill Street Brewery to produce a new beer, Royal Stinger Honey Ale; there is also talk of growing hops on the hotel’s roof, which has also long served as an herb garden.
Guests can also “Shop With Chef,” a program in which they explore local culinary haunts such as the St. Lawrence Market with a member of the hotel’s culinary team, learning about sustainable fish, meat and produce which invariably hail from OCTA members.
Engaging guests is one part of the Royal York’s culinary practice. The other is helping the community by supporting programs like FoodShare Toronto and Second Harvest. Since 1985, the latter has rescued close to 80 million pounds of food that would have otherwise gone to waste, and delivered that food to those in need.
“The Fairmont Royal York has been a long-time supporter of our food rescue program, having donated their excess food to Second Harvest for more than 15 years,” says Tonia Krauser, director of communications for Second Harvest.
“As early adopters of the food rescue concept they have truly demonstrated leadership in corporate social responsibility,” Krauser continues. “Their generosity and commitment to a sustainable food model has kept a lot of good food from ending up in landfill. Most importantly, it has resulted in thousands upon thousands of healthy meals for hungry men, women and children in Toronto.”
LeHeup is most encouraged by the overall progress so far. “Since initiating the action plan, we have achieved many of the goals set out for us,” she says. “As more and more travelers embrace our culinary experiences and the provincial destinations continue to realize the value in investing in our local food infrastructure, we keep discovering new initiatives and building more products.” And with the Pan Am Games coming to Toronto in 2015, she adds, “we will be putting our best fork forward.”