Written By:: Kristen Wagner
When Dana Ewart first tasted an Okanagan peach straight from the tree, she knew she had found home.
It had been a long journey for the chef and co-owner of Joy Road Catering. She had traveled from Ontario with her partner in work and life, Cam Smith, looking for a place where they could expand their experience of food and cooking in close proximity to their raw materials: fresh produce and world-class wines.
With the taste of that fresh-picked peach still lingering in their mouths, Dana and Cam set to work finding the best local ingredients to work with. They quickly built a network of local food contacts through regular appearances at a Penticton farmers’ market, where they sold organic baking. It’s their mandate to use local sources for every possible ingredient, and that choice is what makes Joy Road unique: they create “cuisine de terroir,” or food with a strong sense of place.
With the ingredients laid out before them, Dana and Cam drew on their training as chefs and experience working at high-end restaurants in Toronto and Montreal. They began hosting al fresco vineyard dinners twice weekly during the summer months, and Joy Road was born. The dinners often featured a farmer, apiary or other food producer, who spoke about the art and science of food production to help diners understand the value of local eating. “People walked away from the meal with more than a full belly – they had a full mind as well,” explains Dana.
But in most cases, all people need to do to understand the value of fresh, local ingredients is taste the food. Joy Road quickly gained a strong reputation, and their vineyard dinners were selling out months in advance. Soon, Dana and Cam caved to the will of the masses and offered their services as caterers. “We felt like there was such a niche market for us,” Dana explains. “There are so many people who are so savvy, who love good food – it would just break their hearts to have bad food at their weddings.”
Some catered meals have a reputation for being reheated and sub-standard, but Dana and Cam work to bring their catering clients a finer experience. “’Catering’ is sometimes a dirty word for a chef,” laughs Dana. “We look at each situation individually and assess the event, and try to figure out how we can make everything as fresh as possible, without sacrificing quality and the flow of the event.”
The visual experience of food can be almost as important as the taste. As delicious as a dish may be, people won’t want to eat it if it looks stale, soggy or overcooked. Serving meals “family style” – where diners serve themselves from platters passed around the table – allows people to savour the look and smell of each dish as well as the taste. “People see beautiful green beans, cherry tomatoes, purple potatoes, and they say, ‘It looks so good! It smells so good!’” says Dana. “With family style we can say – ‘Help yourself!’ But with plated meals you choose months in advance, you might end up looking at your husband’s plate and saying, ‘I chose wrong.’”
As chefs, Dana and Cam build menus around featured wines, or sometimes fruits and vegetables in season. As caterers, they must instead accommodate the preferences of their catering clients. Wedding clients may want to feature a favourite dish, but Dana and Cam still work to make it as unique and flavourful as possible.
Fresh, quality ingredients make a difference to all aspects of a meal, and the appeal can make diners more eager to try new things. People may come to Joy Road’s table thinking they don’t like beets, but when the beet is harvested in the morning and on the table by dinner time, they might just change their mind. It’s a stark contrast to the taste of weeks-old beets at the grocery store.
But a meal doesn’t stop at fruits and vegetables, and neither does Joy Road’s mandate for freshness. Dana and Cam raise their own chickens for eggs, bake their own organic artisan breads using an old French technique, and even make their own sausage and prosciutto. And if they can’t make an item themselves, they comb the country and the world finding the highest quality ingredients, responsibly produced.
Local food is about more than just taste; it’s about health, economics and politics too. By sourcing locally, Joy Road is helping to ensure quality food is available to the local market. “It’s better to pay for quality, local products, rather than unhealthy products grown in Styrofoam under fluorescent light,” Dana explains. “Everybody eats, every day. If more people were aware of how our food gets to us, they would support more local growers and eat better.”
Food is an essential part of the human experience, and it can be much more than sustenance. “Food is such a lovely thing that isn’t emphasized enough when people think about their health,” explains Dana. “Food is medicine. Food is joy.” And good food doesn’t have to mean fancy ingredients in a five star restaurant. Sometimes the best dishes are the simplest. “It just has to be flavourful and seasoned well, with fresh ingredients.”
Whether fresh from the tree, or sliced and wrapped Italian-style in fresh prosciutto, an Okanagan peach is a taste of a place – and Joy Road ensures that unique flavour is at the forefront of every dish they serve.