For many people, summer brings an urge to abandon city life for the bucolic countryside. This is no less true for cooks, who spend many sultry nights stuck in cramped kitchens until two in the morning. But while a lot of us talk about making the move permanently, pastry chef Shane Harper actually did it.
Six months ago, Harper left the high-end restaurants of Toronto to tend the fields at Holly Ray Farms, an organic farm three hours away in the town of Stirling, Ont. Having become pastry chef at the upscale Nota Bene in 2009 when he was just 24, Harper worked his way through other fine dining spots before becoming corporate pastry chef for Mark McEwan's restaurants. But although he was on track to become one of the city's best pastry chefs, he felt disconnected from food.
"It wasn't something they taught in culinary school," says Harper, who studied at George Brown and Humber colleges, of the relationship between farms and stoves. In his spare time, he volunteered with local community food organization The Stop, running its compost program as well as planting seeds in the greenhouse and garden, but he yearned to get deeper into the soil.
What finally made him leave the city, though, was waste. "That was one of the last pushes that made me want to go to a farm," says Harper while trimming tomato plants in the Holly Ray greenhouse. "I've thrown out cakes, squares, pastries, but you'll also see bacon, sausages, lettuce, everything you can imagine."
A hotel he worked at in Alberta served massive brunches for 1,800 people every weekend, which meant prepping for up to 2,000 guests, then tossing what wasn't used. "It was frustrating spending so much time on a dish, and then you put it in front of a guest and they don't eat it," he says. "Waste wasn't talked about at a lot of the places I've been in, outside from a financial standpoint."
Last fall, he answered an ad by Holly Ray Farms' Lara Kelly and Jamie Kingston, who had just become the farm's owners. They were looking for a manager to take care of the day-to-day operations while Kingston worked an office job to financially support the farm. Despite not having any experience growing vegetables outside of a mini-garden on his apartment balcony, Harper was hired.
"He probably wouldn't have been able to get a job on other farms," says Kingston. "But we loved his passion and enthusiasm. It's been a joy."
Holly Ray sends out 90 Community Supported Agriculture boxes to people in Toronto and Belleville, as well as Toronto restaurants such as Linda Modern Thai, Actinolite and Public Kitchen.
The chef packed his life (including his cats, Heston and Elma) in a U-Haul and left Toronto's restaurant, boutique and bar-packed Queen West neighbourhood, arriving in a snow-covered Stirling last March. He immersed himself in horticulture books and sought growing advice from the nearby farmers and Amish community. His new digs are a one-room hut just a few feet away from the greenhouse.
Farm labour is backbreaking: Harper worked four straight months before taking his first day off. "I had to make sure the soil was constantly moist and at the right temperature," he says. "Then I had to bring it into the greenhouse and make sure it got enough light." It was months before he got to turn the literal fruits of his labour into a meal. Two interns quit after their romanticized views of farming were crushed by endless weeding.
But chefs are used to being on their feet all day and never having weekends to rest. Harper has embraced the change from city to country. "I'm eating better than ever and am in the best shape of my life," he says. "Cooks are probably some of the most malnourished people on the planet. You eat the staff meal at 4:45 in the corner on a milk crate … [then] go to Chinatown at 2 a.m. for the $4.20 pork and rice special."
He says that spending months watching a tomato go from seed to fruit has taught him how much work happens before food is even delivered to restaurant kitchens. "Say you're working at the restaurant and you make 60 portions, but sell 55. Those extra portions are going in the garbage," says the 31-year-old Harper. On the three-acre farm, produce that isn't good enough to sell is fed to the pigs. "Nothing gets wasted," he says.
The pastry chef hasn't completely left restaurant life: At the end of October, the farm will close for the winter and he'll be looking for work in Toronto's kitchens until spring. "My desserts are going to change big time because I'm looking to remove refined sugar from my repertoire," says Harper. "You can source the perfect ripe peach and you don't need any sugar, so I'm looking to see how I can recreate that in the winter."
His emphasis will be on highlighting natural flavours, and trying to use every bit of the ingredients that took so much work to grow.
Want to see your food grow? Follow these farmers on Instagram.
Live vicariously through these farmers
Shane Harper @PastryPirate
The pastry chef and organic farmer has been snapping pics of the colourful bounty he harvests at Stirling, Ont.'s Holly Ray Farms. There are lettuces, cucumbers, asparagus and squash blossoms, plus the occasional snap of staff meals, egg-laying chickens and less glamorous shots of working with mulch.
Farmer Jason @YonderWayFarmer
The Texas farmer details the ups and downs of owning a grass-fed cattle, pig and poultry farm. His captions cover everything from severe storm weather to sweet odes to his wife and four daughters. There are also oddly poetic passages on livestock, such as this tribute to a hen now too old to lay eggs: "Everyday, she finds a clutch of eggs to try and set on. Broody hens bring nothing in monetarily to the farm. But the will and the drive to do what comes natural to them everyday brings pleasure that throws out all the worries of profits …"
Ben Hole @BenjaminHole
Endless hilly pastures in shades of emerald green dotted with frolicking sheep and cows dominate the feed of this wool farmer based in the the Isle of Purbeck on the southern coast of England. Barley sways in the breeze under foggy grey skies, with the English Channel visible just beyond the field – it's a visual reminder of how vastly different English farms are from those in the Canadian Prairies.
Andrew Campbell @FreshAirFarmer
This dairy and cash-crop farmer in Middlesex, Ont., has vowed to upload photos of what it's like to work and live on his 200-hectare farm every day this year. He focuses less on picturesque fields and more on everyday chores, such as upgrading the water heater, poring over spreadsheets of milk samples and grooming cattle. Images of flooded soybean and cornfields after non-stop rainstorms show that things aren't always about green acres.
Hilary Kearney @GirlNextDoorHoney
San Diego-based beekeeper Hilary Kearney chronicles her job removing and relocating massive bee colonies from homes and city buildings. Interlopers include a giant swarm that invaded a barbecue grill and a colony inside a wall of a church that required sledgehammer access.