I’ve been waiting for Canada’s answer to Jamie Oliver to emerge — a chef entrepreneur with popular restaurants, great food, onscreen charisma, a social conscience and a mission.
He’s finally here.
His name is Mark Brand and he’s best known for a sandwich token program at his diner/butcher Save on Meats in the country’s poorest postal code.
Brand crusades for social justice through food with the mantra “feed, train, employ.”
He has a government contract to feed lunch to 576 marginalized people a day who live in “ single room occupancy hotels .” At Save On, he feeds up to 120 people a day the hot breakfast sandwiches they can swap for tokens handed out by the community. He trains people to cook from scratch and/or on extreme budgets. He hires “barrier employees.”
Brand is CEO of Save On Meats and founder of A Better Life Foundation. He also co-owns several popular, ever-changing restaurants, a pub, brewery, art gallery and apparel line/shop — and has done the requisite Tedx talk (on “the impact of an unconventional solution”). His screen credits include a reality show, documentary and docudrama.
He’s just 38.
If you haven’t heard of Brand yet, it’s only because he’s from Vancouver and micro-focuses on the impoverished Downtown Eastside. But he’s working to spread his social entrepreneur business model across Canada.
I meet Brand when he visits Toronto as the chef spokesperson for the Live Below The Line campaign that challenges people to eat and drink for $1.75 a day for five days from April 28 to May 2.
The goal is to create conversations about extreme poverty (and the 1.2 billion people around the world living in it), while also raising money in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Canadian wing of the campaign raised $110,000 last year. This year, organizers sent me a day’s worth of low-cost recipes and promised a chef to go with them.
I had no idea it would be Brand. I didn’t even recognize his name at first.
When he comes to the Star test kitchen to cook, I’ve already bought the groceries and semi-prepped the ingredients. I apologize for the not-so-fresh ginger that I dug out of the fridge.
“That’s what we’re talking about — working with stuff that’s close to off,” says a delighted Brand. “We will play and have a lot of fun.”
No need to be dour while eating on a budget. No need to be embarrassed that your ingredients aren’t at their peak, or that you bought them for a deep discount at the green grocer. You can still make delicious food.
Live Below the Line is an initiative of the Global Poverty Project , an international education and advocacy group that wants a world without extreme poverty by 2030. Brand got involved because he’s friends with Dominic Mishio , the project’s Canada country director.
What Brand is doing on a “hyper-local” level in six Vancouver blocks mirrors what the project is doing globally.
For the five-day challenge (which can actually be done anytime before June 30), people are urged to pool resources, buy in bulk, batch cook and build community.
In Toronto, a class of 13 high school students at the Ontario International College is urging fellow students to raise money. The students can’t do the challenge since it happens during exams, but two of their teachers have signed on.
Buying in bulk and gathering people to batch cook is what Brand does in Vancouver to stretch people’s buying power.
He often works with people who have “slim to nil” kitchen facilities and rely on induction burners, microwaves or crock pots.
“I can’t sing the praises of the crock pot enough,” he says.
It pains him that so many Canadians eat from boxes and cans and don’t know how to cook.
“Everything I do in business, and in the kitchen period, I believe, goes from 1940 to 1978,” admits Brand. “It’s the right way. It’s the old way.”
Born in Scotland, he lived in Tunisia, England, Calgary, Dartmouth, Nigeria, Australia and Asia before returning to Canada for health reasons and settling in Vancouver. He has chef friends here in Toronto and expects to visit often.
One of those friends is restaurateur Rodney Bowers , the owner of Hey! and Hey Meatball. They starred in Million Dollar Neighbourhood together, helping financially challenged residents of Bowmanville reign in their spending through things like cooking.
Bowers is working on a Toronto version of Brand’s sandwich token program.
In Vancouver, people buy the $2.25 tokens for fellow citizens in need, who in turn redeem them for a sandwich made from egg, sliced ham, real cheddar and homemade mayo on a fresh baked biscuit.
“When was the last time I was hungry?” muses Brand. “For us, it’s always so momentary — the 45 minutes you’re stuck in a car or you’re in a meeting or something.”
Not so Canadians living below the poverty line, often facing mental health and medical challenges along with drug/alcohol addictions.
It bothers Brand how “time has ruined a lot of the way we eat and we approach food.” Not enough people cook or know what real food is. People think restaurant food is exciting and home-cooked meals aren’t.
These are many of the same issues that Jamie Oliver has been tackling in England and the United States, with cookbooks for quick and healthy meals, restaurants with disadvantaged staff, charities, culinary activism and a campaign to improve school meals.
Brand, meanwhile, loves how the Live Below the Line challenge “creates unavailability” and puts a cap on spending.
The breakfast, lunch and dinner recipes that we’re making are not his — they come from others who shared their dishes with the challenge — but he’s game to make them work.
There’s a breakfast smoothie, Asian noodle salad and a vegetarian stew. Brand’s particularly taken with the soup, which transforms potatoes, carrots, onion and yellow split peas into a substantial four-portion meal with little more than water, salt, pepper and cayenne.
“What we’re cooking here is absolutely legitimate,” he enthuses. “This is super nutritious compared to what you would be eating from a box or can.”
It takes about 45 minutes to make, but Brand’s pleased: “It’s starchy, but it’s tasty.”
He pulls together the Asian noodle dish in no time since it’s based on the kind of dried noodles that you pour boiling water over. He skips the fresh mint (“not the most accessible herb” for those on a budget) and slaps the cilantro stalks between his hands.
“It’s more of a cocktail technique,” says the former bartender. “I’m releasing the aroma so it agitates it.”
It takes Brand less than a minute to make the final dish, a breakfast smoothie made from spinach and peanut butter.
“Oh, that’s super tasty,” he says approvingly. “Spinach has so much flavour. Peanut butter and honey make it really tasty, and I like that you’re using water and aren’t required to get orange juice or apple juice.”
Brand hopes Canadians will embrace the challenge and feel, if only fleetingly, what people living with extreme poverty go through.
He hopes they’ll submit their recipes online. Above all, he hopes people will talk about poverty, hunger and — most importantly — home cooking.