Founder of Nourish restaurant Danny Cheung on connecting with farmers, committing to an all-organic menu, and shifting the focus away from industrialized agriculture.
Tracy: So how did the idea to start Nourish begin to unfold?
Dan: It was two years ago when my wife and I were planning on having our first child, and all these different things happened all around the same time that spurred me to take this direction. So one was my sister-in-law had lent us Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. My wife was reading it and everything was bothering her; every page she’d read she would elbow me and say, "Oh my God do you know they're doing this?" and, "Do you know they're doing that?” So at the end I said, "Alright give me this book, let me read it." So I read the book. I was shocked! I couldn’t believe how bad the situation was and how it is just getting worse. We started reading more books and watching a lot of documentaries about the food industry. The more we learned the more upset we got.
So we started eating differently; we started buying locally - direct from the farmers. We started eating organic, and we started making different choices with the restaurants we were going to. And along with that came our decision to become Flexitarian, which means we eat vegetarian and/or vegan some or most of the time. And there are times when we do have chicken, or salmon, or other types of seafood, so we find that it makes it a little bit easier. It's not as restrictive but at the same time it's not making that impact that we've become so accustomed to with the amount of animal protein that we consume. We just consume too much of it, and it's making us sick, but it's also really destroying the environment. So for those reasons we started moving in that direction for ourselves, and we got to the point where we were doing it regularly.
At that time I was working an office job as an Account Manager and I was looking for something for myself [for lunch], and what I really wanted was something that was organic, something that was locally sourced, and hopefully vegetarian or vegan. And there weren't a lot of choices that were convenient. So I felt like if I was feeling like this, there were probably other people that were feeling the same way, and that the organic movement would move forward if there were more options, and in fact move forward faster. And so that's when I came up with the idea of Nourish, and within a few months I quit my job and got it going.
Did you already have things in motion, or was it more of a snap decision?
Anyone that knows me, knows that I do make decisions quite quickly and I don't like the paralysis of thinking about it too much - it starts to get too complicated. When I made the decision I had already saved up quite a bit of money because we were getting ready to buy a home, but instead of buying a home we opened a business. And we still live in our small little Yaletown apartment.
Nourish’s menu is organic and non-GE focused. Explain why avoiding GE [genetically engineered] foods, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides is important to you, and why you think it should be offered to others.
Bottom line is this. I base it on what I've researched; it’s bad for our health and bad for the environment. I don’t want my family eating food that is grown [with] chemical fertilizer or sprayed with pesticides because those chemicals are toxic. The bees are dying and if we don’t stop this the bees will become extinct, which means we will lose 30-40% of the the fruits and vegetables we have now because they depend on bees to pollinate and those fruits and vegetables will be gone for good. Scientists have evidence that GMOs will be harmful to the environment, and farmers that work on farms where they spray [chemicals] are much more likely to get cancer, have infertility issues, etc. I feel like everything that I've read and all the evidence that I've seen points to the fact that GMOs and using that science - biotechnology - to get better yields doesn't actually work. And the evidence that says that it does work is funded by corporations that will benefit from it, whereas a lot of the research done that says it doesn't work is all independent.
And then I look at the fact that there are 60 - I think 68 - countries now that have either banned GMOs, or require GMO labelling. And when I see that I say, “Well they must have enough evidence to be doing something about this." And they've made a decision for the good of their country, for the good of the environment, and for the health of everyone that resides in those countries. We need to be able to make our own choices, so keep that out of my country because that's going to ruin the crop and that's going to ruin the health of the people. There's enough evidence for me to decide, “Yes - I would rather be 100% organic." And because in Canada we don't have any labelling for GMOs - no mandatory labelling - the only way to really know for sure is to buy certified organic from farmer's that you can talk to and ask for yourself.
Which leads to my next question. Do you want to see mandatory GMO labelling come to Canada and the US, or do you think it's good enough already if people know that simply buying organic means you're not going to get genetically engineered food?
My preference would be to see mandatory labelling - to give people the choice. And the fact is that a lot of these corporations are throwing millions of dollars into law firms that are fighting government states. In the US for example, there are a few states that have decided, “We don't care what they're doing federally; we want to have mandatory labelling in our state." And corporations like Starbucks and Monsanto are putting together money to fight the government and these decisions that the people have made. People have made the decision, there's no point in a corporation coming in and trying to stop it. Their only fear is that if they are required to be labelling, they will lose in sales to other companies that are not using GMOs. So that again shows me that if they really believe the fact that GMOs are good, and are not going to be a health problem, then why are they afraid? Why are they fighting this? But obviously they are afraid. And so for me, I would rather see mandatory labelling because that way there's no confusion.
In line with what you touched on about these BioTech corporations throwing millions around to assure their profits don't go down - right now GE foods are being marketed to us as the only way we can feed the exponential population growth on a global scale. What do you think about the notion that we'll need BioTech companies to "save the world"?
From what I've read, the yields are actually not higher. The only tests and the only research that show the yields to be higher are conducted by those companies: the pharmaceutical companies and the BioTech companies. When you go independent, when you talk to the farmers, the evidence is that the yields are less. I've read about people in India where - this is very unfortunate - a lot of people have put a lot of money into buying GE seed, gone and spent a lot of money on paying for these pesticides (Monsanto's Roundup for example) that work alongside the GE seed, with all these promises for incredible high yielding crops. And what ended up happening was the opposite. People were committing suicide because they lost everything. On top of that, there are people who are going to Monsanto's factories and burning them down saying, “Get out of our country." These things are happening so regardless of what their internal tests are saying, let's look at what's actually going on in the countries where they've tried to implement GE seeds, and you'll see that it actually doesn't work.
For the ingredients you use at Nourish, you actually go to the local farms you source from in BC. Do you find it hard to stick to all organic produce? Or is the demand big enough now, that these farms can get by with using all-organic farming practises year round?
I definitely feel like the demand is still relatively low. The number is actually 3%. Only 3% of BC farms are actually certified organic. That's quite low in my eyes and that can only feed so many people. The hope is that with companies like Nourish, if we can create a demand for local organic produce, other farmers will say, "Oh okay, this organic farm is doing quite well - they're selling at the Farmer's Market, they're selling to a few other restaurants as well, so there's a market for this.” Some farmers might feel like, "I've always wanted to do this, but I've always felt scared that I might not be able to make it work.” [If] they switch to organic, then in 5 years the number of certified organic farms in BC grows to 10%, and then in ten years that number is 25%. That would make me very happy. So if other businesses see this model - committing to 100% organic - and are seeing it work, I hope they too will switch to 100% organic.
This reminds me of what we were talking about when I first came into Nourish. With a lot of young people there seems to be an increase in social and environmental consciousness. The trend of making a political statement with your dollar has followed: buying something not only because of the quality, but because of what the company behind the product is doing for the betterment of the world. More people are willing to spend a little extra to support smaller businesses whose garments aren't made in sweatshops, who don't use chemical fertilizers on their crops, or who focus on creating less waste at their business place. So even if your salad does have to be ten dollars in order to support your farmers, with the more awareness that is raised about GEs, mass monoculture crops, shipping food all around the world, and what these chemical farming practises do to the soil, the personal health of the farmers, and the environment, the more people will prefer to spend their dollar on something that combats these negative things, rather than on something that perpetuates them.
Yes, we need to be aware of what corporate social responsibility means. We live in a capitalist economy and that will never change, so the way we make it work for us is to support companies that are trying to do good for others and the environment: companies that are truly built around doing things responsibly. But we need to do our research, we need to make sure [they’re] not just “greenwashing” because there are many companies that claim they are green, but it is just a front. More effective than protesting or voting for a certain government is how we spend our money. I feel like that is what will change things the quickest - if we use the power of the dollar to vote for the type of world we live in.
The reality is that growing crops organically takes more effort. People have to get on their hands and knees, and they have to weed. They have to plant companion plants to get rid of some of the pests that would eventually get at the fruits and vegetables - it just takes a little bit more effort. And so do I ever want the farmer's to get less money? No, not at all. I think people are too used to paying farmers as little as possible, and monetizing things so that no one wants to own a farm anymore. There are far less farmers now than there were just 15 years ago, and it's Big Agriculture that has caused this. So I would prefer to break that apart; just have lots of small farmers who genuinely understand the relationship of their crops to the land.
People tell me that it's not sustainable, “You can't feed the world like that." Well the reality is that so much of the food we produce actually goes to waste. It's much more of a food distribution problem than it is a food supply problem. And right now I think about 50-60% of the [soy and corn] that these monocultures are producing doesn't even go to people, it goes straight to feeding production line animals for our consumption. But the health problems that occur because of eating this amount and type of meat has caused us to lose sight of the fact that food is our medicine. So if we go out there and expect an 8 ounce piece of meat with everything - it's just not sustainable, and it's not healthy. There are so many ailments that are a direct result of what we eat, and we have to realize that it’s in our control to prevent them.
That notion of planting companion plants to take the pests away from the desired crop - Do you find it easy to explain to customers that pesticides aren't necessary? I often encounter this mentality of "Oh we need these agri-companies to invest in pesticide technology in order to have better crop yields." But going onto farms that are permaculture-based which don't use these pesticides or chemical fertilizers, do you see that those farmers are having outbreaks in pest problems, or struggling to increase yields without the GE seeds and solution-fertilizers?
To answer your first question, I feel like the people that have that attitude about pesticides and GMOs saving the world don’t care to change they way they are living. They are generally not open to hearing the other side because it is not convenient for them to switch, so trying to explain it to them is usually not successful. If someone wants to learn, I’m more than happy to talk to them about what my opinion is. With regards to the second question, I have not seen that. And again I've done the visits, I've gone out to these farms and I see the effort that they've put in, and it’s working. The reality is that another big part of the equation is the soil. The soil has to be strong - it has to be nutrient dense. And you brought up the idea of polyculture where you're doing crop rotation which is also very, very important. Because a strong plant will be able to fight off disease, and will be able to fight off pests. Pests actually only go after weak plants, so if the soil is weak, the plants will be weak, and the pests will come. And again I'm not a farmer, but these are the things that I've read, and these are the things that I've seen. You actually get better tasting and better yielding crops.
You mentioned an initiative you hope to implement if Nourish continues in its success: bringing families out from their homes and onto farms to meet with the farmer and a chosen chef. They would handpick their preferred vegetables and consult with the chef on how best too cook them into a dish. They'd make an entire afternoon of it for some family fun. Is this something you still see as a future possibility?
Yeah that's definitely my plan - the ultimate goal is to create a not-for-profit business from Nourish Vancouver that would facilitate that experience for as many families as I can, right across Vancouver. To be able to have them come out, meet the farmer, talk to the farmer, interact with them and find out what it means to get down on your hands and knees and weed. To harvest something, to look at the soil, to touch the soil, to understand what compost is, and how that whole breakdown of the nutrients happens: the role of the worms, the whole entire cycle. If people understand how much effort goes into it and how much work goes into it, they will look at this organic community and they'll say “Yes, I support organic farming.” I feel like there are too many people out there that don't cook anymore. There are a lot of people in my generation that I know who have no clue how to cook a single meal. They know how to warm up things, they know how to open jars, and boil a couple ingredients, but they don't know how to make anything from scratch: from raw vegetables into something tasty.
And you know, it's upsetting to me to know that about this generation - my generation (I'm generation X) - but then the millennials, in my mind, they’re even worse off. They're even further away from food because they were raised by people who were very used to eating TV dinners and processed food, so it becomes this unfortunate cycle. I want to bring that back and be able to say, “Okay, you know what parents? You probably don't know how to cook, but that's fine. Let's go to the farm, we'll bring your kids, pick the vegetables, bring them to a kitchen with a chef, and we'll give you a very simple recipe. We’ll cook it together and we'll have two or so hours together of farming, cooking, and eating.
It's just how I see we can fix all these problems that are going on with health and with family issues. I would like to be able to offer that opportunity for people to come out and spend that time together. And if you do that four weeks in a row, all of a sudden you have four recipes, and you end up keeping those for life. You can always make that stew together, or that soup together, or that lasagna together, and it just becomes this time where you create new ties to your family, but also to food. And those things will last forever. We talked a little bit about the politics and the difficulty in trying to make change at that government level, but I really feel like along with that, if we make the change on a family level, those things will definitely happen. If they decide, “Okay we're going to change the labelling laws. We're going to require labelling of GMOs on packaging,” and those families still don't know how to cook, or even understand what that GMO labelling means, not much will change.
So did you particularly want to open up in a financial district? Because Vancouver's Commercial Drive, and maybe the Kitsilano or West End neighbourhoods might be more conducive to this type of business venture: an organic-food, stop-in cafe.
I did. Busy professionals working in this area are in my mind the most important demographic. They have the most disposable income and therefore this is the group that will move the needle the most. If this group makes the change to organic we will be in a good place.
And as you were saying before, just by being in a place that doesn't have great food options, it might even open up people’s interest. Those who don't know much about organic or permaculture concepts yet.
Exactly. One of my most important goals was that I wanted to make really great tasting food. And I was one of those people; I was one of those people that assumed that good, or healthy, food wasn't necessarily great tasting. There was this buffer to say, “Well of course it's not going to taste as good - it's healthy." But I wanted to create food that was in fact very good, but also healthy. And I think that was my vehicle to get people interested in it. I've done a lot of tasters, and there are a lot of people who say, "I've never even eaten a salad as a meal. Salads are a side, you know, right next to the burger." The concept just never even occurred to them. Hopefully we can change this. If we eat more plant-based meals, the world becomes a better place.
Because you can add so much to a salad - it's not just iceberg lettuce anymore.
Exactly. It's not just that garden salad with your Italian dressing and maybe some flavourless tomatoes. Salads have come a long way from what they were ten years ago. And with the popularity of amazing ancient grains like quinoa and millet, and then roasting and mixing in some starchy vegetables like butternut squash, you can make a very healthy, great tasting, and filling meal without needing all the other mains on your plate.
I agree. I myself even find that a lot of people think that healthy is flavourless, or "I won't ever be full if I just have a salad". Why do you think that people have that idea - Or why did you have it yourself?
Just from experience - I've had that garden salad with just a bunch of iceberg lettuce, a couple uncooked tomatoes, and maybe some cucumbers, and after eating it I still felt hungry. I didn't feel great. My menu is an example that you can make these amazing salads that are filling, that taste amazing, that have complexity to them, have different textures to them, that always have some sort of crunch in them - whether it's roasted chickpeas, or lentils, or whether it's sliced and slivered almonds. There are so many different things that you can do with vegetables, nuts, and grains that can make amazing meals. And so until you're actually exposed to them, you won't know. And I wasn't exposed to them and so I was one of those people. Everything that I ate revolved around an animal, but now I'm enlightened and I love it.
Just yesterday I had a food blogger come in, and I reached out to her because if you looked at her blog, it's french fries, wings, these luscious, gorgeous, desserts - which of course there's a place for those. But she ate a salad of ours and she said, "I've never eaten a salad before, and this is something I'd definitely order again". And just getting that sort of response from someone who, again, has never touched it, and all of a sudden they're thinking, “Yes. This is amazing, I love this.” It makes you feel good, and to know that I am making a change. There's another person that wrote to me - admittedly she’s a carnivore. Everything that she eats has to revolve around meat. And now she regularly orders one of our salads, the Bangkok Quinoa Salad. And she said "I don't order it with any meat, I order it vegetarian, and I love it as is. It's enough! And it fills me up; the chickpeas are great, and the quinoa gives me the protein, and I just feel amazing after.” And when I get testimonials like that after only three months, I’m like "Yes! This is what I was going after. This was my hope." And after three years, I'm going to have hundreds of those stories to tell. And after ten years, I'm going to have thousands. And that's the mission.
Touching back on the difficulty of non-profits wanting to help but who have to simply hope that the government will put public dollars towards social programs - we find that this is very often not the case. Many people spend hours writing for grants from the government and then just cross their fingers that they'll get it - just to help others. So with small businesses like Nourish and perhaps even other corporations (like Patagonia focusing on environmental activism) do you think that Capitalism is always bad, or can it be a force for good? To free up the funds to an individual like yourself who wants to take poor families out to cook wholesome meals with those profits.
Yeah, I feel like the model is that if it's going to be a socially aware enterprise then it definitely has to be non-profit. If you're not, then you're taking advantage. And I think that's the wrong way to look at it and that's why a lot of these companies or groups can only get so far. Their hands are tied by the allowed income the government wants to give and they can only do so much. So if you tie in some sort of intelligent business model - find a need, supply the demand, put out a fair price, then use that money to do whatever you want: you can give it away, you can put it towards the research you want, or give it back to farmers. Whatever it may be, you now have that choice, that power. And we do live in a capitalist society - that's the reality of it. Why not use that for good?
So that's the model that I've chosen to go after. In the end I’ve decided I won't ask for grants from the government, and I won’t ask for donations. I hope to make a successful company for a niche. There’s a need; I feel that there's definitely a need for it in the downtown core. Health conscious people who don't have enough time, who can afford it, and who want it. They actually want to be healthy, and they want to help support farmers who grow tasty vegetables. And this is great [because] they get what they want and I'm getting what I want: monetizing a company that will eventually turn around and give back to the community, create community programs that will make for a better Vancouver, and a better BC. I look at companies like Toms and I use them as an example of what I would love to do, and they've done that. They've taken something that people need, that people did choose, created a pricing model that's affordable, and then also that facilitates social responsibility. They help others that are in need and that's the model I'm going after.
I agree - it's getting away from the idea that all people are greedy and that all capitalism is profit-driven only for the self or for shareholders. It shows the good in others that I believe is more common than we think, especially seeing business owners like we're seeing today. And it's a new concept to me because I used to believe profoundly in big government as the only solution. So was it easy to find people to hire who also believed fundamentally in these concepts?
Yeah it's been great actually with hiring. When I started off it was just myself; I was doing the cooking, I was getting on my bike, delivering the food, and then in the afternoons I would do business development. I would get on the phone and I would call people. I would just call anyone that I knew - whether it was a friend, a relative, a business partner, a client that I had from my previous job. I was just trying to get in front of people, trying to get them to taste my food - just to test the food. And so I was offering it for a very, very low price and just doing it all by myself.
But it got to a point where one day I missed something. There was a meeting and a big order that I completely forgot about. And I felt terrible. I couldn't do anything about it because I had already left the kitchen and I was at another client’s site delivering, and I was just about to walk into a room of 15 people and do a lunch-in, and so there was no way that I could leave those people, go back, make those meals, and then come back in time. So it felt horrible. I came out of that meeting, called my wife and I was very upset. Extremely upset. And I said I don't know what to do. I had that terrible feeling in my stomach - that really sick feeling. I was finally getting some traction - people actually ordering from me and I screwed it up. And so my wife tried to console me, "It's okay, you're taking on a lot.. " And suddenly I was like, "You know what - I can't even talk about it right now, I have to go get more produce for another big order tomorrow." And so I left and I ended up going to the Farmer's Market. I went to one of the farms that I work with quite closely - Cropthorne Farms. I love them, I love the produce, and I love their system. And one of their part-time workers had heard about my company, and she was just at the end of her job because it was October and all the summer markets were ending. She said to me, "I heard about your company and I'm really interested in working for you." And this was literally 45 minutes after my wife told me "You know what Dan? You need to get some help. You're trying to do too much." The timing was just impeccable. So I asked her, "Well what do you do?" And she said “I'm a food blogger, I'm a Holistic Nutritionist, a photographer, and I just love cooking local food. And it was the perfect marriage of her interests and passions with those of mine, and it came at this perfect time. And I said [laughing] "Can we talk later today? I have to go back to the kitchen and cook."
So obviously I hired her right away after we did get to talk. And then another on my staff--I got invited to Sole Food Farm's Long Table Dinner. So I'm there, there's no set seating and a bunch of long tables. I sit down with a buddy of mine to chat and across from me there’s a group of people - one of them happened to be Danielle. And she sits down with her food, introduces herself and we start chatting. It turns out that she's been interning at Sole Foods, and this is just a week after I hired Melissa (who I just talked about). Danielle asked, "What do you do?" And I explained to her my company and right away she said, "That sounds amazing. I'm looking for a job; I just graduated from SFU and I would love to work for you." So we set up a meeting and I ended up hiring her as well.
So when I thought about the staff and how I wanted to build this company - who I wanted to hire - I definitely didn't want to just hire someone with this amazing resume of restaurants. I wanted to hire people who were passionate about organic food, local food, and who cared about the environment. And those two people fell exceptionally into that category. And they're great people. So that sort of mentality and passion is the backbone of this company. I've gone on to hire a couple more people as well - there is actually this site FoodWork.ca, and actually Goodwork.ca too which are sites that - I don't know if you've heard of them --
No I' haven't...
It's companies that are looking for people who are focused and have that mentality. The people I've hired from those sites, they ride their bikes around town, they eat organic, buy from Farmer's Markets - it's just ingrained in them. It's what they're all about anyways, I don't need to sell it to them. And when they come to work it's not about just chopping vegetables, cleaning vegetables, washing dishes, and making these salads. It's about what it represents. It represents us moving this organic ideal forward and allowing people to be more informed. So it all happened organically - pardon the pun - I wasn't looking directly for these people, but they fit the model perfectly and it just happened.
Cool Stuff - I'm excited for Nourish. Thank you for your time Dan.
Capture Queue is a one woman team, so it's always greatly appreciated if readers feel inclined to bring my attention to any typos or corrections.