Teaching respect for food

Liz Campbell talks to chef and beekeeper Ian Lai, a man on a mission to educate children about the origins of food


Ian Lai has the full attention of a group of elementary school students who watch, rapt, as he explains about drones, queens and workers. He’s waving his arms and buzzing, elaborating how queens are fed. The children listen intently, throwing out questions, which he answers good-naturedly. Lai is in his element here.

But Ian Lai is indeed a chef; he describes this as his second life. His previous one included stints at the five-diamond kitchens of the Four Seasons Hotel, Vancouver, and as resident chef at the Consulate General of the United States, all before he was 40. The next logical step should have been a much-hyped, eponymous restaurant.

But in 2006, Lai happily traded chef’s whites for T-shirts printed with the words “learn, grow, nourish”. Now he describes himself with words such as “environmentalist, weaver, fermenter, beekeeper, climber, teacher… and chef”.

The sweep of his arm encompasses a view of tended plots, fields and snow-capped mountains in the distance – a peaceful, pastoral landscape only a short distance from the bustling city. “This area once belonged to the Musqueam people. For me it’s sacred. This was a gathering place where they met, talked and traded,” he explains. “We’re teaching in the present so the children can take that learning into the future. But we also have to link to the past and respect it.”

After class, the students line up for a taste of the honey from a toothpick poked into the comb, then disperse to gather their belongings and walk back to school. They are just a few of the 1,500 children who enjoy the benefits of the Richmond Schoolyard Society, in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, a project Lai created to help children to understand the origins of the food they eat.

 Kids are doing it for themselves

“The earlier we start teaching them the better,” says Lai. “The children come about 10 times a year during three years of their elementary school life. By the second year, they’re starting to get it and by the third, they’re really getting it.”

It is respect for the world, environmental responsibility and stewardship, as well as a new awareness of exactly what they put into their young bodies. “When they come here they have to respect themselves, the people around them, and the garden. They grow food – sometimes stuff they’ve never seen before. They have to return all the tools they use. They have to be responsible for what they do. And they taste what they grow,” he explains. “It’s funny, even if it’s new to them or has a weird taste, they think it’s the best. That’s because they have a vested interest in it because they grew it themselves. They got their hands dirty.”

In the kitchen the children learn to bake bread from wheat grown in the garden, or prepare couscous with fruit, vegetables and herbs they grow themselves, and chili from beans they have harvested. “They’re only allowed to taste one spoonful of it, but if they like it they can line up for more,” Lai says, adding with a twinkle, “That makes it special. I’ve never had anyone not line up for more.”

Lai also teaches at Northwest Culinary Academy in nearby Vancouver. Indeed, it was discovering that his students – future chefs – really didn’t understand the origins of their food that sparked his initial enthusiasm for this project. His culinary students today are much more environmentally conscious than those early ones, he says, but he’s hoping the younger generations he’s teaching now will be even more aware. “I wanted to go back to the foundation of their understanding of food,” he explains. “I’m hoping these kids will grow up knowing what good food is and wanting to eat it.”

 Feeding young minds

It seems to be working. “I give talks in high schools and I’ve had students come up and tell me they were in our programme a couple of years ago. Many of them are now in clubs or taking courses related to the environment,” he says with pride. “Parents tell me about the effect on their children. I even had one parent tell me their son has started cooking at home. I remember that boy; he was a handful.”

Since its inception, the Schoolyard Project has grown to encompass a 5,000 sq ft garden, a teaching kitchen and a collection of beehives that Lai looks after himself. He is even breeding queen bees to sell on the internet to help finance the programme, which currently works on donations and support from groups such as the Richmond Community Foundation and local governments.

Richmond is an ideal spot for such a project. The climate is favourable so the children’s gardens can support two simple crops each growing season, allowing more children a hands-on opportunity. Each child gets one square metre of garden to plant and manage.

While these students represent many different cultural backgrounds, Richmond is predominantly Asian, with every part of that continent represented. And for most Asians, the culture is one of dining out and sharing food. Indeed, the number of local restaurants reflect this.

For example, one short stretch of road locally, featuring more than 200 restaurants – Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, Malaysian – has been dubbed “Wai Sek Kai” (Food Street) by locals. In this milieu, most of Lai’s students will become cosmopolitan diners, but Lai wants them to really connect to the food they eat and be willing to try new foods. “After they’ve been through our programme, they’re much more likely to taste first,” he says, handing me a flatbread from the barbeque.

I taste. Smoky and lightly charred, it’s filled with pumpkin seeds and cranberries, and spread with a pesto of nettles and sunflower seeds. Topped with one of his pickled garlic scapes, it’s delicious and like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. It’s small wonder the students love coming here.

 Honouring the environment

Two jobs might seem more than enough for one man but Lai also puts his energy into the David Suzuki Foundation, Canada’s foremost environmental conservation organisation. Lai is their seafood ambassador and works hard to promote the Ocean Wise program which encourages both the public and chefs to use sustainably harvested seafood.

Through all this, his approach to food and cooking has moved a long way from his early gourmandise. Indeed, he seems to reflect the ethos of a growing number of chefs and the diners who patronise their restaurants. “Pretentious food no longer holds a place at my table. Ostentatious menus and contrived food is no longer food; it is art, a luxury that is beyond the reach of most pockets. Nature provides us with raw ingredients that are perfect. Why taint them?” Lai has said. “I believe that food needs to be eaten with appreciation and reverence to those who prepared, harvested, procured, fished and farmed what is on the plate before us.”

Liz Campbell