its no secret that i’ve been madly in love with food for years. it’s all i think about, talk about, learn about; it’s my favourite thing to shop for and give to people. over the years i’ve wanted to meet all of the other people who care about food as deeply as i do – the ones who know that food is much more than something to instagram. i wanted to get to know the people who own the places i frequent: my butcher, my fish monger, the farmers at the markets, my favourite bakeries and restaurant owners, and i thought you might want to get to know them too! it’s important to learn about the food you’re buying and where it comes from, and i’m super excited to share their stories and food philosophies with you.
to kick of the series, i sat down with spencer, one of the founders of bespoke butchers. bespoke is located right in liberty village, and i’ve shopped there consistently since they opened in the space almost 3 years ago. last summer i read eating animals by jonathan safran foer, which really opened my eyes to the meat industry, and resulted in huge shift in my own cooking philosophy. since sustainable meat has been the biggest influencer in my cooking ideals in the last year, i thought there couldn’t be a better person to learn more about than my local butcher, spencer. read on for my conversation with spencer, don’t forget to follow them on instagram, and pop into the shop to pick up some of their amazing products and learn more about sustainable farming.
aleshia: tell me about yourself and why you started bespoke
spencer: so my background is actually not formally in food, i went to school for music, specifically jazz, and then i actually did my business degree, so i was interested in something totally different. i’ve always liked food, i think if you read a lot of interviews about anyone in the industry they’ll usually kind of market it back to growing up with your grandparents, and i actually was raised by my grandparents, so i had that time in the kitchen with my grandmother, but how i started with bespoke was i was actually working for a non-profit that does retrofitting for toronto community housing. i did that for 4 years and more or less what it encompassed was looking at energy savings and loss in low income communities and after 4 years of managing environmental projects, and at the same time i was reading a lot about sustainable agriculture, because we had to calculate things like cubes of gas saved, kilowatt hours, so it really made me aware of the impact on the environment. so, i had an old roommate that started working on this project [bespoke] and then my best friend, matt came in and took it over. it was just him and i for about a year, and we started to look at the transparency in the industry. it’s a very unregulated industry with a lot of miscommunication, so the reason we really started it is because fundamentally we believe that famers should make a good living, and we frequently take lower margins on our products to support farmers that do that, and also for animal ethics and welfare. we’re also big on supporting farmers with the lowest impact on the environment; farmers that aren’t buying or trading a lot for over seas producing high carbon emissions and ones who are basically doing circular agriculture, and growing the things they need to put back into their own system.
a: how did you source your famers and learn about their practices; how did you learn the most you could about their practices, environmental impact and animal husbandry practices?
s: so, it came from a couple different ways, i think that once you get out there, and you have this idea that this is what you want to do, you do some research, you find some people it just comes together. and honestly, with a lot of the best farmers the problem will always be logistics, but we started to meet one or two farmers at farmers markets, and then we meet one or two people from within the industry and they’re like, “i know x and x mennonite cooperative”, and then we make a habit of touring the farms that we buy from about every two weeks (in the summer). so even last summer we took out the old chef from canoe to rolling acres farm, just outside of stratford, which is nice because we’re introducing him to the producers of his chicken, whereas before, it’s like, you know this is kind of expensive, but when you meet sandy and mike and shake their hand and you see what they’re doing, when i had to make a small raise in price for sandy and mike, he was like, okay, i totally understand – i see what they’re doing, and it puts it into perspective. so anyway, while we were up there, this farmer comes across the street and he has a cattle farm, and we start talking to him for about an hour and it kind of just snowballs from there. the other way it happens is with the abattoir (slaughterhouse). animal welfare should go all the way to the end, straight to the abattoir, so they’re actually putting through their animals in succession, they’re not rushing them, etc, so the abattoir where we process our poultry, i can call him up and say, “i need chicken” and he knows what i’m interested in and he can also put me in touch with people. so it’s a network of people, once you start getting into it you just meet people so easily. most people who do this are doing it because they really care, it’s never something like, i want to retire on this, it’s always because they’re passionate.
a: can you tell me a bit about the key practices of the farms you source your meat from?
s: circular agriculture is one of them, growing their own products, crop rotation; we believe in pastoral raising. we do not push nor do we intensely desire anything certified organic. our chicken is, but for the most part we feel like the animal living off the land that is naturally grown and agriculturally sustained shouldn’t require much else. so you know when an animal is eating off the land, it is going to be eating what it need when it needs it, and that’s one of the most important things to us, and we try to maintain that. also, our farmers have relationships with their animals – i’ll be honest, most of them are not going to name their animals, but they care, they care a lot. it’s very important to us that they care from beginning to end. especially because if you have an animal that has a natural diet, that has been well cared for right up until the end of its life, it’s just going to taste better. you make a contract with the animal: i’m going to take your life, but i’m going to take care of you.
a: i find it hard to educate people on the benefits of eating sustainable meat – people are so disconnected from the process of farming that animals simply thought of commodities. how do you feel like you’re impacting and educating people on the benefits?
s: well, if someone is primarily concerned with money, i probably wont try and bark up that tree, but it mostly comes conversationally and anecdotally when people ask me what i do, and then i start to talk about it and it sort of evolves from there. eating sustainably and ethically obviously is very hard even with what we do, obviously nothing is 100% perfect, but it’s fairly conversational. it goes like, well if you’re buying this, you’re buying that – i don’t like to use any types of scare tactics or shock value, but if they really want to push me and ask me about it i’ll certainly give them the answers. but, i think sometimes people find it funny that i would care about some of those things yet be a butcher – there’s a sort of disconnect in people’s minds, but still most of the time i just try and talk to people about what they eat and why. most of the time if it’s people coming into the store, they’re coming to us with a lot of questions, obviously we’re in a neighbourhood so people from around here are always coming into the shop to ask questions. we also get a lot of people that travel to visit us, so there’s definitely a certain number of people that come to us with their own curiosity. we’re a very solid family, we’ve grown out from a very small group, but we’ve got a lot of really dedicated people and we’re all close friends and we’re all in it for the same reason, so just about anyone on our staff can answer just about any question because we’re usually talking about it amongst ourselves anyway. so we’ve become a place where you can just come and discuss things and be educated – it’s not always “this is the way it is and this is what you need to be doing”, it’s always a discussion.
a: i’m glad to hear that people are coming in and asking questions and genuinely interested, especially in this area. i mean, liberty village doesn’t seem too concerned about sustainable eating [laughs]
s: you’re right, i’ve seen a lotttt of boneless skinless chicken breasts here. and i do find that one of the saddest things is people saying “oh i don’t eat meat, i only eat chicken”, i’m like first of all chicken is meat, second of all i ask why, and they’ll say oh because of animal ethics, and it’s like… chicken is by far the worst treated animal, especially in ontario where we have things like chicken quota systems. so when i hear that kind of thing, that’s often when i meet them at a party and they say something like that, i will start to tell them about certain things and just say, consider it for a minute, that you’ve made this decision and it sounds like you really haven’t put any research into it at all. i don’t see a lot of people really devoting that much time into finding out about where their meat comes from, because mostly they don’t want to know. but there are some of the people that do want to have a trusting transparent relationship with their butcher. the thing that’s most important is you should be trying to support the farmers that do things well, and you should cast a vote instead of just turning a blind eye. even though you can’t do everything all the time, it still helps.
we kind of came into this area in our retail store thinking we could bring in grass fed beef, or whatever once or twice a week, people would love it and want to be educated and that would be the business, but we found that the restaurant business ended up being a bigger customer of ours. they already work in the trade, there is definitely a shift in not having massive plates of food and serving something smaller that’s of better quality. so that’s where things picked up, and they’ve been able to transfer those values to their serving staff, which would then go on the menu, and then to the customer and that’s how people are getting more interested.
a: if you could eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
s: i’m from an irish family, so i’d have to say braised lamb shanks. lamb is definitely my favourite protein. lamb and duck.