Sustainable Sparks: Executive Chef Oliver De Volpi on farm to table and back again

Learn about the details on your plate and the changing landscape of sustainability in dining services with Executive Chef and co-founder of the McGill Feeding McGill initiative Oliver De Volpi
“I promise you that there’s no better tomato than the ones you eat from Mac farm here in the dining halls come September,” says McGill’s Executive Chef, Oliver De Volpi. “You just can’t beat it.” Ben Joppke

There are few departments more involved in McGill students day-to-day than Food and Dining Services. From breakfast to dinner and everything in between, Executive Chef Oliver De Volpi is certainly a busy man.

But beyond feeding 40,000 students at six locations, De Volpi has his sights set on another goal: to encourage and use as much local food as possible.

De Volpi began his journey at McGill as Executive Chef in 2009 and has not stopped transforming sustainability and food systems on campus since. Beyond creating engagement opportunities and workshops for students and working with campus stakeholders to achieve Fair-Trade Campus certification, De Volpi was instrumental in creating the McGill Feeding McGill Initiative; a project which brings produce, eggs, and beef from the Macdonald Campus farm to the downtown dining halls.

Learn what De Volpi has to share about food sustainability on campus.

Tell us about your role at McGill. How did sustainability become a part of discussion around dining services?

I have been a chef in the food industry for nearly 20 years. The last couple of years before coming to McGill, I had started prioritizing local cuisine and trying to pull in Quebec products in the different kitchens I worked in.

When I started at McGill, it was our goal to bring the flavours of Montreal to the University, so the whole food service team started playing with increasing local and more sustainable food service. It isn’t always easy, but I really believe in everything we are doing. The same products I buy here, I buy at home.

Tell us about McGill Feeding McGill. How did this initiative come to be, and why is it so important?

McGill Feeding McGill started, partly, by chance. When I first joined [Food and] Dining Services, I visited all the locations that we were serving food. When I was being shown around Mac, we went to the Mac Market. The person who was showing me around asked me, “What [can] you guys get here that you serve downtown?” and that’s when it clicked that we needed to start this right away. Three weeks after that, Mike Bleho, the horticultural supervisor at Mac, was delivering tomatoes and watermelons in the back of a pickup truck. And that’s how it started. We didn’t worry about logistics at first; we just knew we wanted to get the food on campus, and from there it’s really snowballed.

From a sustainability perspective, this program just makes complete sense. We’re still buying the same products that we would be buying from big distributors, but we get to put that money back to McGill- and get better tasting food in the process.  It’s a win-win and the farm at Mac has been an incredible partner. I promise you that there’s no better tomato than the ones you eat from Mac farm here in the dining halls come September. You just can’t beat it.

What were some surprises that came alongside the McGill Feeding McGill Initiative?

I don’t think we really knew how much better some of the changes would be for everyone. One of the biggest examples of how much this [initiative] has saved in [environmental and financial] costs is how we get our eggs. Sometime during the project’s third year, Mike Bleho told me that the farm had eggs, and arranged the introductions between myself and Paul Meldrum, who manages the farms out at Mac

What we ended up realizing once we spoke is that Mac Campus was selling these eggs to the same distributor that we had been buying eggs from, which meant we may have been buying some of our own products the entire time. We were getting our own eggs back at a higher price, where they had to travel from Mac campus to the Quebec/Ontario border to be certified, and then to the distributor in Boucherville, and finally back to McGill, when the whole time they could have been coming straight to us. By cutting out this process, we were able to take the 250-kilometre distance these eggs travelled down to 38 kilometres. This also means that the Mac farm gets higher earnings because the distributor doesn’t take a cut, and the eggs we serve are much fresher.

Because of this change in demand, the Mac farm was able to get funding through the Sustainability Projects Fund so they could certify and grade their own eggs. From this tiny change, we cut back on emissions, created new research, education, and employment opportunities that didn’t exist before, and increased the revenue for the farm. It’s a smaller part of the project, but a perfect example of how creating these systems can save effort, money, time, and energy.

What are some challenges that lie ahead?  

One of the challenges has been finding a way to report on where our food is coming from. The food chain is so complex that it can be hard to find. Produce is the most clear, but even that is complicated. For example, our distributor will buy broccoli from Quebec since it’s in season for the next two or three months, then they’ll buy it down from Florida, then they’ll buy it from California, but the distributor  code is always the same. So, when we’re trying to report on where our broccoli is coming from, we have to re-trace when these changes happen. [This problem] gets worse than with things like chicken–it’s all very unclear and difficult to track. If we want to have a good sense of what needs to change, we need to be able to measure where we are, and that’s always been a major challenge.

The biggest challenge for sustainability [in dining] is that ultimately, my primary responsibility is to feed students with nutritious food at an affordable price. Hopefully that intersects with sustainability, but that’s the priority, and it impacts how much we can do.

When we talk about food security, we have to talk about the line between keeping food accessible and trying to push the boundaries of sustainable food production.  We’re a break-even department at McGill, and if you understand that that is how much it costs to make food and pay the employees who are serving you, then you just have to trust that we are doing the best we can.

What message do you want the McGill community to hear about actions individuals can take towards sustainability and dining right now?

One of the biggest things you can do is cut back on your meat consumption.  [At Food and Dining Services] we try to encourage people to do this with things like Meatless Mondays. Even if you eat just a smaller portion of meat than normal, you’ve had the same nutritional value from the meat, but the impact is smaller. We just need to cut back. If everyone cuts back, even just a little, we can make such a difference.

Another huge difference is choosing to shop local when you can. I think [summer] is the perfect time to start if you have never tried before because there are so many options. The best thing you can do is to start looking at when different foods are in season. The more you taste what fresh food is like, the less you will want it when it’s not in season.  Also, remember that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Obviously, the best local food you can get in Montreal is from Quebec, but food from Virginia is still more local – and a lot fresher – than food being shipped all the way South America or China. It’s all about striking a balance and thinking about where your food is coming from before you grab it off the shelf.

You can learn more about Food and Dining Service’s sustainability efforts here.