by Joshna Maharaj

Ruth Klahsen and friend. Photo: John Gundy

When I pulled into the parking lot of the Fesitval Theatre in Stratford last Sunday morning, there was a lamb spinning on a spit, two caja chinas with beautiful white coals, and a large smoker and three grills waiting patiently at attention. A handful of chefs were milling around watching the fires, quite happily standing in the light rain that was casting a bit of gloom on the morning.

Inside the kitchen was another small team of chefs and a whole lot of meat. Sausages were being linked, and a gorgeous porchetta was being tied up to be skewered up with two pork legs, then sent on a slow roasting, smoky spin to being ready for lunch.

We were expecting about 750+ people, all shareholders of Monforte Dairy, to celebrate the success of the dairy and the cheese CSA that they all have helped to support. And we were all there to celebrate the brilliance of the vision of the unflappable Ruth Klahsen, the founder of Monforte Dairy. At the last report, there were 800 members, with investments totalling almost $400 000, which is an incredible success for this very young and innovative concept. Part of the deal with Monforte cheese subscriptions includes an annual town hall meeting, and a hootenanny, or great big party!

The group of more than 20 city chefs was divided into two teams: lamb and pork. Each chef contributed one dish to the spread of salads, soups, beans and chutneys that accompanied the animals. I was on team lamb, and it is always so joyful to witness a group of chefs come together to produce something that is truly a collective effort. Cowbell’s Mark Cutrara, the AGO’s Martha Wright and All the Best’s Olivia Bolano were part of team pork, who, with members of their kitchen teams butchered three pigs, prepared cuts for roasting and made the most delicious sausages with the rest!

On team lamb, The Wine Bar’s Scott Vivian grilled lamb legs, while The Drake’s Chris Sanderson tended to the lamb on the spit and the caja china with Amuse Bouche’s Bertrand Alepée and Jason Inniss. Upstairs in the theatre lobby, I was draping brown paper over tables with Le Petit Dejuner’s Johan Maes and the Stein girls, while the band (appropriately named Milk Run) set up and started playing. Palais Royale’s Steffan Howard was portioning out a beautiful sunchoke salad, winemakers were steadily arriving and setting up their stations, a crew was working to slice the many loaves of bread baked for the event, and of course, the mighty Arlene Stein was co-ordinating the whole project.

As guests started arriving kegs were tapped and corks were popped! Lineups formed at food tables and chefs wheeled in the most delicious smelling, beautifully caramelized pieces of lamb and pork, which they carved at the stations. I served Amuse Bouche’s couscous beside Chippy’s John Lee, who served The Drake’s baked beans, and kept me giggling the whole time.

Of course, there was a mighty cheese station, and an equally mighty line-up to get there, as well as Monforte’s Buff-a-Latto ice cream, and some heavenly sheep’s milk panna cotta made by The Wine Bar’s Rachelle Vivian. Parents and kids danced to music, people laughed and chatted, enjoying the food, the wine and the beautiful celebration of our friends at Monforte. At one point we even stopped to sing happy birthday to our dear Ruth, as if there weren’t already so many things to celebrate!

When Ruth got up to speak to the crowd, she said that she felt like “the luckiest girl in the world” to be where she is, surrounded by such a supportive community. I looked around the room to see chefs, winemakers, servers, dining room managers, volunteers, photographers and artisanal cheese enthusiasts, who were all there because of Ruth. So many of our crew from restaurants had worked Saturday night service, and were exhausted and bleary eyed on this Sunday morning, but they were there, helping to pull off this meal, because they really loved Ruth and what was happening at Monforte.

As I drove back into the city on Monday morning with a carful of leftovers for my pals at The Stop, I was so proud and thankful to be a part of this food community. I love the fact that we take care of each other like this, and rally around each other when one of us needs help. A really thriving, sustainable food culture relies on interdependence, both on the land and among the people who work on the farms and in kitchens and dining rooms. We need each other, and will be greater together than any one of us will be alone. The sheer success of Monforte’s CSA is stunning evidence of this. Congratulations, Ruth…we believe in you, and we love your chutzpah, and your delicious cheese!

Joshna Maharaj is passionately committed to good food and ideas of sustainability. An active member of Slow Food, and dedicated food activist, she works to promote the awareness of the power of food to nurture, build and strengthen communities. Photo: John Gundy.