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Chef's Table: Gidget's Bistro joins the plant-based food revolution

It’s Tuesday afternoon. The odd snowflake flutters to the ground and chilly Arctic air swirls dry leaves around the Campbell Business Park parking lot.

Enter Gidget’s Bistro, a warm cosy contrast especially with a glass showcase filled with gooey brownies, double rise cinnamon buns or melt-in-your-mouth lemon and lavender cake – whatever owner Gidget Bouchard bakes on any given day.

A long-time advocate of plant-based food, Bouchard’s vegan menu is packed with comfort food. It displays traditional dishes such as burgers, sandwiches, lasagna, French Canadian shepherd’s pie and chicken potpie – all minus meat, eggs and dairy.

“This is not a trend, but an evolution as people are becoming aware of alternative ways of eating,” said Bouchard, a petite bubbly cook who radiates a sunny aura.

She is adamant that a plant-based diet is not simply a cultural fad. Aside from the moral and ethical standpoint, Bouchard wants to present healthy food served in a feel-good, fun and sociable atmosphere.

Despite a provincial economy in freefall where restaurant attendance has dropped steadily, she resigned from a permanent teaching position at École Secondaire Sainte Marguerite d’Youville to launch the eatery.

Bouchard had read a World Health Organization report stating that by 2050, the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion. Currently over 1 billion people lack food, and the numbers are spiking.

“As populations grow, there is only so much space we can give up to raise animals. As the demand increases, we will put a strain on the global food supply. The strain is already causing difficulties with food democracy and we are creating food segregation.”

“It could be we weed ourselves out by our actions, government policies and how we treat the environment and the planet. For me, that (report) was not only a turning point to focus on plant-based food for myself, but to offer plant-based food on a larger scale.”

Fifty years ago, veganism in Alberta was a fringe movement, an animal rights activism-driven community. There were virtually no restaurants and plant-based food was relatively uninspired.

As the 21st century faces new challenges, plant-based cuisine is enjoyed by a broad cross-section of people. It has gone mainstream as restaurants, food trucks and festivals are popping up to meet the demand with more options than a tofu salad or roasted broccoli.

Millennials have been the largest group contributing to this cultural shift. This large group is one of the biggest users of social media absorbing the amount of critical mass information online. Social media data spreads quickly and it’s given users the tools to make informed lifestyle choices.

Bouchard, like most Canadians, was born in a meat and potatoes family from Ontario’s French River-Sudbury area. They moved to Burlington around 1963, where the family patriarch worked on the line at Oakville’s Ford Motor Company, a 10-minute commute.

Bouchard’s mother, Lorraine, was hired in several food service businesses: a confectionary shop, restaurant and as a nursing home cook. By the time she was six, Bouchard was helping in the kitchen.

“My first memory of baking by myself was when I was eight. It was my mom’s 30th birthday and I made a vanilla cake with icing and chocolate chips. I wanted it to be a surprise. I didn’t know where to hide it from mom. So I put it in the floor of or our closet. Joanne (my sister) and I shared a bedroom. In the morning Joanne woke up and went to look at herself in the mirror in the closet. She stepped in the cake. We had to cut around it to eat it up,” laughs Bouchard.

As a teen, Bouchard attended a Francophone high school and joined the math club, the debating team and the yearbook club. Her next big step was graduating from the University of Ottawa holding an honours degree in political science.

Upon her graduation in 1989, the Ontario economy tanked and a political science degree attracted few job offers. Her next best option was a position with the Ministry of Education’s human resources division.

At the time, Alberta was the land of milk and honey and Bouchard moved west. Her husband’s family owned a quick service restaurant franchise in the region. For the next 24 years, Bouchard developed experience in every aspect of the food industry from management and human resources to bookkeeping and serving.

Bouchard’s foray into plant-based dining occurred after Joanne shifted from being a vegetarian to a vegan lifestyle.

“I didn’t like the slaughter and abuse of animals,” said Joanne, an ESSMY school office support worker and an animal rights activist.

“I feel pigs and cows are on the same level as dogs and cats. I don’t believe in the torture and mistreatment of animals. To me, an animal is a sentient being. Animals are not just here for our food consumption. They are here to enjoy life as we do.”

Bouchard always cooked for Joanne and started adapting her mother’s recipes to fit her sister’s diet.

“When Joanne switched, I couldn’t stand the taste of vegan food. It was pasty even 15 years ago. But with research and development, and with companies understanding we are depleting our animal protein supply, it’s changing,” Bouchard said.

She cites Maple Leaf, a major meat processor, as an example of a large corporation investing millions into the plant-based food sector. In fact, Maple Leaf’s website now advertises the company as “a leading consumer protein company”.

The human species has always survived through innovation. Major shifts are underway in how people think about food and how it’s produced.

Bouchard believes plant-based food is the recipe for a sustainable future, and she’s turning Gidget’s Bistro into a reality.

Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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