By Kyle Rooks
Steffen Marin (Artisanal Culinary Arts ’14, Fanshawe College) didn’t know it at the time, but enduring a bone-chilling winter working as a junior sous-chef at an Italian restaurant in Saskatchewan planted the seed for what is now growing into a successful and rewarding career.
“It was a terrible winter. I’m talking a total accumulation of over 100 centimetres of snow and temperatures as low as -50 degrees with the wind chill,” recalls the 22-year-old native of Mississauga, Ontario. “But it was a great experience because it pushed me to learn more and see beyond frozen boxes of meat ... to appreciate the importance of fresh food.”
It was that simple, yet powerful, recognition about the all-too-frequent lack of fresh food options that led Marin to realize his dream earlier this year of opening Heirloom, a Toronto-based food truck featuring a bold menu of fresh, locally-sourced food. “(Opening the food truck) is something I wanted so bad I could taste it,” says Marin, the sole-owner and chef, who had been working on the project for two years. “In the beginning I kept quiet about it because many people would have thought I was crazy.”
“I refused to let it go,” he says. “I wanted to pursue something that wouldn’t just help me grow as a cook, but also contribute to the field.”
His dream began to take shape when he enrolled in Fanshawe’s Artisanal Culinary Arts program, a unique one-year graduate program focused on a holistic farm-to-table approach to cooking that promotes local, seasonal and sustainable food production.
“When I came to Fanshawe, I didn’t even know how to hold a knife,” says Marin, who had previously graduated from Fanshawe’s two-year Culinary Management program and would later complete the Advanced Baker/Patissier program. He explains how daily field trips to farms around the region, getting his hands dirty working the on-campus vegetable garden and exploring his creativity in the kitchen – including a co-op at Calgary’s CHARCUT Roast House studying under one of Canada’s top chefs – gave him the knowledge, connections and confidence to pursue his passion.
“The faculty are like family to me because they showed me how to succeed,” he says. “I wouldn’t be in the position I am today without that program.”
Marin grows over 50 organic heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables in four garden plots – including a small plot in the backyard of his mother’s townhouse – and sources his meats, cheeses and other ingredients from local farmers and artisan producers around the Greater Toronto Area.
As a new entrepreneur committed to sustainable food, Marin’s focus is on growing strong relationships with those suppliers. “The most important aspect for me is connecting with local farmers and growing with them as I grow in the business,” he says.
While Marin admits his hands are full – between gardening, preparing the menu, and other day-to-day realities of small business ownership – he recognizes that it’s the quality of his food and the concept it represents that separates his product from traditional food truck fare. “At the end of the day, my customers can tell the difference,” he says. “Even though deep fried fish tacos are really good, there’s a big difference in terms of the quality and sustainability of the food.”
It’s a labour of love that’s paying off.
When he debuted Heirloom at the Field Trip at Fort York music and arts festival in June – serving up homemade chorizo sausages and braised lamb shank sandwiches – it took home the title of best new food truck. Aside from that recognition, Marin says what made the weekend special was seeing children run up to touch the carrots and other vegetables that adorn the side of the truck. “What I’m excited about is how the truck and my food can start a conversation, with people of all ages, about local farms and the importance of promoting sustainability within our environment,” he says. “I want to help further the knowledge of the great things that can be grown in Ontario.”
Heirloom’s early success has caught the attention of some festival organizers. Despite finalizing vendors months in advance, some organizers made last-minute exceptions after Marin sent a photo of the truck and an explanation of what he brings to the table. “They want to offer their customers something different,” he says.
In its inaugural season, Heirloom appeared at 35 events including an eclectic range of concerts and multi-day festivals. This fall, Steffen plans to spend three months backpacking around Europe helping farmers work their land and hopefully bring back ideas to improve his operation. “I still have so much more to learn,” he says.
Next year, he plans to hire his first employee and take Heirloom onto the streets of Toronto. He looks forward to what the future holds. “It can only get better and better,” he says, with a nod to his Fanshawe roots. “When I talk to the customers about my past and how I got here, Fanshawe always comes up first. That’s where this all started. It’s the best decision I’ve made yet.”
Reprinted with permission from Fanshawe College Alumni News. All rights reserved.