If there’s one thing immediately apparent upon meeting Mark Brand, it’s that he has an unquenchable passion for work. The West Coast chef is armed with an unparalleled sense of commitment, and he takes every task and challenge that presents itself — both culinary and otherwise — in his stride. The far harder proposition? Defining all he does, and all he is.
Because that list is lengthy. Brand could be described as an entrepreneur or an environmentalist. He could be deemed an agitator, a chef, or a community leader. Hell, throw DJ into the mix if you want, as he does that too. But, above all, Brand is a social advocate, and works tirelessly to achieve both sustainability and equality in food.
From the chef’s perspective, we’ve reached a critical juncture in our relationship with food. And, while it may be easy to let the divisions in the food industry — from educational disparity to the inconsistent quality of ingredients — tear us apart, Brand believes that we should fight for the resources necessary to bridge these gaps, wherever in the world they may be. And this, he says, all starts by establishing an open dialogue.
You wear many hats. Was there an adjustment period in balancing all of your responsibilities?
In a traditional business set-up, not only would it be challenging, it would be impossible. But the gifts I’ve been given to pursue the tools [required] are a direct result of having my teams lift me up and fill in the gaps. The second part is not buying into the systemic belief that we can only be great at one thing. We’re all polymaths. We’ve just been taught to neuter ourselves to make the machines work or to make others comfortable. Lastly, each of the “hats” points to the same thing: being in service to the community and breaking false narratives.
When you have to describe what you “do,” how do you put your work into words?
My work, our work, is in food justice, food sovereignty, system redesign, experiential advocacy, and educational reform, with each using food as the centre point. I think that question makes us all squirm a little. It used to give me anxiety until my dear friend, Holley M. Kholi-Murchison, spent time helping me refine it. Holley wrote a book titled Tell Me About Yourself that is a must-read for anyone who wants to communicate what they do without falling into the trap of feeling wildly braggadocious or, on the other side, downplaying their gifts.
You once said: “Food is our last best hope to stay connected as a global community.” In today’s hyper-polarized world, how vital has sharing culinary experiences become for society?
It’s everything. Or I should say it used to be, before we started playing God with the industrial complex, and food stopped being food. You know that feeling when you bite into a tomato that tastes like an actual tomato? Or a strawberry that’s actually sweet? Your whole body reacts distinctly; it’s soothed. Your eyes come back into focus, your breathing is easier, and you’re present. When you’re present, you can listen. You’re able to learn without being defensive, and you don’t have to be “right.” When the opposite is true, the opposite is true. That’s what our food system does to us now, along with the insane amounts of sugar and caffeine we ingest. It all plays a massive role in who we are and how we engage with each other. We are polarized and polarizing; there is no longer space for rational discussion and compromise. We need to get back to food and back to each other — more than ever.
Why do culinary experiences continue to bring people together? What makes them such a connecting force?
The key word there is “connecting.” We’re simultaneously the most connected and disconnected civilization that has ever existed. We’re omnipresent and completely distracted. We each exist digitally on a minimum of eight platforms each and we equate those to relationships. The critical issue is that hypertext is the devil when it comes to communication. Hearing me say this, you can detect the lightness, hope, and joy in my voice. Conversely, reading this, I could be heightened and yelling, sarcastic and condescending — really anything the reader decides or interprets based on their past, their biases, and their traumas. Our goal is to remove that disconnect and re-establish the human connection. Being in service to people who need us connects us like nothing else. It’s purpose beyond the noise. Nothing is ever going to replace being nourished and loved by somebody. There is nothing even remotely like it.
What was your main point of inspiration when it came to food? Who shaped your tastes?
Real food is my inspiration, from real people and real places, and teaching about it. I was incredibly lucky to have family members who were real cooks. One of my very first jobs was cooking at a pizza spot in the mall when I was 14 years old. I learned to make dough in a day, as anyone can, and it was so powerful. Cooking should be one of the very first things we all learn, as we learn to read and write, walk and talk. Cooking and understanding food should be right there. I’ve been working with school food and kids all over the world since 2013, and they don’t have any of the fears or the bullshit “I burn salad” mentality that grown folks have. They’ll cook a whole salmon at seven and think it’s cool as hell. They ask all the right questions. Food is power. Teaching people to have that power within their bodies, their wallets, their minds, and their families is my inspiration. The earlier the better.
What are some systemic changes Canada has to make to achieve greater food equality?
We genuinely don’t have time for this one! But let me take a deep breath and say: “Everything.” Literally, everything. From soil management to the protection and reconciliation of the land to food apartheid. Some prefer the term “food deserts,” but deserts naturally occur. Real food access being removed from areas of colour is apartheid. On top of that, there’s so much more to tackle. If I could snap my fingers, processed foods would be heavily regulated or disappear altogether and real food would be provided free to every human, with the government financing its production. Imagine the positive impact that would have on our hemorrhaging health-care systems. And we know the science. It’s all in our history or in the small towns where food is still food, and everyone seemingly lives to 100.
Environmentalism also lies at the heart of your initiatives. Is it challenging to persist with these priorities when larger systems make it so hard to maintain environmental considerations?
The problems are so big that they overwhelm all of us, and we’ve been relentlessly told that putting a can in a bin will slow climate change. We’re taught that the individual consumer is responsible. Of course, we do have power, but that’s also a giant key jingle, saying “look over here!” while the real criminals, who continue to destroy our ability to live on this planet, go unchecked. For us as an organization [A Better Life Foundation], we constantly review and tweak our impact, from electric tricycles for delivery to up-cycling over 100 tons of grocery “waste” into meals. It’s an everyday practice for us, and we share those blueprints as widely as possible.
And how does the food and hospitality industry currently “review and tweak” their impact?
Chefs waste nothing. They can’t waste anything because the margins are so excruciatingly low. “Blue plate” specials are leftovers. Vegetable ends go into stocks, bones into gravy, and the rest into compost to feed livestock and crops. The list of considerations is truly endless. This food system, the one that works, takes whatever is left and puts it back into the circular system to keep feeding us. This is why chefs often get defensive when asked about waste; it’s baked into the skill set and, if everyone learned that skill set, it would change the planet in a few generations. Like most things, if we had the knowledge, we wouldn’t accept anything less.
You’re already involved in a dizzying number of projects and industries. What do you have your sights set on next?
Everything I’ve shared with you is a long-term play to get us back to “us.” I’m going to keep using every tool I have to get people fed, to help us understand each other, to advocate, and to keep learning. Pragmatically, deepening our kitchens’ teams and their abilities across North America, taking good care of my health and my partner, and leaning further into love in action. The world can be a relentlessly heartbreaking place, and showing up for people — and ourselves — is a daily ritual.