The Big Picture -Judy Dempsey
When I arrive at The Table Community Food Centre in Perth, Judy Dempsey is excited to show me "the list." We head towards her office, past the communal tables and open-concept kitchen where Dempsey spends most of her time as The Table’s Community Chef. She pulls the list up on her computer while I peer over her shoulder, flanked on all sides by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves housing every food and cookbook imaginable. "What do you think," she asks, "who do you think we can get?"
This is her wish list: a dream team of chefs she hopes she can woo in time for The Table's Barns, Farms and Wicked Chefs fundraiser. The list includes several familiar and rather notorious restaurants from Lanark County (that includes Ottawa) as Dempsey looks farther into the region in hopes of finding chefs that just might "get it."
"First and foremost, they need to be behind what we are trying to do here," Dempsey says. It only takes a quick glance at the stats to understand what The Table does for its community. In 2016 alone, The Table offered over 800 sessions in community gardening, after school and community kitchen programs. It’s good food bank — where healthy and fresh items are encouraged over processed foods — helped feed nearly 2,000 individuals facing food insecurity. Including the community meals that Dempsey prepares each week with the help of her volunteers (who collectively contributed 10,000 hours to The Table’s mission), The Table served well over 15,000 healthy meals over the course of the year.
“Food is power” is a guiding principle of community food centres (and Dempsey’s personal favourite), one that came about through the success of The Stop in Toronto. Under the guidance of enigmatic activist Nick Saul, the food bank-turned-community hub has become a model and the mothership for Community Food Centres (CFC) Canada — a national organization that supports seven independent CFCs across Canada and helps them fulfill their mandate to offer multifaceted, integrated and responsive programming in a shared space where food builds health, hope, skills and community.
But beyond stats and mission statements, by far the best way to understand what The Table does is to come see it for yourself — which is exactly what Dempsey hopes to convince those on her hit list to do. "I totally understand they are busy," she says, as she eagerly awaits the chefs' reply to her emails, something chefs aren’t really known to do all that well. Dempsey, who ran the popular and iconic Hungry Planet in Perth for 12 years, is all too familiar with the fact that chefs receive an endless onslaught of requests to donate their time, talents and energy — and at the end of the day still have all of the headaches of running their businesses. “I know what it means to run a restaurant,” says Dempsey, who never planned on opening a restaurant. “I didn’t want to have tables, I didn’t want to have dishwashers, I didn’t want to have to have it all. I wanted this other piece only.”
That other piece was an outlet to cook food — flavourful, exciting and fresh food — something that was definitely missing in Perth when Dempsey moved here from Toronto in 1991. Like most urban denizens, Dempsey and her young family felt the allure of life in a rural heartland like Lanark County. "We were looking for a community to move to where our kids could have that idyllic upbringing,” she recalls, “Where they could ride their bikes to school, where they could go out and have adventures in nature and we didn’t have to helicopter over them all the time.” In Perth, Dempsey found work at the local farmers’ market, hawking an eclectic array of breads, pickles and sauces — whatever happened to be springing up in her garden at the time. But when a stunning art deco-inspired space with industrial windows and high ceilings came available, she felt compelled to seize the opportunity. “It was such an awesome space,” Dempsey says, “when the Hungry Planet opened, there was nothing really like that in this town. People were still not thinking about food in that way.”
"My restaurant was not for people who were afraid of flavour,” she says unapologetically. It was a seed planted early as a child growing up in Ottawa, where her father would bring home worldly delectables from the delicatessen he owned in the 1960s at Bank Street and Slater Avenue. She continued to seek out unique foods and flavours, finding her muse at home and abroad. “If I went somewhere, I learned how to make something. When I went to Ecuador, where my brother had a restaurant, one of the dishes I had there was Ecuadorian potato soup. It was so good. Have you ever had Locro de Papas? The way I had it, and the way I make it, is this really rich potato soup with tons of cilantro stems and roots ground up into the base; and then on top of your bowl of rich, creamy potato soup is shredded cheese, shredded lettuce and avocado. So I had that amazing thing and brought that back.” Dempsey found an unexpected home for these global influences at the Hungry Planet, where she single-handedly took on the vapid palates of her community and awoke them in an uproar of kaffir leaf and kimchi.
Any fears seemingly were cast aside. Over the next decade, the Hungry Planet became a dearly beloved, though extremely busy, eatery, and before too long Dempsey, reluctant to be in the restaurant business in the first place, plotted her escape. As she closed in on 12 years, the decision had been made. To the chagrin of many, the Hungry Planet closed and Dempsey began to explore how else she could bring good food to her community.
“My kids were in high school at the time so I was looking at what they were eating there. It was appalling. I thought that would be a great segue for me because I really wanted to see improvements. After a bit of donkeywork there, I realized that the high schools all had big contracts and there was no motivation to change anything. I didn’t feel strong enough.
She spent the next few years working for a local sugar bush until serendipitously, she says, the wheels starting turning towards The Table. “The food bank was hideous,” she recalls, “It was up on the highway in an old garage, freezing cold, leaking and horrid.”
The board of directors was looking at purchasing a new space when an empty church on Gore Street came available. At the same time, Dempsey joined forces with a group of community activists who felt the new space should come with new vision. “There were several players aware of The Stop,” she says, “We brought them here to show them what we were planning to do and, low and behold, we were chosen.”
Since The Table was inaugurated as Canada’s second Community Food Centre in 2012, Dempsey’s culinary powers, especially her proclivity for global flavours, have hardly been reigned in. As community chef, she relishes the challenge of cooking with what is on hand — often donated goods or food from the garden when in season — even if she has toned down the intensity. "Heat has no place here,” she concedes, “I am serving people who may have digestive problems, who may have little experience with these types of foods. I have to be sensitive to that." Nevertheless, she refuses to forgo flavour or variety. “We want to expose people to the joy of food and different flavours are a part of that.”
Dempsey’s dishes are as inspired as anything you might expect from her years at the Hungry Planet — eggplant parmesan with lemon-roasted potatoes, Cajun pork with sautéed spinach, Moroccan cauliflower with eggs in rose sauce, beef chili with garlic scape pinwheels — the list goes on. The only regular appearance on the menu is the proportion of vegetables. “Each meal is at least 50 per cent vegetables,” Dempsey points out. “There is always a vegetarian option and once a week we’ll do a meal that is totally vegetarian.” Even fruit takes a back seat. “Tonight’s meal will get a wedge of melon, but that’s it.”
On any given Monday, Wednesday or Friday night, upwards of 100 people will arrive at The Table, but there are no lineups. Guests find themselves a seat and are soon greeted by a volunteer as Dempsey hollers her hellos from behind the line. Most faces are familiar, but over the years The Table family has grown into what once was a small gathering of seniors into a boisterous gang of young and old alike. Guests can expect a meal, one that will encourage healthy eating in deliciously subtle ways, to be served to them, just as if they were in a restaurant or someone’s home. As one participant put it, “Dignity is the main ingredient here.”
So is Dempsey’s infectious passion and deep-rooted connection to Perth. “I am deeply in love with this community,” she muses, “I often think that I have less connection here now. My kids are somewhere else. I have a lot more freedom and time. I think, ‘Would I go back to a city?’ I couldn’t. I couldn’t leave this incredible place.”
Everyone is welcome at The Table, where Dempsey feels the reward of her work when someone tries bok choy for the first time and likes it, or when one of the regulars asks her about her recent vacation to Thailand and then gives her a hug. "I mean, hello? That's what it is all about."
It’s also about raising the funds to keep the whole operation going, which is Dempsey’s other job at The Table. “I am by far not the only fundraiser-thinker, but I am often the fundraiser-doer,” she admits. Each year, Dempsey hopes that The Table’s biggest event of the year will be an even bigger success than the last, but that depends on the list. The perks for participants (and attendees) of Barns, Farms and Wicked Chefs are plenty. It’s held at the breathtaking vista of the historic Ecotay site, the restored barns are about a 10-minute drive from The Table. The event typically lands on a perfectly sultry summer evening in August. Hundreds of people mingle about as a jazz band coos from the upper floor of the big barn until a lightning-tongued auctioneer tempts the crowd with all the donated swag. But the main draw, of course, is the food that each chef serves up.
“We don’t ask chefs to pay for their ingredients,” Dempsey offers, “That’s where my experience comes in. I know what it’s like. Just because their restaurants are busy, it doesn’t mean they are making a lot of money.” Not only will she do the shopping, but Dempsey will personally source ingredients from the region’s best farms and producers, building a stronger community by connecting chefs and farmers and the people they feed.
The community she continues to forge is steadfast, like the stone buildings that Scottish masons built along the main street of this idyllic town some 200 years ago. Stone may be the bedrock of this community, but, thanks to Dempsey, good food is now at its heart, and anyone who comes here is bound to feel the beat.
The Table Community Food Centre
190 Gore St. E., Perth, Ont.
Tickets are now on sale for the Barns, Farms and Wicked Chefs event, taking place on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, for $125 per person with an $80 tax receipt. Chefs should email judy@the tablecfc.org, if they are interested in participating.
Want another way to support The Table (and your gut lust)? Attend a Hungry Planet Fundraiser, a pop-up dinner where Dempsey serves some of the dishes from the Hungry Planet's original menu in support of The Table. This year, two dinners are being held on June 3 and June 10.