Working for Food: Mitch Fowler - Mariposa's Man Behind the Wheel
Ask a chef what draws them to the kitchen and the answer will inevitably be about food. Ask them what draws them to running a restaurant and chances are they will tell you about their passion for hospitality. Ask them if there is another job that tempts them and the answer might surprise you. Beyond the guts, the glory and the wild energy of the kitchen, there is one job working for food that might be the envy of nearly every chef: delivery driver.
There is something alluringly cavalier about the driver — the independence and solitude out on the open road. There is quietude in working behind the scenes. When you deliver local farm-fresh produce, meats and cheeses, chances are everyone is happy to see you. In the Ottawa region, one driver in particular — a man by the name of Mitch Fowler — is always welcome in the city’s kitchens.
Born in Southwestern Ontario, Fowler made his way to Ottawa after spending many years working as a cook in the hotels and lodges of Western Canada. Once he landed in the capital, he got a job working as a cook at the now-closed Savana Café, which was then known for its lively Caribbean vibe and fusion cuisine. It was while working on the line that he struck up a friendship with Ian Walker of Mariposa Farm, when Walker would deliver farm products to his restaurant kitchen. The two men discovered they shared a similar passion for sustainable living and something of a rakish disregard for the status quo. Fowler soon found himself driving out to Mariposa, nearly an hour east of the city, every chance he got.
“I was a bit of a city guy before that,” Fowler openly admits. Out at the farm, he found himself with a freedom he had never experienced in the city. He asked Walker if he could build a cabin in the wooded area of the farm’s 200-acre property, Walker readily gave his blessing and Fowler started the build from scratch, using wood that he chopped himself. The cabin operates off the grid, with solar panels for electricity and rain barrels for its water supply. It took him nearly two years to complete and he charted the course for his new career. “It really helped me get a better appreciation and understanding of farm life.” About six months into Fowler’s cabin project, the driver at Mariposa was injured and unable to make deliveries. Walker asked Fowler if he would be interested in the job. “I quit cooking and never looked back. That was four years ago.”
The new job brought about some profound changes for someone used to toiling away long hours in a kitchen. For starters, Fowler now only works two days per week. On Wednesday mornings, he drives the farm’s Class 4 truck to Montreal, where he makes five stops to pick up artisanal cheeses, wild boar and various farm goods that are not produced by Mariposa directly. He returns later that day to sort through the haul with Suzanne Lavoie, Walker’s partner and manager of the demanding farm business. At 5 a.m. the next morning, Fowler is back at Mariposa loading the truck with the farm’s own bounty. He doesn’t have far to go with his first drop. Within an hour, Fowler hits the road. He’ll stay on it all day travelling anywhere from Wakefield to Merrickville, making up to 60 deliveries right across the Ottawa region. By 8 p.m., he will have returned the empty truck to the farm and wrapped up his work week.
While it might not inspire the creative gusto of a chef in the kitchen, there is something vital and humble about delivering farm-fresh food into our cities. And the schedule suits Fowler just fine. “I have a hard time with traditional nine-to-five jobs. That’s a big part of the reason I am working with Mariposa.” On a warm, spring day early in April, with only 42 restaurants on his schedule, he couldn’t be happier about being a driver. “The weather doesn’t get any nicer than this.” he says. “I have a pretty easy delivery day so I’m just enjoying it. Mostly, for me, it’s just a really unique place to work and they treat me really well. I get to work two days a week and still pay the bills. For me, it’s really a lifestyle thing.”
The nice weather and easy schedule aside, Fowler’s job has allowed him to cultivate strong ties with the chefs who are at the forefront of Ottawa’s food scene. Known widely in restaurant circles as the “Mariposa Guy,” his arrival at the back entrance to the kitchen is often met with enthusiasm — unless his tight schedule requires an appearance right in the middle of a lunch rush. But thanks to the Mariposa Farms bounty he comes bearing, Fowler is never in their bad books for long. “Everybody is always happy to see me and I’m always bringing stuff that they’re excited to get. It’s like, ‘Oh, the duck eggs are here’ or if I am delivering a whole pig. It’s always something unique.”
Summer is an especially good time for Fowler and for the chefs in the city. Mariposa starts supplying fresh vegetables and fruit from its own gardens, in addition to the continuous supply of meats and cheeses that come from the greater region. With the influence of Walker and Lavoie, Fowler feels he has a deeper understanding of food as a whole system — a subject he only saw on a surface level when working in the kitchen. He has always been concerned about his impact on the environment so he feels good knowing that he is associated with a venture that puts sustainability at the forefront, allowing him to pay the bills while doing good work.
“I was always working in kitchens, stuff shows up and you get it ready and it goes out and that’s all it was about. Getting on the farm and talking to someone like Ian Walker, who is so in tune with his farm and how everything works, has really made me aware of my impact in life and just in my surroundings.”
While Fowler might be done working in restaurants, he is awed by the increasing commitment of chefs to a local, sustainable food scene and the knowledge they bring to the table. The relationships he has with the chefs is another reason Mitch really enjoys his job as a driver and has also allowed him to explore another of his passions, namely photography. “When I was living out west, I really wanted to capture all the beauty I was seeing. Then when I came to Ottawa, I was looking for ways to stick with photography so Ian and I came up with this project to shoot the chefs from a lot of the restaurants we deal with.”
The result is a large collection of 8- by 10-inch black and whites developed on the farm in a darkroom that Fowler built himself. The framed pictures line the open stairwell leading to the second floor in the farmhouse at Mariposa, like a carefully curated family album. There are many familiar faces: Patricia Larkin inspects a chit on the line at Black Cat Bistro, Steve Mitton tends to his butchery at Murray Street and one-time Oz Kafe prodigy, Jamie Stunt, steals a moment out back to have a cigarette. The photographs reveal an intimacy to which not just anyone is privy to.
Fowler is evidently a highly regarded insider in the food community. He has come to represent not only the carefully cultivated foods that arrive from Mariposa Farm, but also a dedication to a certain lifestyle, one that embodies a passion for craft and a thoughtful approach to the impact of his work. It’s something to which chefs and those working in local food can relate, with a lifestyle that is hard not to envy.