By Ian Lai, Executive Director of the Richmond Food Security Society
Onion, diced (1 large)
Leek, whites only (1/2)
Garlic, minced (1 clove)
Flour (2 Tbsp)
Potatoes, diced (2 cups)
Sunchokes, diced (1 cup)
Sprig of thyme
Butter (4 Tbsp)
Homogenized milk (1 litre)
Salt and pepper
- Sweat onions, leek and garlic in butter on medium heat until translucent
- Add potatoes, sunchokes and thyme
- Cook for 5 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally
- Add flour to coat everything
- Add milk
- Bring to a simmer stirring occasionally
- Cook until vegetables are soft
- Blend using a food processor or an immersion blender until smooth
- Season and taste
Enjoy with a slice of crusty baguette
Richmond Chef and Educator Aims to Make Healthy Food Accessible
It’s a sunlit autumn morning, and Ian Lai has just returned from Tomsett Elementary School in Richmond, helping to set up growing towers for the students there. He’s been at work since 7am, busily writing grant proposals and coordinating food-related projects across the city.
Lai, the new executive director of the Richmond Food Security Society, exudes a deep and abiding passion for equitable access to food and food-related knowledge in order to promote informed and empowered eating choices.
“The reason I’m here is that I’ve had tremendously positive food contacts and connections in my life,” he explains. Lai’s journey to this new position has been a long one that began in South Africa where he was born and grew up. His parents ran a fish ‘n’ chip shop, instilling in him a love of food and cooking. After immigrating to Canada, Lai worked from the late 1970s onwards as a chef in hotel and restaurant kitchens, including Hy’s Steakhouse and the US Consulate General in Vancouver. During that time, he developed a keen interest in sustainability and farm-to-table eating.
Lai wanted to do more than cook for the privileged; he wanted to mentor the next generation of chefs and teach kids, like his daughter and her peers, about healthy, fresh food. After a handful of years teaching at Vancouver’s Dubrulle Culinary School, Lai became part owner in 2004 of a new cooking school called Northwest Culinary Academy, as well as the founding director in 2006 of the non-profit Terra Nova Schoolyard Project (now Richmond Schoolyard Society). The Project aimed to assist elementary students in learning about growing food.
For the next dozen years, Lai has made it his life’s mission to effect positive change related to food, getting involved in building innovative school curriculum and working for the Greater Vancouver Food Bank to really “understand what poverty was.”
This vast experience as well as his residence in Richmond made Lai an eminently suitable choice for the role of executive director at the Richmond Food Security Society. Lai assumed the position in June of this year, after joining the organization in February.
The Society headquarters is situated in picturesque Paulik Neighbourhood Park. Lai walks past a community garden and a bee hive in the Park, talking about the challenge of getting people energized about food security: “The idea of food security, people don’t get it. When you say ‘food security,’ they say ‘like police?’ But no, it’s about making sure that everyone gets to eat what they want and when they want to eat it. That they eat healthy. That they can get resources and have workshops where they can learn about food.”
In short, for Lai, “food security is about education.” As executive director, Lai will help to oversee the wealth of programs that the Society currently spearheads, such as numerous community gardens, the Get Rooted Youth Program that provides multidisciplinary workshops to high-school students, and the Richmond Community Seed Library that allows its members to ‘check out’ seeds from its collection.
He also has ambitious to diversify and further democratize the educational programs that the Society offers. They just wrapped up a Local Eating Challenge fundraiser last month, but Lai feels that consuming solely local food was logistically difficult for those without a vehicle. He plants to revamp next year’s Challenge, making it “more dynamic and more inclusive,” as well as “more educational.” He envisions an extended fundraiser that is collaborative and consists of multiple events. An afternoon tea in Paulik Park, for example, might be one such event.
Lai prides himself on building relationships with the many organizations and communities that make up the fabric of Richmond’s food landscape. The Society is working with the Gulf of Georgia Cannery to offer free public workshops on a variety of topics, such as healthy lunches and snacks, and ways to cook salmon. Lai is also helping Vancouver Coastal Health, in partnership with a variety of other organizations, like UBC Land and Food Systems, in creating a Food Asset Map that shows where people can grow, buy, and learn about food. He’s also working on plans for the garden plots on the Garden City Lands.
All these current and future initiatives will, hopefully, make Richmondites more aware of the food they consume. Lai explains that food security concerns everyone, not just the elite. It’s as simple as saying, “I understand how I’m an active participant. I eat food. I’m involved in the food system.”
Lai feels that through education, people in the city may have a greater appreciation for their food systems and the importance of preserving agricultural land. “Richmond has a rich agricultural history. Not a lot of people understand that history,” he says. He believes one of Richmond’s specific questions is: “How do we manage to secure space for the next generation of growers?”
Lai is tireless in his new role becomes he believes so fervently in making food accessible to everyone. “It’s the coolest job in the world,” he declares. Seeing young and old, rich and poor, get excited about food makes his work more than worthwhile.