In less than a year, Mandolyn Jonasson’s food at Island SodaWorks Bistro is catching the attention of some major foodies.
Jonasson, who’s no stranger to organic food accolades, is a finalist in Western Living Magazine’s Foodies of the Year for 2017. She’s currently among the 40-person list, which will be pared down to 10 on June 22.
Though Jonasson’s naturally fermented, probiotic soda pop is what had brought her acclaim and a shot in CBC’s Dragon’s Den in the past, it’s her organic and foraged food that’s got Western Living excited.
“It’s madness,” said Jonasson of this and past praise. Not entirely comfortable in the spotlight, Jonasson said she’s nonetheless happy her work is getting noticed.
“I love the fact that people like what I do and I’m getting validated, because I think that what I do is really important to me, and it’s really important for our world.”
Jonasson’s bistro — a cozy space with couches, adirondack chairs and a few tables in a former fire engine bay in Qualicum Beach’s old hall — is all about local, organic food using ingredients you wouldn’t expect, but prepared in comforting, approachable ways, she said.
Much of the food, and all the meat, is from Jonasson’s own organic farm, with the rest being purchased from local, organic farmers or foraged.
Make no bones about it; for Jonasson, food is political, and there are many problems with how we’ve been growing and consuming our food, she said.
There’s no soapbox in her restaurant. The aim is not to indoctrinate anybody — rather, she hopes that you like the food, and that it provides a comfortable entryway to learn about organic food if you want to.
“I think that’s the key: If you can make (the food) approachable and delicious, or else you’ve lost,” she said. “It all becomes this green-washed, upper echelon, bourgeoise affair. And that doesn’t interest me at all.”
Jonasson’s own food journey began from childhood with her parent’s organic farm in Manitoba. She remembers working hard on the farm with her brothers, trying to grow things in a different way, but there was no market for it and they lost the farm.
“As I got older, I started doing a lot of volunteer work with Food Not Bombs, and then I started a community kitchen with our Aboriginal Head Start in Manitoba, and then I was doing a community kitchen in my high school, so I started seeing food as a political connector,” she said.
New views on food came via trips through Europe and West Africa in her 20s,
“I learned a lot about traditional food, especially in Senegal,” she said. There, every town has a café where, late at night, the community gathers, explained Jonasson. “They all bring their leftovers and whoever hasn’t eaten enough will eat more, and there is no shame. Everybody sits and drinks tea and just communally feeds each other.”
She’s hoping to create a comfortable community vibe at her bistro as well, where people eat well and feel like they’re at grandma’s place, eating like their grandma’s grandma might have.
“I want to build a strong community,” she said. “I want people to be able to understand how our consumption and how our practices have such a rippling effect, and how things aren’t black and white and they are all intertwined.”
At the same time, Jonasson is clear she still craves chicken nuggets, and eats a hamburger and fries every now and then.
“I am struggling for balance the same as everyone else,” she said. “I think the thing that I love is that this (bistro) gives me and my community a place to help find that balance.”
The fact that there is enough interest to sustain a business with that goal is exciting to Jonasson, she said. Customers aren’t just coming once for the novelty — most return, she said. “That just warms my heart beyond belief. I am feeding people weeds. Like, weeds! For dinner! The fact that there is a place for people like me, and I can mill sitka spruce bark flour and use these traditional teachings and learnings, and that there is a market for that and I’m able to do this, is amazing.”