By Sharman Hnatiuk
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, one message has remained the same: home is the safest place to be. As a means to combat home confinement, coupled with a reduction in restaurant and take-away dining options, one thing is certain: Canadians are spending more time cooking.
Today, most Canadians have access to more than 250 hours of cooking or food-related shows a week on television. YouTube offers an endless supply of cooking demonstrations and videos produced by everyone from home cooks to celebrity chefs, and during the COVID pandemic, the demand for online culinary inspiration has been increasing across web and social media platforms.
Celebrity chefs provide encouragement
Since the March 2020 onset of the pandemic, Chefs Anna & Michael Olson of Welland, Ontario have both increased their online presence with regular social media videos. As a celebrity chef with cooking shows viewed around the world, Anna has seen a dramatic spike in followers to her YouTube channel, “Oh Yum with Anna Olson,” mostly from people searching for baking recipes.
COVID restrictions have impacted options for Canadians that were accustomed to eating out or ordering take away a few nights a week, leaving many searching for new recipes to add to their previously limited repertoire. For many, the excess of time at home is proving to be the perfect opportunity to getting their hands dirty in the kitchen and expanding their culinary skills.
“We have a lot of time to think about food; it is no wonder that people are digging out those unused cookbooks and looking for inspiration online,” said Anna. “With absolutely no social commitment, the math is clear: there are seven dinner opportunities each week to try something new.”
For the past two decades, Michael has made a career out of inspiring young chefs as a Professor at Niagara College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute. Through his cooking demonstration videos, Michael has attracted increased interest to his Instagram feed for his ‘keep it simple’ approach to cooking.
“I’m very sensitive to showing how to make something in the kitchen or on the grill that is not overly complicated, expensive or includes hard-to-access ingredients,” Michael explained. “With excess time at home, I think there are a lot of people trying to embrace and overcome cooking as a chore. The last thing anyone needs right now is to feel inadequate.”
Last year, when Michael launched his all-pork cookbook Living High Off the Hog, he was adamant that all of the recipes in the book were achievable to any home cook with access to the ingredients and enough time. In November 2019, Alberta Pork even gifted the book to guests during the organization’s 50th anniversary celebration, and Ontario Pork has been actively promoting sales.
As the COVID response continues into summer, the search for something new to bake or cook has evolved into something new to BBQ or smoke.
Summer plans go up in smoke
Being housebound has not limited Canadians from shopping online, and BBQ stores across the country have reported increased sales of smokers and grills.
“I keep hearing, ‘I got a smoker,’ or I get questions through social media about pellets or smoke,” added Michael. “COVID has provided an excellent opportunity to learn something new, and staying close to home presents the perfect opportunity experiment with learning to smoke meat. With all the excess time, and BBQ season upon us, why not spend money on something you can enjoy at home?”
In the early days of the pandemic, panic-buying of both fresh and non-perishable goods left grocery store shelves empty. A Food and Consumer Products of Canada survey released in early April reported that leading food and consumer goods manufacturers experienced an all-time high in the last two weeks of March, representing a 500 per cent increase in demand.
For Corey Meyer, third-generation butcher and owner of ACME Meat Market in Edmonton, business has never been better. While his butcher shop survived the panic-buying early days of the COVID response, things have returned to a newer sense of normal, but sales remain high.
“More than ever, there seems to be an emphasis on supporting local producers and businesses during the pandemic,” said Meyer. “We enhanced our social media presence in recent years to attract a younger clientele to the shop, but COVID has certainly brought new faces making a conscious effort to support local.”
The summer BBQ season is always popular at ACME, but this year is the highest volume the butcher shop has ever seen since being founded in 1921.
“People are spending more time at home watching cooking shows and cracking open cookbooks, and it is resulting in more customers, more frequent shopping and requests for new or different cuts of meat,” Meyer added.
A renewed sense of culinary appreciation
Even as the COVID situation continues to evolve and restrictions are lifted, many will continue to carry on with newly developed cooking habits as a new normal.
Canadian consumers accustomed to paying restaurant prices are learning the value of quality local cuts at their grocery stores and butcher shops. Armed with new confidence in the kitchen, many have learned how cooking at home can help save money, help their families eat healthier and, perhaps most importantly, help their families spend time together.
“Years from now, people will remember the time they spent together during the pandemic, and many will be talking about the food they ate,” said Michael. “They’ll be telling stories about sourdough bread mom made for the first time or those BBQ back ribs – the best they ever had – that dad made.”
For Anna and Michael, the two believe they have never been closer or more in love than during their confined time together since COVID restrictions started in Canada.
“Children will remember this time differently than adults. Hopefully they are the ones to remind us of the importance that making food and eating together played during the pandemic as we go back to our functioning lives,” said Anna. “I hope that in six months from now, or as long as it takes for things to start to normalize, Canadians are still taking the time to cook together and sit down to eat as a family.”