Walking through the parking lot at Evergreen Brick Works, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the heart of Toronto. Instead, the complex offers Torontonians and visitors to the city a chance to escape into a world of sustainable fun. From film nights to farmers markets, Evergreen Brick Works is a community environmental centre that, according to the website, teaches people how to live, work and play in sustainable ways.

Tucked in the corner of the complex, just beside the market, you’ll find Cafe Belong, the product of Chef Brad Long, one of Canada’s most influential culinary figures – making appearances on Restaurant Makeover and cooking for some of the top restaurants in Toronto – and an innovator in the food industry when it comes to responsible cuisine. Much like the products that make up the cafe’s extensive menu and unique design, the name itself has a deeper meaning: a tribute to the Chef (B. Long), the name is also a statement for what exactly the restaurant hopes to achieve, which is bringing people together over sustainable food that tastes great.

From the moment you walk into the cafe, you’re exposed to an array of innovative efforts that reduce, recycle and reuse including art and lighting fixture made of galvanized tubing; chairs made of coke bottles; menus made from fallen trees; and tables made from old barn walls. These furnishings are complemented by simple décor in the form of pieces that combine flair with function; jars of pickled produce line the shelves next to colourful pieces of Le Creuset cookware, products that are costly but look good and last forever.

By sourcing organic foods (including meats) locally and working in collaboration with various associations to monitor sustainable efforts, Cafe Belong has become a leader in sustainable food service. So, BizEnergy decided to have a chat with the Chef and ask him a few questions about his cafe, his desire to acquire LEAF certification and his unparalleled passion for bringing people together, where they belong.

You’re a busy man. What makes Cafe Belong so special to you?

According to Chef Long, Cafe Belong was the natural step to take after a successful career as Sous Chef at Pronto Ristorante, Executive Chef at the CN Tower, and Director of Restaurants and Catering and Executive Chef at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. “Working at the CN Tower, I had a mandate to provide Canadian cuisine. I did a lot of research on local products during this time and learned about all aspects of moving food around, as well as what to do with waste and how to keep costs to a minimum.” Working with Maple Leaf Sports, Chef Long fed nearly two million people a year, proving that it was possible to focus on specific (local) ingredients while serving in volume.

During his time at Pronto, Long was fortunate enough to have local farmers knocking at his front door, something he considers a large advantage over those trying to find ways of sourcing local food (read our article on how to serve local food all year round). Cultivating these existing relationships, Long was able to develop a network of farmers and suppliers he now uses at Cafe Belong.

Unlike his past jobs working under external leadership, Cafe Belong has provided Long with the opportunity to make his own decisions and work hand in hand with a landlord (Evergreen Brick Works) who shares his philosophy when it comes to sustainable community living: “I appreciate that I get to negotiate with the real people, and that from this odd pocket of the city, I can serve all parts of the city. It’s an educational process for people who can afford to experiment with foods and have time to learn about how things can go greener.”

Why did you choose to get LEAF certified?

According to Chef Long, the motivation to get Cafe Belong certified had nothing to do with the certification itself: “It’s not about certification for the sake of being certified. We work with Local Food Plus, and Ocean-Wise to monitor where our food comes from. LEAF covers building and ambiance, I was just rounding things out. I’ve looked at a lot of criteria based certifications like Heart Smart etc, but I don’t want to chase every single certification; I wanted to find one that is connected with what I am trying to do.”

When asked when Cafe Belong will obtain certification, Long smiled and revealed that as far as he knew, they were already certified. This is an honest oversight, since LEAF has been communicating back on forth with Long regarding changes that would bring him to a level 3 LEAF certification; the highest level available to a restaurant owner and Chef.

So, what’s the one thing Chef Long could do better? “I would need to switch all my lights over to LED which would prove a huge challenge. We have over 100 bulbs in the restaurant and in order to make the switch we would have to spend $40-$150 on every bulb, as well as change all of our dimming and fixtures. At the moment it’s simply too expensive a venture to rush into lightly. This is something that needs to be done slowly. Of course, we want to keep our carbon footprint as low as possible but I’m a pragmatic person and we’ll do more, but in time.”

Where does your passion for sustainability come from?

When asked where he gets this zest for all things green, Chef Long points to his parents as being responsible for installing in him a sense of community and a responsibility to support local businesses.

“My parents come from Port Dover, a small town, and my dad especially was heavily involved in the community. This group of people ran the town ethically by consulting each other. Everything was a discussion had around the fire and ideas were shared with other communities.  This taught him to support the people and the land around him and now the same concept is engrained in me.”

According to Long, the lessons learned from his parents about consensus are very applicable in today’s society despite the hustle and bustle of the big city: “What I do is a niche today, but 200 years ago it would have been normal and I’m willing to bet that 200 years from now, it will be normal again. The system today is dysfunctional. It still follows post-WWII trends of going big and centralizing, and it has failed. We need to stabilize and work with small businesses and family businesses to get things back on track.”

For more information about Cafe Belong or Chef Long himself, visit their website! Questions or comments on this article? Leave them below!