Chef Keith has tackled the pandemic head-on with his Meuwly’s brand and is making efforts to break down barriers around mental health.
By Tom Nightingale
It is fair to say that Peter Keith has thrown himself into the challenges brought on by COVID-19. Over the last 15 years, the experienced restaurateur has excelled in cooking competitions, worked at top-tier Canadian restaurants, and co-founded Meuwly’s, a cured meats artisan market in Edmonton.
With the onset of COVID-19, though, his priorities rather shifted. Not only has Meuwly’s – like so many operators over the last 16 months or so – transitioned to online operations, but Keith has joined fellow mental health advocates in furthering the conversation and aiming to break the taboo around speaking out on an increasingly vital topic.
Looking to the future, he’s encouraged and excited about the resiliency and innovation he has seen from the industry throughout the pandemic, as well as the reinforced sense of unity and support of local community.
CRFN caught up with the Culinary Federation’s National Secretary to chat about his inspiration, the challenges and silver linings of the pandemic, and where we may go from here.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the spark that truly ignited your passion for foodservice?
Peter Keith: What I remember most clearly was watching cooking competition TV shows like “Iron Chef” and “The Next Great Chef” as a 10- or 11-year-old and feeling really inspired by the energy of the kitchen and the look of steely determination on the chefs’ faces. I also remember going to a hotel in Jasper and seeing the chefs in their tall white hats. It was all very alluring. By 14, I had a dishwashing job and from the moment I walked into the restaurant, I had a mission: to learn how to cook, to work my way up, to go to culinary school – to be one of those chefs. I got into the kitchens at the culinary school in Edmonton and was being exposed to the top tier of the industry at the age of 16-17. I was working 30-hour weeks in high school out of drive and passion. That really cemented it for me. I knew this was my path. I was incredibly fortunate to compete in Brazil with Skills Canada and bring home Gold for Canada at the World Skills Americas competition, and then represent Alberta at the 2012 Culinary Olympics and get another Gold. We were a team of 20-somethings facing off against these professional groups around the world, it was magical.
What were some big early turning points on your journey?
Keith: While I was working at a top-tier restaurant in Vancouver, I started to realize that being on the line wasn’t the long-term option for me: despite an incredible employer and environment, the physical toll and the stress were draining. I realized I needed something that fit my life a bit better. I came back to Edmonton and pursued a business degree. Through a combination of chance and eagerness, I met my future business partner, who was looking for a food business to host in his buildings. One of my good friends from a previous kitchen job was diving into the world of charcuterie. The three of us sat down and decided to move forward with cured meats. That was in 2016, and that’s how Meuwly’s came to be.
Cured meat products have become popular in recent years. Did you see that demand from the start?
Keith: It’s been a whirlwind five years! We jumped into it, started planning, designing, renovating the space. Building a custom, bespoke, artisan meat-processing kitchen is a lot of work and time. As we were building, we started seeing more demand for cured meats, local sausages, so we rented a little space and started producing meats for local restaurants. We wanted to do test batches and small runs of new products – that’s how our subscription box was born, from a need to use up samples and a desire to keep busy while we were building our permanent kitchen and storefront. Again, there was fortune involved: we launched on Facebook, within a few weeks got some local news coverage, and ultimately sold out of our packages with a waiting list of about 100 people. We knew we were onto something. From there, we grew those two channels: wholesale and subscription boxes.
How much has the impact of COVID-19 changed the day-to-day for you and Meuwly’s?
Keith: Our biggest immediate concern was the probably $10,000 in perishables in our fridge with our retail channels gone. The only thing we could do was create a basic e-commerce store and put together some different grocery boxes. We got to a point where we realized we’re in the online business now. I never would have thought of a deli as a business that could create a meaningful e-commerce experience but that’s where the world is now and what people are looking for. We wanted to become a platform for other small food producers and farmers to fill the gap of in-person sale avenues. Customers have been seeking comfort foods, but as they got more used to this new reality, I think they started seeking to replicate the experiences they were missing out on. That’s when we started introducing our build-your-own charcuterie kit, picnic boxes. It’s very experience-driven now. People are recreating dining out in their own home or backyard.
Discussions around mental health within foodservice and hospitality have really come to the fore amid the pandemic’s impact. Do you think it can be a catalyst for real change on that front?
Keith: Mental health has typically been don’t-ask-don’t-tell in foodservice. The attitude of “toughing it out” has done real harm, I feel. In terms of my employment and support systems, I’m one of the lucky ones. But I’ve watched friends and colleagues struggle – burnout, mental health issues, substance use. I also think mental health awareness and inclusivity and diversity go hand-in-hand. In The Weeds is trying to be the voice for those people. When I heard about In The Weeds starting up and the work of Chef Paul Shufelt and the team, I really felt drawn to it. I wanted to contribute to positive lasting change in the industry. That will be more meaningful than any dish I’ve ever cooked or any competition I’ve ever won. After all, I transitioned out of line cooking partly due to that stress. We need to end the stigma, get people talking, break down this ridiculous facade. The time is right; people are ready to talk. We want to be a conduit for change, to try to lead from behind and start the conversations. We’ve done roundtable-type events, fundraising initiatives, funded counselling sessions. I think we were already seeing the early signs of culture shift and COVID-19 has 100 per cent reinforced the need for this change. A huge positive has been the pandemic showing that much of our community and nation now thinks of foodservice staff as essential frontline workers. People’s health is truly on the line.
The resilience and creativity on show during COVID-19 has been so heartening for us all. It’s time for the impossible question: where do we go from here?
Keith: A lot of structural things are starting to change. Most food businesses will have online operations moving forward but more than that, restaurateurs are realizing that diversifying their business model is so important these days, finding innovative revenue streams. People have certainly become more creative, and the resiliency is shining through. The first wave of COVID-19 prompted a lot of tough conversations. It’s cliched but we’re coming out of it stronger, more diversified, more creative. I think that’s the type of change we needed all along to be a more resilient business model. There’s still work to be done: our society needs to have a really mature, honest, inward look at the way we interact with restaurants and foodservice. Food is never cheap, so if you’re getting food for cheap, someone down the line is being taken advantage of, whether it’s the farmer, the line cooks. It takes an incredible amount of care and work to change that. I hope COVID-19 has initiated this kind of discourse. But for now, we’re just hugely grateful for the Canadians who have kept us afloat, ordering an obscene amount of takeout at the expense of their budget and their waistline and so forth. If I ever have grandkids, that sense of community is something I’ll share with them about the pandemic. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. It speaks to why all of us got into this business, and to what makes our community so great.
Find Peter Keith on LinkedIn here.