Karen Barnaby – Beyond the Chef Coat

If you have lived in British Columbia for any length of time, you have likely heard of Chef Karen Barnaby as she has a long and respected history as a chef and product development specialist. Not only has she worked in some of Vancouver’s finest restaurants (Fish House, Raintree, Starfish and North 49) she has published several cookbooks (her personal favourite is The Low Carb Gourmet), is a Vancouver Sun Columnist and is past president of Les Dames d’Escoffier BC Chapter.

Karen is also a social activist who believes strongly in making sure everyone has access to good food and that no food should be wasted. She has sat on the Board of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank and in her spare time can often be found delivering surplus produce from her current work as a product development specialist with the Gordon Food Service Strategic Alliance to the Carnegie Community Centre in the Downtown Eastside.

And, now as the consulting Product Development Chef with Goodly Foods, she has an opportunity to tackle wasted food first hand. Something that has been on her mind for a very long time. “It is a distribution issue and there is no glamour and at first glance no money to be made from it,” says Karen. “And if there is no money to be made then no one wants to do anything with it.” But she believes that through Goodly Foods she can help to make some changes in how people look at surplus food while also making good food accessible to those who need it.

But there is so much more to Karen. Among other things, she has a wonderful sense of humour.

Case in point…she suggested that we meet at the downtown Costco to conduct this interview. I waited at the front entrance thinking we would walk over to a nearby coffee shop to chat. But Karen had another idea in mind. “Let’s find one of the sample couches inside and set ourselves up there.”

We did indeed find a plush grey corner love seat in one of the wide aisles and then commandeered an industrial looking metal chair as a side table. We were quite the sight nestled in between some rather large cardboard boxes: Karen with her long dreadlocks piled in a loose bun and me with my pink phone recording the interview. A few people did stare at us briefly, but for the most part shoppers didn’t seem to notice or mind. Except for the guy who took a keen interest in the metal chair that I was using to hold my note pad.

Like many chefs, Karen’s career began early and without a lot of training. “I started cooking at the Bohemian Café in the ByWard market in Ottawa. When I went for the interview I said I needed a job and they asked if I could bake and I say yes, which I could.” So they bought her a pink stove and placed it in the basement of the restaurant. She started making carrot cake, cheese cake, and almond bars, all her own recipes. She learned early on that she could do a lot with very little. “All I had to work with initially was a blender and a whisk and that pink stove.” This is also when she began to develop a flair for developing her own recipes.

She eventually left Ottawa and made her way to Toronto and worked with David Wood. A few years later Karen moved to Vancouver.

Although cooking continues to play an important part in Karen’s life, other interesting and creative pursuits have begun to take hold.

“Cooking is what I love to do and how I make my living, but I do a lot of other stuff that I think is pretty interesting.” Karen has become a skilled spoon carver, is involved in fiber art and considered a passionate “spinner”, dabbles in pottery, and sits on the board of EartHand Gleaners Society who specialize in connecting makers with materials that come directly from the land around them. She has even made leather from salmon skin.

“Everything is part of the bigger whole. My life now is about getting back to skills that most people deemed as being useless but which are incredibly enriching, especially culturally.” Karen believes in knowing where things came from and in repurposing what might otherwise get thrown out. For example, the wood she uses to carve spoons comes from local trees that have been blown over and she is currently making a rug from cloth scraps using an obscure technique called locker hooking.

“I would like people to do things and experience the joy of working with their hands. That is what makes us human.” Karen considers cooking to be an important part of that process, essentially her gateway to learning to work with her hands. But she wants everyone to continue that exploration, beyond just working with food.

“Work with your hands people! Instead of wanting everything to be easy, want things to be rich.”

All of us at Goodly Foods are extremely fortunate and grateful to be able to work with Chef Karen Barnaby. Not only because of her incredible history in the industry and knowledge of food and cooking, but also because her passion and commitment to reducing waste, feeding people and working with her hands oozes out of everything she does. And it is incredibly infectious.

Jo-Anne Lauzer
Operations Specialist, Goodly Foods