This profile of Alexander McNaughton is part of a series of in-depth articles exploring the impact alumni of the SFU Semester in Dialogue are having in our local and global communities.
By Justin Wong
Alexander McNaughton (Spring 2010) moved to Vancouver in 2007 to attend SFU, after completing high school and travelling the world for a year. In the community of Dove Creek in the Comox Valley where McNaughton grew up, if you wanted fresh produce to make a home cooked meal, the best place to look for those ingredients was not at the local grocery market, but rather in your own backyard. His family maintained a large kitchen garden that supplied the household with all the fresh produce they required.
“It was an absolute culture shock to me when our family moved to Joyce [City of Vancouver]. I came from an area of serious abundance. All of the food we ate was fresh…if we wanted vegetables we would have to harvest it ourselves. We would go see our neighbours if we wanted eggs, chicken or lamb.”
Alexander arrived to what he likes to call a “food desert.” Fresh produce that he was accustomed to was scarce. It was this experience that made him realize that his passion was food sustainability.
McNaughton’s passion for food sustainability is what motivated him to start Umami Consulting in 2011. This local food systems consulting firm has expertise in facilitation, project management and sustainable food systems design. Umami works extensively with youth engagement in food sustainability, as well as grant writing and community outreach work for non-profits.
“Umami is a Japanese word which means “savory deliciousness.” It is very hard to put your finger on… All of our favourite foods are umami.”
McNaughton is the firm’s principal consultant and forager. His business acumen and expertise in foraging has made the firm successful in terms of profitability and a contributor to the food sustainability movement by harvesting locally and seasonally.
His favourite part of his job is working with children. Alexander has teamed up with Science World, Growing Chefs, and Home Harvest farms to facilitate dialogue with children about food sustainability.
“I love working with children because you do not have to sell them on an idea, they instinctively get it. They understand that they have to inherit the earth. If they do not look after the local food system it won’t exist...It is very hard for adults to break habits. That is why it is very important to educate children at a young age so that they can form good habits.”
McNaughton still keeps in touch with a few classmates from the Semester in Dialogue program. One of them is Chashma Heinze (Spring 2010), Owner at Pastiche: Food and Concepts. She is not only a friend of his, but also a business partner.
“Initially we did not get along in the Semester in Dialogue program. We were both type-A personalities, so it was hard… Semester in Dialogue taught me to be an active listener and to be more accepting of other peoples’ ideas.”
McNaughton and Heinze have been close ever since. They have created a few underground restaurants together, catered a few weddings, and also collaborate on the Pastiche farmers market operations, selling locally made vegetarian grain and seed paté at markets throughout the region, from Squamish to Steveston.
“I have about 25 clients that I work really closely with… Olla flowers, Earnest ice creams, a handful non-profits, and a dozen restaurants. ” Wildebeest, Forage, Fable and The Acorn are all restaurants that he has built strong relationships with, coincidently are all leaders of the food sustainability movement in the restaurant industry. The product lines he works with have strong appeal to those who understand the incredible flavour of real food from around here, a terroir of the region you might say.
McNaughton learned a lot about building and cultivating relationships in the Semester in Dialogue, and networking continues to be an invaluable skill as he grows Umami Consulting. During his semester, he had the opportunity to meet people around the city who were in charge of policy.
“Now when I go to any community event, I see all the policy people that we have met in Dialogue. I go to the food policy council and see everyone I know or the farmers market and see everyone I know. The element of community connection in Dialogue has helped a lot.”
In a recession economy, jobs on the market are scarce and recent graduates are left with questions. McNaughton has created something from scratch that supports himself financially while keeping a keen interest of food sustainability in mind.