“We set out to be a cooking school and to bring people around the table to share food and conversation. If people left with two or three things that could change and inspire how they looked at food, what they purchased and what they ate, then we felt we were doing a good job.”
By Beka Shane Denter
Carley Schelck is known in both culinary and community circles. Her enthusiasm extends far beyond the kitchen with her active involvement in elevating the food experience alongside a passionate commitment to generating accessibility to quality ingredients for everyone.
“I started to realize that possibilities existed outside of the walls of The Urban Element and that, whatever I did, I wanted it to be meaningful.”
Beka Shane Denter: What is your first food memory?
Carley Schelck: I would say that my most impressionable food memories were always attached to experiences—these were family holiday meals, family celebrations, weekend meals and Sunday dinners. These included my mom’s staples—meatloaf, stew and potpie. Meals back then were simple but wholesome. My mother was (and is) a fantastic cook and I always appreciated the effort she made. I especially loved food traditions as a child and bringing out all the same foods year after year (I recreate those childhood traditions now with my own family).
BSD: When did you realize that food was going to be your professional focus? Was it always a passion?
CS: I don’t think I had an exact defining moment where food was going to be my professional focus…it was a passion slowly building over the years (from my early twenties). I did become more passionate about food when I spent time in Toronto and had the opportunity to rub shoulders with extremely talented Chefs and food professionals and became exposed to more sophisticated products and preparations. I had a fascination with the terroir of the food—where it was grown, how it was grown, and who was growing it. And I still do have that fascination today. I believe I had a deeply-seeded passion for food, but my exposure and connection to those in the food industry helped that passion flourish, up to the point where we decided to launch Urban Element.
BSD: Can you please define what is Urban Element? How has the concept evolved over the years?
CS: Urban Element is what we define as a “culinary venue”—it is an open-concept kitchen and venue, housed in a renovated heritage fire station. We host cooking classes for the public, and private (weddings, sit down dinners, cocktail parties) and corporate events (think team-building cooking classes) for groups. The brand has evolved over the years to now include a catering arm to the business, so we facilitate offsite events as well. I have expanded a part of the business to also include culinary consulting and have launched a food literacy program for youth in schools with Chef Anna March who is a colleague and good friend.
BSD: You and Chef Anna March, came up with the innovative Cultivating Cooks—a hands on, classroom-based elementary school program that teaches kids about growing, cooking, preserving and eating healthy local food. How have you seen this program positively impact students in Ottawa schools? Where do you hope to take this program in the future?
CS: My favourite take-away from our program thus far, was receiving 20 letters from students addressed to the OCDSB Director of Board of Education. The students explained what the Cultivating Cooks program meant to them and why it should stay in schools. This one quote stood out: “I really enjoyed the Cultivating Cooks because it was my dream to cook and bake for my kids when I am older.” This tells us that our impact is reaching beyond the classroom. These sentiments are coming right from the hearts and minds of students. They recognize that experiential learning is equally important in our classroom settings. We hope that Boards across the city can recognize that cooking is a life skill and truly has a place in a progressive educational curriculum.
BSD: You are known for your devotion to improving how and what kids eat. Did this become a more important issue after the birth of your son?
CS: With the inception of the Urban Element, food education definitely played a bigger role in my life. However, it was only when I became a mother myself, that I truly realized the importance of the connection of where our food comes from (food integrity) and the food production cycle. Now I can live the first-hand joys of being able to grow food with my son, seeing him nurture the plants and then relish the moment he tastes what he’s grown from a seed. His astonishment at that “life cycle” is so pure. I think that’s what we’ve lost a bit, in today’s fast paced world, where children grow up only knowing food that’s wrapped under plastic. Cultivating Cooks helps to connect kids back to growing, cooking and sharing—a life skill I feel is essential!
BSD: Where is your favourite place to travel for culinary inspiration?
CS: Europe is always inspiring—I’m a bit smitten with Italian and French cuisine. But I hope to have the chance to explore more regions in the near future. And I appreciate the value given to “terroir” and foods grown and consumed in particular regions. That said, I feel that no matter where I travel, I do my best to seek out what the locals eat and how they experience food. I hope that my food future involves trips to India and more East Asia, as we love eating and cooking those cuisines here at home. I would have to say travelling, in general, has helped me appreciate and be inspired by many diverse cuisines. We don’t have to go far even—we can find much diversity in the backyard of Ontario.
BSD: What are your thoughts about the loss of Anthony Bourdain? He played a pivotal part in the lives of so many people—both within and outside of the food industry.
CS: My initial connection to him was through his book, Kitchen Confidential—the bird’s-eye view of what really goes on in a kitchen—he nailed it—revealing the industry for what it is, for better or worse. When I think about him, I connect mostly to that—how he always told things as they were. He revealed the underbelly. I’ve always admired his frankness; his show—I loved how he didn’t choose necessarily to go high-end—he’d go with the locals, street food. I appreciate how he approached food—the rawness. To seek out the local specialties. The hole in the wall.
BSD: How do you see the future of food evolving in the nation’s capital?
CS: I am going to divert a bit from a traditional answer to this question. Speaking broadly about food in general, in our nation’s capital, food security is a big issue in our city (as it is in many large cities and small towns). What I’ve seen is Chefs and others in the industry, recognizing this and playing a big part in helping to support programs and initiatives to help bridge gaps in food security. The future of food evolves when there is greater accessibility of good food for everyone. Taking a look at the innovative and progressive programs that the Parkdale Food Centre is doing to help with food security issues is a great example of what we can do as a community to help. Food evolution for me starts at the source—so, where are we getting our food from and what is the end result? Food evolution to me (in our city) then would include how we make good food accessible to all.
BSD: Who would be your dream dinner date?
CS: My husband! That’s the truth. We don’t have a lot of time to dine-out like we used to, but I have many fond memories of our past and recent dinner dates and food adventures—I love sharing that time together. We both love good food experiences and so he remains my first-choice dinner date—always!
TOP TEN FAVOURITE THINGS ABOUT OTTAWA
- It really offers the best of all seasons (okay, maybe winter is a bit long).
- You can be swimming in a lake or river, or on a ski hill within (or less than) 20 minutes!
- Pascale’s Ice Cream (there is always a pint in my freezer).
- Our amazing farmers and farmer’s markets.
- Our talented food artisans and food producers.
- It’s a big town dressed up as a city.
- The beauty of farmland, urban space, mountains and water all-surrounding.
- Skating on the canal.
- Ottawa boasts an exceptional array of business leaders and innovators and so it’s an incredible network to be a part of.
- It’s an amazing city to raise a family.