Cooked with love – how artists support vineyard workers during COVID-19

How almost 600 Alchemy artists meals brought vineyard workers together during COVID-19

Alchemy Artists COVID-19 Project Closson Chase - The County Foundation
Photo courtesy of Kirstyn Mayers,

Harvest season. It’s always a special time of year, and during this unprecedented year we’re all living through, celebrating the hard work of the harvest has become even more meaningful. And this is precisely what Alchemy Artist Residency collaborators Claire M. Tallarico and Tonia Di Risio set out to do this harvest season. 

Alchemy is an international artist-led residency devoted to exploring the synergy between creative practices and the cooking and sharing of locally cultivated food in a community setting. The Residency, founded in 2015, takes place on the Toronto Islands and Hillier, Prince Edward County. Participating artists work in various mediums and, during their two weeks, share their work and ideas with each other as well as take part in lively communal dinners.

Led by Tallarico and Di Risio, the first group of Alchemists came to the County in 2017 – 12 artists from Ontario, British Columbia, Sweden, Latvia, Québec and the United States. The concept of feeding creativity is at the heart of Alchemy. Claire notes, “We were drawn to Hillier – a place where we could work in collaboration with people who are inspired by their surroundings and growing and making beautiful food and wine.”

COVID-19 delays international flights and Closson Chase Vineyard workers self-isolate upon arrival

Thanks to Claire and Tonia’s curiosity and growing friendships with winemakers, farmers, bakers, and chefs, Alchemy residents have had the opportunity to connect more deeply with Prince Edward County residents. During a visit to Closson Chase Vineyard, Claire and Tonia learned about the history of the now decommissioned church, which currently stands at the corner of Closson and Chase Roads. 

“Winemaker Keith Tyers told us that we were standing beside the home for Closson Chase’s vineyard workers. That really got us thinking about the community of people whose hard work and knowledge are so essential to local farms and wineries.” 

These conversations stayed with the Alchemists. During the pandemic, with many Ontario businesses closed or just starting to reopen, “The traditional way of Alchemy artists gathering in Hillier this year was not an option. Tonia and I started thinking about possibilities for our community of working artists and cooks to acknowledge farm and vineyard workers during an especially challenging growing season.” The pair reached out to Keith Tyers, winemaker at Closson Chase. 

Since starting out as a vineyard hand in 2003, winemaker Keith Tyers has worked in every role at Closson Chase. In March, when international flights that typically bring vineyard workers to Canada temporarily halted, Keith and his Prince Edward County colleagues quickly stepped into the fields and started preparing the vines. 

Keith shares, “Our winery depends on the hard work of many. Our staff members from Mexico have been with us a long time – one individual just celebrated 15 seasons – and we know it’s not easy to leave your family for extended periods. Let alone two weeks of isolation after landing in Canada and another two weeks after returning home to Mexico in the fall.”

“We all recognized that 2020 wasn’t going to be a normal harvest. When Claire and Tonia raised the idea of artists and cooks providing suppers to Hillier based vineyard workers, I knew they were onto something special. Thankfully, we have the resources here at Closson Chase to help bring this idea to life.” Keith notes.

Table Settings helps connects Storehouse Foodbank with vineyard workers in Hillier

Conversations with Keith – and the generous donation of Closson Chase’s Ridge Kitchen for use by Alchemy artists – led to discussions with the municipal government. Ernie Margetson, councillor for Hillier, Todd Davis, acting director of community development & strategic initiatives and Emily Cowan, community programs supervisor were all involved. Emily introduced Claire to The County Foundation. Claire notes, “We spoke with president Brian Beiles and quickly saw possibilities with the Foundation. Brian, in turn, connected us to Linda Downey, president of Storehouse Foodbank in Wellington, who was very receptive to becoming our charitable partner.”

Based in Wellington and serving surrounding areas from Ameliasburgh to Bloomfield and from Carrying Place to Consecon, the Storehouse Foodbank currently serves almost 400 individuals twice a month. Since 2007, anyone can pick up basic necessities every Wednesday from 1:00 to 3:00 pm or make arrangements for delivery or special access. 

Run entirely by volunteers, president Linda Downey shares that,

“Due to COVID-19, we’re unfortunately unable accept donations of clothing or household items and incorporated new safety protocols for clients and volunteers. Each week we give out meat, fresh produce, dairy products, bread, all the staples, toiletries, cleaning and sanitizing products. We also cook and deliver 100 meals each week to seniors in our community, these meals are prepared by Chef Michael Hoy and Food to Share. Given the emotional as well as financial uncertainty many are experiencing, the opportunity to bring the comfort of cooked meals to more community members caught my attention.”

“Taking part in Table Settings enabled us to reach more people who were dealing with isolation during COVID-19 as well as being away from their family and friends for months at a time.”

It didn’t take long for Alchemy, in the form of Table Settings, to take root. Claire and Tonia created a safe and respectful way to share thoughtfully prepared meals with vineyard workers. A series of free, heathy and hearty meals were soon launched for Hillier area vineyard and farm workers. Twice a week, more than 36 workers enjoyed meals made by Alchemy’s small masked group of artists and cooks. 

Ingredients for 600 meals sourced from local PEC farmers and growers

Thanks to the efforts of many volunteers, harvest season 2020 in Prince Edward County is bringing people together in unexpected and meaningful ways. Between July 29 and October 16, Alchemy planned, cooked and contributed close to 600 meals. The Foodbank and The County Foundation’s financial contribution meant that ingredients were sourced locally from farmers and growers including Danforth Acres, Blue Wheelbarrow Farm, Lakeshore Farms, Thyme Again Gardens and Sprigglen Meat Market. Everything from egg and cheese frittatas to seared brined pork tenderloin to savoury seasonal soups were created using local ingredients. 

Five years after its founding, Alchemy is stronger than ever. While traditional ways of gathering and sharing haven’t been possible during COVID-19, Alchemy artists and cooks continue to focus on creative practice and community engagement. 

Alchemy Artists COVID-19 Project - The County Foundation
Photo courtesy of Kirstyn Mayers,

In conclusion | Want to learn more about the PEC Helping PEC COVID-19 Fund?

Visit our COVID-19 Fund page to donate, apply for a grant and learn about the people and businesses who have given a financial gift to support the people of Prince Edward County during the pandemic.