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Why cooking?

In the years since I quit my job in Ottawa, returned to Winnipeg, enrolled in culinary school, embarked on a second career, I’ve been asked this question countless times. Why cooking? It’s a question asked of cooks all the time; between them, too.

Some say it’s the thrill of working a busy line; the adrenaline rush that comes with pounding out a string of bills a mile long. Others say it’s the gratification they receive the instant they put up a finished plate; no lag between output and input, effort and reward.

For some, it’s the promise of living the rock-and-roll lifestyle they read about in Anthony Bourdain’s classic, Kitchen Confidential; for others, the promise of celebrity like they saw on the Food Network.

Heck, even a few get into the game… to make money. 

Then there’s the group who cook because they love food—sourcing it, preparing it, serving it, eating it. And why not? What could be more natural, more instinctual, more primordial? On Maslow’s hierarchy, nourishment is about as basic as it gets.

And for an increasing number, that love has inspired an interest in the how of food: how it was raised and harvested, slaughtered and butchered, packed and transported. The why, too: why seasonal, local, sustainable, ethical.

This is why I cook. For the how, the why, and the love.

Values

In my early twenties, newly graduated from university, I was swept up into the world of capital-P politics. It was an exciting time for me: I was young, living on my own in a new city, on the fringes of the political establishment and in the shadow of the political elites.

For a time, the work was satisfying, challenging in a positive way, worth the mounting number of sacrifices. Somewhere along the line, though, the worm turned. The work was no longer satisfying, challenging in ways that were damn-near toxic; the sacrifices too many to abide. I was spent.

Nevertheless, ten years on, what I learned from my time in Ottawa is this: my work must express a set of values, and those values must align with my own.

What do I value? Honesty. Humility. Hard work. Good humour. Being open to new ideas and unafraid of failure. Respecting the natural environment and our place within it. Just giving a damn. Courage.

What to do to practice those things? How best to showcase them? For me, it was a toss-up: go back to university to become a teacher, or to college to become a cook.

To teach or to cook?

I first fell in love with teaching shortly after graduating high school. At that time, I’d been enlisted to start a speech and debate program at a local private school. And while I had no formal teaching experience—let alone any sort of professional experience—I did have an extensive background in debating and public speaking.

They were a challenging two years, but a spark was ignited and was further fuelled by my work with the World Schools Debating Championships as an international adjudicator and assistant coach to the Canadian team.

Speech and debate will forever be my first love. How could it not be? To be an excellent debater or coach requires hard work, humility, good humour, being open to new ideas and unafraid of failure, giving a damn, and, yes, courage. It’s multi-disciplinary in its approach, requiring a wide base of general knowledge; draws equally upon logic and emotion, critical thinking and theatricality. Above all, it is an art and a science. Like cooking.

So why not teach? Aside from the fact there isn’t really a market for, specialization in, or certification of a dedicated speech and debate teacher, I knew in my heart a school wasn’t for me. Not yet anyway. I’m impatient. Easily irritated. Intolerant of assholes and idiots—and especially idiot assholes.

Yes, I realized that while I’d spent nearly a decade working with young people, coaching and judging them in speech and debate, I’d been privileged enough to work almost exclusively with the best, brightest, maturest and most articulate among them. To be thrown into the proverbial lion’s den with a motley crew of teenagers wouldn’t be a good fit for me, or for them.

More than that, though, I yearned to be my own boss, to set my own course, make my own schedule, do things the way I wanted to do them in the manner in which I thought they should be done. Not exactly the mandate of today’s teacher. Definitely today’s chef, though.

The road ahead

Restaurant kitchens demand honesty, hard work, good humour, courage. Being a good cook takes humility, being unafraid of failure, being open to new ideas. And what better way to demonstrate respect for the natural environment than through food—by what we choose to use, how we choose to use it, and so on.

Sure, I’m not yet a chef, and I have a ways to go before I earn that title. I’m not my own boss yet, either. But I am mindful of those values I hold dear when I put on the apron. And while I can’t tell you where the road ahead will lead me—certainly not at any great distance—for the moment anyway, at least until the next bend, you’ll find me in the kitchen. Cooking.

And so long as what I’m doing and where I’m doing it remains consistent with what I believe and how I believe it should be done, I’ll be a happy camper and the road ahead a smooth one.

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And just like that, on a blustery afternoon in late October, a journey that began six months earlier—the summer but a promise, the future wide open and entirely uncertain—came to an end.

The farewell, bittersweet.

As much as I derided Toronto during my stint as a resident, I came to appreciate, even like the place. Big, bustling, a beacon for all those looking for a fresh start, a bit of fun, a next step, a new phase—I couldn’t have asked for a better experience in the Big Smoke.

At turns exhausting and exhilarating, hectic and hilarious, heart-breaking and utterly brilliant: this was my Toronto.

To my Brüs and fellow Belongers, thank you for your camaraderie and your gallows humour, for your supportive advice and welcome criticism, for schooling me in “would you rather” and in honest work, for the chance to prepare some great food together and have fun doing it.

To Brad, thank you for such an incredible opportunity, for the faith you placed in me and the confidence that it instilled in me, for the openness with which you welcomed me into your Belong family, and for inspiring me with your ethos of sustainability, of community, of belonging.

To my flatmates, thank you for making our house a home (even if it was a chaotic one) and a hub for like-minded souls, for being so loving and so familial, for giving me endless memories of mornings, afternoons, evenings and late-nights.

Most of all, thank you to the indefatigable, incomparable Charlotte. Without you, none of it would have ever been possible. You are a dear friend and an incredible cook; your passion infectious, your creativity inspiring, your heart enormous.

I’ve never been a big fan of farewells. I prefer the promise of meeting again, of reuniting with friends old and new, of picking up where we left off, of keeping the bonds, once forged, unbroken.

À bientôt, mes amis.

A few helpful rules about fridges…

1)   Fridges are designed to preserve fresh food.

2)   They are not a place to store: a) garbage; b) compost; or, c) medicine.

3)   If food has been used, cut, opened or otherwise adulterated, wrap it up.

4)   When in doubt, throw it out.

Is it June already?

By my count, I’ve been in Toronto for about 6 weeks now. (With a brief return to Winnipeg, then to Edmonton, squished in there, too.) And yet, at once it seems like only yesterday I was driving cross-country with my bro — and so very long ago we were making the trip. That time has lost all meaning is, I suspect, a byproduct of working in the hospitality industry — my working life now revolving around others’ leisure time.

I’ve had days off before, but this one is the first I truly feel like I can take a breath and relax. I’m moved in, there’s no racing around to do, last-minute errands, things needed to be picked up, and so on. And so, I’m taking the opportunity to catch you up on the past month or so — my first in my new job at Brad Long’s Cafe Belong at the innovative Evergreen Brick Works (what Winnipeg’s Forks Market could have — and should have been).

Sustainable, local and, whenever possible, organic. To me, this best sums up the approach Chef/Owner Brad Long has taken with his eponymous-ish cafe. And it’s an ethos I can get behind. Indeed, what excites me most about my placement at Belong is how the work I do aligns with the values I hold (something that, as time wore on, was lost when I was toiling away in the political trenches in Ottawa). Quite simply, I’m working in an environment that is, well, conscious of the environment. That, to me — and Martha — is a good thing.

For the first few weeks, I spent most of my time in our production kitchen, supporting both the cafe and the catering operation. It was an excellent initiation, as I was able to see and work with virtually all the products we receive from our various local suppliers — from whole pigs to the tiniest of micro greens, live lobsters to the littlest sardines.

More recently, I’ve been brought on line to work the grade manger station. It’s been both a challenge and a thrill. When the weather is nice, our patio and park-like setting make us somewhat of a destination for area residents. On those days, the brunch and lunch services can be quite hectic. Finding my stride amidst the chaos has tested my patience, my skills, my nerve, and my knees. I’m managing. In the process, though, I’ve also been able to put up dishes I’ve been really proud of, and I’ve learned a great deal about plating style and presentation.

Though I spend the majority of my time at the Brick Works, I did have the chance to spend an evening at the Royal Ontario Museum serving up “picnic biscuits” for Toronto Taste 2012, an annual fundraising event in support of Toronto’s Second Harvest, which brings together some of the city’s best restaurant and beverage purveyors. We were among them. I think the kids would say that was “rad.”

Of course, it hasn’t been all work. On a previous day off, when my dear friend and chef, @charlotke, invited me to spend the day with her at Norman Hardie’s winery, I leapt at the chance. Not only does Norman make absolutely brilliant wine, but his vineyard is located in the otherworldly and utterly picturesque Prince Edward County.

In all, the first six weeks have tough, tiring, but never dull. Indeed, all signs suggest it will be a fantastic summer.

I had barely had time to settle in Toronto, following my mad dash across northwestern Ontario, when I found myself flying home to Winnipeg last week for a four-day training program with my coach and evening dining instructor to prepare for the Skills Canada competition in Edmonton.

In short, from the time my brother and I left Winnipeg on May 1, I have been going flat out — as a cross-country driver, furniture mover, newbie cook, and, now, national culinary competitor.

As a consequence, I have tried to avoid sitting for long periods of time; I fear if I stop moving, my head will keep spinning right off my body, onto the floor and down a hallway or street like an errant ball or tumbleweed.

However, the effort and exhaustion have been worth it: the past few days in Edmonton have been great fun and, more importantly, I’ve made great strides technically and creatively as a cook.

The competition spanned two days: three and a half hours on the first day to prepare the appetizer course; four on the second to prepare the main. The scope was similar to the provincial competition: the first course had to feature quail served both hot and cold, and the second, salmon and scallops; both had to feature a farce or forcemeat, and a sauce.

Day One: Quail Duo
Terrine with a Fennel, Orange and Basil Slaw, and an Apple Coulis
Bacon-wrapped Ballontine with a Spinach Farce, and a Port-wine Reduction

Day Two: Salmon & Scallop
Loin of Salmon with a Scallop Mousseline Crown, Pan-seared Scallops with a Shiitake and Button Mushroom Duxelles, Roasted Garlic and Lemon Parisienne-style Gnocchi, Asparagus, and a Beurre Blanc

Did I win? Nah.

I am totally cool with the result, too. I knew the odds were slim, my competition steep. I also knew simply doing it — and all the work that would go into getting ready for it — was reward enough for me.

Will there be other competitions in my culinary future? Hard to say. After all, it’s been many years since I actually competed in anything — and never at something as challenging as cooking.

During my years in secondary school, I competed quite frequently and quite capably in public speaking and debating. And while all competitions are similar in some ways, the key difference, for me anyway, between competitive communications and cookery is that I had natural knack for speaking in front of a crowd.

Cooking is another story.

In fact, I suspect one of the reasons why I’m so enamoured with the culinary arts is because I actually have to work my butt off. Yep, it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

True story.

And being a competitor at Skills Canada? Made the Grand Finals in Cyprus over a decade ago seem so… simple.

No matter. I try to live my life like I might get run over by a big red bus. I love a challenge, too. And on the heels of Edmonton 2012, I’m ready to tackle this challenge.

Knives sharp!

Our oceans are in peril.

Overfishing, pollution and climate change are a lethal combination threatening the very existence of our planet’s most diverse ecosystem. Fish stocks are dwindling; life sustaining coral reefs are disappearing at a record pace; oceanic “dead zones” are expanding; certain aquatic species are on the verge of extinction.

It’s no surprise this calamity has touched the foodservice industry.

Ethical diners, demanding chefs, and a network of advocacy organizations (Ocean Wise, an initiative of the Vancouver Aquarium in Canada; Sea Choice, of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, U.S.A.; the U.K.-based Marine Stewardship Council) are together shifting the foodservice industry towards sustainable seafood in response to increasing concerns about the future of the world’s fisheries.

Just as they are already doing for meat products, diners are also slowly seeking out restaurants that approach their seafood purchases ethically. And for many chefs, while choice may be limited and prices slightly higher, the increased quality of the products makes the move an easy one. Line-caught fish are in much better condition than their net-caught brethren; there is less bruising, scales and overall skeletal structure is in much better shape, they can be held in refrigeration for much longer periods of time.

Of course, finding suppliers that carry sustainable seafood can be a challenge, which is where organizations like Ocean Wise, Sea Choice and the Marine Stewardship Council come in. They work with fisheries to ensure their practices are sustainable, monitor them on their progress, and each run successful labeling and branding programs to aid consumers and chefs alike make their purchases.

So, what is sustainable seafood?  Ocean Wise provides a concise definition:

“Species that are caught or farmed in a way that ensures the long-term health and stability of that species, as well as the greater marine ecosystem.”

And when assessing a species to determine whether or not it is sustainable, Ocean Wise relies upon four basic criteria, asking:

  1. Is it abundant and resilient to fishing pressures?
  2. Is it well-managed using current research?
  3. Is it harvested in a method that limits by-catch?
  4. Is it harvested in a way that limits damage to marine or aquatic habitats and negative interactions with other species?

Best of all, for Ocean Wise, the answer is as simple as black-and-white: either a species is sustainable or it isn’t – making it that much easier for both the home consumer and for the foodservice industry to make the choice.

I was first introduced to sustainable seafood by the fantastic folks at Ottawa’s Whalesbone Oyster House. (They introduced me to quite a few things, in fact; Sailor Jerry’s spiced rum quickly comes to mind, but that’s a story best left untold!) There, they pride themselves on only serving sustainable seafood — and do so marvellously, thanks in no small measure to a brilliant team of culinary wunderkinds. Better still, the efforts of proprietor Joshua Bishop to promote sustainable fish and shellfish created such demand in the Ottawa region, a few years ago he opened a second, complementary operation: the Whalesbone Sustainable Oyster and Fish Store. Cool, eh?

Anyway, suffice it to say, it is heartening, as an aspiring chef, to see the industry move in this direction. We all, regardless of our profession or vocation, ought to find ways to conduct our businesses more ethically and sustainably. And, making the choice to buy, prepare and serve only sustainably caught or harvested seafood is a small, but important step in the right direction.

Like lettuce, but smaller. Much smaller.

Microgreens are fast becoming a popular garnish for everything from posh plates to simple sandwiches.

When trying to categorize them, it’s easiest to think of microgreens as being smaller than baby lettuces, but larger than sprouts. And, like sprouts, they should be grown in a shallow, soil-filled tray in full light.

The plants from which microgreens can be harvested are almost endless. Broccoli, carrot, spinach, cabbage, celery, fennel, onion, parsley, radish, turnip, leek, watercress, mustard, arugula, lemon grass, lettuce, clover, mizuna, milk thistle, tatsoi: all can produce microgreens simply by allowing the seedlings to grow until they have between one and two true sets of leaves, then harvesting them by snipping them off with scissors just above the soil surface.

Microgreens work equally well as a garnish for, or as an integral element of a dish, offering chefs that extra bit of colour and texture when composing a plate. They can also provide an additional layer of flavour – ranging from delicate to loud, subtle to spicy.

Ironically, despite their size, these small plants come with a hefty price tag: around $8 per 100 grams. Still, for many chefs, the options and additional oomph microgreens provide are worth the added cost.

Curiously, despite their rising popularity amongst chefs and foodies, microgreens have yet to make their way onto the shelves of grocery stores.

Baby lettuces and mesclun greens, pioneered by California chef and restaurateur Alice Waters decades ago, are now a staple of virtually every supermarket produce section and the go-to salad mix for many home cooks. Sprouts, too, despite occasional concerns about E. coli contamination, also remain readily available. Even herbs, long available only in their dried forms, are now being sold fresh.

How long before microgreens find their place in the produce aisle?

It’s only a matter of time.

In the Ottawa valley, for example, in the past few years a number of producers have cropped up (pun intended) to support that region’s robust restaurant scene, including Butterfly Sky Farms, Bryson Farms, Fines Herbes par Daniel, and Les Jardiniers du Chef.

As with so many things, the supply-and-demand dance will continue for some time yet before microgreens reach the same ubiquity as mesclun. In the meantime, chefs can continue to do their part to raise the awareness of, and increase the demand for microgreens by seeking them out from regional producers and using them in their dishes and on their plates.

Who knows? By the end of the decade, Safeway might be stocking bunches of shiso, mizuna and pak choi alongside heads of romaine, iceberg and red leaf.