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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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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.

Apropos of nothing, I thought I’d take a moment to document the varying degrees of doneness of red meat.

Blue-Rare does not, as the name might suggest, mean your meat is blue. (Have you ever even heard of a mammal, let alone any animal in the entire kingdom, with blue flesh? Honestly, people!) On the contrary, blue-rare means your meat is seared on the outside and completely red throughout.

Rare is rare, not raw. The outside is seared and it is 75% red throughout the centre. A better choice for leaner cuts, and a true celebration of the animal and its sacrifice for our dining pleasure. Not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for those who like their meat tough, miserable and grey.

Medium-Rare, my personal favourite (except when it comes to a bone-in rib-eye steak, which ought to be medium, in my humble opinion), means the outside is seared and the interior is still 50% red. Again: the interior is 50% red. Not pink. Not brown. Red.

Medium is seared on the outside with 25% pink showing inside. Yup, medium still has colour, folks. A gorgeous pink colour. If you don’t want your steak to look like the image to the right, don’t order it medium. In fact, don’t bother with steak at all; order chicken.

Medium-Well, which is, well, tragic, merely offers a slight hint of pink on the inside. Frankly, we’re approaching shoe-leather territory. It is worth noting, however, there remains a slight hint of pink inside the meat. If you’re ordering your steak medium-well because you’re too ashamed to actually order it well-done, below, see above re chicken.

Well-Done, sacrilegious, is broiled until 100% brown. This is the end of the road. There’s nowhere to go but out the door and to a McDonald’s. Honestly. This animal died so we could cook it and eat it, and you want to annihilate it? And what of the sweat and tears by the farmer, the butcher, and the chef, raising, slaughtering and respecting the meat from cradle to plate?

2010 has been a fantastic year.

And if I could summarize it with just one word, it would be this: travel.

Las Vegas not once, but twice. Twice to DohaQatar, too. Colorado, Kansas and Chicago. Summer through Spain and Morocco, in Paris, LondonEdinburgh, and Toronto, and across Ireland. Phew!

Along the way, I ate, I drank, I laughed and I loved.

And then, come the fall, I returned to school, to the kitchen, to chase down a dream.

Yes, 2010 was a pretty good year. And while I doubt 2011 will look anything like it, I’m hopeful it will be as exciting — replete with new sights, new sounds, new tastes, new adventures.

Onward.

What took me so long? I’ve been to so many places in my life, but always managed to avoid Paris. Idiot!

Rarely have I felt so foolish as I do now: this city is without equal and I’m madly in love with it.

Following almost three weeks traipsing across Spain and Morocco, and after bidding farewell to my dear friend and trusty travel companion in Casablanca, I headed north to spend five days in Paris.

I don’t usually arrive at a place with a checklist of things to see and do, but I made an exception in this case.

The list, while trite, definitely helped me maximize my time in and around the city. To wit:

I’m proud to say I hit them all. And at no point was I disappointed. On the contrary, each site was more spectacular than I even imagined it would be.

The Palace and Park of Versailles—specifically the expansive and ornate gardens, as well as the more organic ones found around Marie Antoinette’s adjoining estate—were a particular favourite of mine.

Of course, Paris is about more than its museums, gardens and galleries. There are the gorgeous, tree-lined avenues; the people-watching from sidewalk cafés; the food. And so, I strolled, I watched and I ate. Oh, did I eat! And I dare say, nothing was more delicious than the escargots swimming in herbed butter at the lovely bistro pictured below.

I can’t say for certain when I’ll be back in Paris, but I do know this: back I will be. Absolument!

After four glorious days in Barcelona, we bid farewell to the city — its cafés, wide, tree-lined avenues, cheap sangria, beautiful beaches and first-rate public transit — and headed south, first to Valencia and then to Alicante.

Our time in Valencia was brief, but still long enough to take in the futuristic Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

We were also able to catch Spain crush Portugal, which was a thrill to be sure! Still, Valencia was yet another big city and, after five days, we needed some peace and quiet.

We found it in Alicante… sort of.

The town is situated a few hours south of Valencia along the picturesque Costa Blanca.

Our first night left a lot to be desired.

Sure, the beach was right out our front door; however, the place wasn’t exactly in Alicante, as advertised, but 5 kilometers outside of town. Not an insurmountable obstacle, but sufficiently inconvenient for us to relocate closer to city the following night.

Doing so proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Yes, we were much closer to the bus station, which meant we could catch the early bus to Granada (our next stop); we were also much closer to Alicante’s vibrant nightlife.

Suffice it to say, we made the early bus, but it wasn’t our finest hour. (Granted, it had been Canada Day the night before.)

Having survived the two-day journey across Middle America, we arrived in Chicago on a sunny, Monday afternoon. I could hardly contain my excitement as the Sears Willis Tower — imposing, iconic, extraordinary — appeared on the horizon. I absolutely love this city and everything about it: The people! The energy! The architecture! The food!

Seriously, if given the choice between New York and Chicago, I’d pick the latter every time. Hands down. Bar none. No questions asked.

And so it was no surprise I made the most of my very short time in town: morning stroll through the University of Chicago’s sprawling urban campus, lunch at Rick Bayliss’ fantastic Frontera Grill, afternoon walk home along the lakeshore, dinner at Avec; a perfect day in a great city with wonderful friends.

The name, Avec, may ring a bell. I’ve mentioned it before. I’ll mention it again, no doubt. The reason is simple: it’s my absolute favourite restaurant in Chicago and a serious contender for my favourite the world over. I’d actually extended my trip and returned to Chicago with my friends, rather than fly home from Denver, in large measure because I’d wanted to sample their new menu. And, let me tell you, Paul Kahan and his crew did not disappoint.

As always, the place was jammed. We waited outside for a better part of half an hour for seats in the long, narrow, wood-lined eatery. Thankfully, the weather was lovely, as was the company. Best of all, we could stare at the diners already seated, already eating, already in heaven, taking comfort in the knowledge we too would soon know such delights.

When we were finally seated, coats checked, I gazed upon the new menu, freshly printed, paper crisply folded, resting every-so-gently atop my plate. I grasped it with my hands and opened it, tentatively, anxiously. First a quick scan: pork shoulder, beef, smelts, the focaccia, snapper, the dates… oh, the dates.

No man is an island — and no diner eats alone at Avec. As such, a brief, yet spirited debate ensued about what we’d order. We settled on the following dishes:

  • “Deluxe” focaccia with Taleggio cheese, truffle oil and fresh herbs
  • Wood-oven braised pork shoulder with chestnut-bacon dumplings, butternut squash, kale, puff pastry and fresh herbs
  • Chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce
  • Melted leek and salsify crostini with Meyer lemons
  • Wood-oven roasted smelts with romesco, spinach-horseradish vinaigrette and preserved lemon
  • Dietzler Farm braised beef with chimichurri, borlotti beans, fingerlings, creme fraiche, red pepper, cocoa nibs and cilantro

Each was sublime, but I liked the dates best. Even better, you can make them at home, courtesy Time Out Chicago. (I’ve yet to do so, but will surely blog about it once I do.)

As my flight took off from O’Hare International the next morning, thoughts of the previous night’s meal still swirling about my sated brain, I bade a silent farewell to the Second City and promised we’d meet again soon.

It’s a promise I fully intend to keep.