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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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I’ve finally returned home after two whirlwind weeks in Doha, Qatar.

As you’ll recall, I was representing Canada as one of the country’s official adjudicators at the 22nd World Schools Debating Championships. To say it was an incredible experience would be an understatement.

Under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned and the generous sponsorship of the Qatar Foundation, QatarDebate staged the largest competition in the championship’s 22-year history: a record 57 countries competed.

I’d every intention of blogging more regularly about my experiences; however, once things got going, I simply didn’t have the time to do so. No excuse, I know, but true nonetheless: as anyone who’s been to the tournament can attest, it’s an all-consuming enterprise. As such, rather than providing you with a play-by-play accounting of events, I’m forced to pen a retrospective…

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Canada made history yesterday, winning the World Schools Debating Championships for the first time in 22 years.

I’m still a little shell shocked. However, once the dust settles, I promise to publish a full accounting. Until then, suffice it to say I’m one very proud Canadian.

I’m currently sitting in the departure lounge of Winnipeg’s James A. Richardson International Airport.

The next time I set foot outside I’ll be half a world away, a stone’s throw from the Persian Gulf, in sunny Doha, Qatar.

My journey will be a fairly direct one, with a mere two stops: Toronto (Pearson) and London (Heathrow).

The uncharacteristically friendly gate agent from Air Canada (I know, weird) kindly seated me on the aisle of an exit row for the Toronto-London leg. He made my day.

Not making my day: the jerk sitting next to me here in the lounge who has decided to remove his shoes.

Attention Jerk: your feet smell like well-worn hockey equipment.

Here’s hoping the gate agent and the smelly feet guy cancel each other out, thereby restoring the universe’s cosmic balance and ensuring a (reasonably) easy trip.

Rest assured, I’ll let you know either way.

In a little over 48 hours, I’ll be saying sayonara to the snow banks, farewell to the frigid temperatures, adios to the Arctic cold.

No, I’m not heading south to some all-inclusive resort. Nope. I’ll be heading east. To the Middle East, in fact. Doha, Qatar, to be exact.

Qatar?

Yes. Qatar.

For a holiday?

Not quite.

I’ll be representing Canada as one of the country’s official adjudicators at the 22nd World Schools Debating Championships.

Since 1988, the World Schools Debating Championships have been held annually, hosting high school students from around the world in what is tantamount to the Olympics of High School Debating. I had the privilege of debating for Canada at the competition ten years ago – and instantly fell in love with the event, its ideals, and the people it brought together.

My involvement with debating and public speaking, however, started much, much earlier.

I delivered my first speech at the tender age of six and, frankly, never looked back. By junior high, I was routinely participating in local debating competitions; by senior high, competitions across Canada. (Editor’s note: Self-congratulatory statements to follow. Apologies in advance.) I enjoyed a fair bit of success, too: I was named the Canadian champion in 1999, won the World Public Speaking and Debating Championships held in Cyprus in 2000, and, as I’ve just mentioned, earned a place on the Canadian High School Debating Team representing Canada at the World Schools Debating Championships in Pittsburgh, USA that same year.

Pittsburgh. Not the most pleasant of places in February, I know. But the competition: it was extraordinary.

The caliber of my competitors and the depth of knowledge required to compete on an equal footing with them; the sense of camaraderie that came from living, working and debating amongst a 5-person team; the young people – just like me! – that had come from every conceivable corner of the planet to debate in an atmosphere of respect, understanding, friendship and in the spirit of healthy competition: I had never previously experienced anything like it in my life – and I was hooked.

So, when I graduated from high school and went on to university, rather than continuing my own debating career I chose instead to assist future Canadian teams and began my second career as an international judge. A decision I’ve never once regretted.

In the ensuing decade I’ve travelled to Singapore, Lima, Stuttgart, Cardiff, Seoul, Washington, Athens, and, in a few days time, Doha.

I’ve met a lot of wonderful people along the way. Judged many outstanding debates (and some less-than-outstanding ones, too). Toured ancient ruins, demilitarized zones and national parliaments. Seen the insides of scores of high school gymnasiums, libraries, lunch rooms and theatres. In short, I’ve had a blast.

But ten years is a long time. And, in this year of new chapters, new beginnings, it’s time to bring this volume of my life – Ade, Kris; Debating and Public Speaking, 2000-2010 – to a close.

Thankfully, I can’t think of a better way to go than with this forthcoming championship, the largest yet; surrounded by friends; in pursuit of such noble goals as free speech and international understanding.