It makes me cringe hearing a chef advise young cooks to take to the stove for love, not money. I get it. Passion is the pilot light that sparks a career. It’s a key ingredient in great cooking. Passion binds us to our masters, peers, and customers. But I’ve spent enough time on-the-line to recognize the subtext. In the business of professional cooking we want cooks with low expectations. It’s best when they want little.
I’ve heard this message twice in the past month—once at a culinary conference and again in the documentary For Grace. In the film, chef Grant Achatz discusses his professional commitment (and in turn, his expectations for his staff). He tells us that after a 12-hour shift in the restaurant he feels conflicted about whether to go home to his girlfriend or continue to work. We understand that when it comes to love, the restaurant usually wins. He tells potential employees that if they have pets they will need to find someone to care for them because they won’t have time. It’s clear from a video on Alinea’s website that 16-hour days are the norm.
I admire Achatz’s achievements but there’s a small voice inside me insisting that his practice is crazy, beyond the realm of reason. In pushing labour’s limits has he lost a sense of humanity? Is he normalizing working conditions that are socially (and legally) exploitive?
Must cooks be socially and personally deprived in order to create culturally enlightening cuisine? Why can’t a restaurant like Alinea—where the cost to dine is astonishingly high and customer demand never wanes—hire more cooks? Run a second shift? What’s the business case for this? Where does Grant Achatz draw the line?
Partners, lovers, and pets are the things that make us most human. Does doing it for love mean abandoning the ones we love? Missing weddings, funerals, and important events is a badge of honour for most cooks. But what does it say about the sanity of our culture?
The companion issue to long working hours is compensation. There’s an uncomfortable scene in For Grace that takes place on the doorstep of Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago. Chef Trotter greets chef Curtis Duffy (who has plans to dine in the restaurant that evening) by ordering him explicitly to get off his property. Duffy had reaped the financial rewards from a class-action lawsuit launched by Beverly Kim, a former Trotter employee, over lost wages due to overtime work.
What’s striking is Trotter’s indignation. He clearly still feels justified in a practice that a court of law found problematic. His sense of what was right for his cooks needs correcting. I think of this abuse of labour (and power) when I hear a chef tell young cooks to do it for love. The perversity of Trotter’s indignation is clear to one writer: “Perfecting your craft is important, and in many professions you have to work your way up through the ranks. But the idea that you don't get paid a fair wage for the hours you actually worked? Maybe if you're an artist or a scholar and your work doesn't produce any revenue, that makes sense. Last time we dined at Trotters, the bill was over $1,000.”
Most restaurants these days deal with the issue of overtime by offering a flat day rate. In Toronto, rates average $140 to $150 a day. A 12-hour shift (not unusual) paid at minimum wage is roughly $143.50 ($10.25 x 8, $15.38 x 4). Because most cooks are doing it for love they don’t do the math and are unaware that they’re working for minimum wage. I sat with a cook recently with two years of culinary school training and five years of the best quality experience in Toronto restaurants. She was surprised by this bottom line. What surprised me was the indifference her employer had for her professional experience. I think of that when I hear chefs telling young cooks not to worry about the money.
Labour issues are like a simmering pot in our kitchens. It’s getting increasingly difficult for chefs to predict when it will boil over. Batali, Boulud, Puck, and Colicchio are just a few of the chefs who have met Trotter’s same fate. Chef Daniel Boulud makes it clear just how pervasive wage theft is: “If I was the only one in New York being into these things, I will be upset…but I’m not the only one.” It’s hard to tell from this statement if the offense—stealing wages and tips from employees—even registers as problematic to him.
It’s ironic that those being force-fed the rhetoric of working for passion must call to account chefs who appear to be doing it for the love of money alone. The interests of a chef or restaurateur can be at sharp odds with those of the cooks they employ.
‘Slim profit margins’ is the standard business response to these thorny matters. There’s no denying that rising costs—not the least of which is real estate—put considerable pressure on a restaurant. But something about this system works for business interests. If it didn’t, many of our most esteemed chefs and restaurateurs wouldn’t lobby governments to cap the minimum wage.
This isn’t limited to Canada. This past week restaurateurs in New York State were warning of job losses if the minimum wage were increased. It’s far easier to squash the financial ambitions of cooks than to ask customers to pay more. Imagine if such talented and esteemed members of the culinary community set their minds and experience to finding a way to adequately compensate the cooks they employ rather than investing so fiercely in the-sky-is-falling narrative.
Who determined that customers weren’t interested enough in the quality of the lives of cooks on-the-line to pay them a decent wage? In the same way we’ve had to teach customers about the value of quality products we will have to teach them that providing legal and humane working conditions may mean that meals cost more.
I don’t want young cooks coming to us without passion. But I do want them to come to the profession expecting a whole lot more. What would the business of cooking look like if we valued balanced lives? If we appropriately reimbursed cooks who contribute to a restaurant’s profits? Do we damage our profession when we expect rising talent to live on passion alone? In light of our recent history, and in the absence of any demonstrated leadership from chefs who matter reimagining the future of professional cooking will likely fall to cooks working on-the-line.
 Anthony Todd. “The Darker Side of Charlie Trotter’s.” Chicagoist. August 2012.
 Robin Kawakami. “Chef Daniel Boulud Responds to Lawsuit Over Employees’ Tips.” Speakeasy Blog. Wall Street Journal. June 17, 2014.
“My soul hurts.” That’s Richie Nakano’s grief talking. He’s mourning the loss of his beloved Hapa Ramen. Strange to say but when I read his story in Inside Scoop SF my soul hurt too. I’m a long way from San Francisco, with no connection to the restaurant or Richie, but reading about this talented young chef and his lost dream was hard. It’s a cautionary tale about the perils of restaurant business partnership.
It is damn near impossible for any chef to single-handedly fund a restaurant’s development. Many must get hitched, in the business sense, in order to see their dreams come true. To understand how difficult it is to find a good match, do a Google search of chefs and business partners. There’s an endless stream of stories of famous and not-so-famous chefs involved in bitter legal battles. At root they’re all about the same thing—the partnership wasn’t right.
Richie Nakano’s business partner was from the tech sector and had a long list of accomplishments at companies like Amazon and Facebook. It’s unclear if he had previous business experience in restaurants.
In return for the cash injection Richie Nakano sold his soul. He signed away the rights to the Hapa Ramen name and brand, a business he’d been building since 2010. Those terms should make a chef nervous. They should make their legal counsel nervous too. I wonder if Richie was advised that his talents were business assets? That the life he breathed into Hapa Ramen had value?
The unraveling comes early and begins with profitability. Four months in to the venture and the investor’s looking for return. Was he expecting the same fantastical profits he’d experienced with online start-ups? Restaurants don’t work that way. Covering expenses and paying down some of the capital costs in the first year is a triumph. Unrealistic financial expectations would have backed Nakano and his artistic integrity into a corner.
Deborah Blum, restaurateur and advisor to the tech investor, pointed to Nakano’s social media personality as a pivotal issue in rapidly deteriorating relations when Nakano publicly challenges a mediocre review by a well-established San Francisco food critic. His reputation as a straight talking chef was part of the Hapa Ramen brand; it's not a sudden shift in character. Shaming Nakano is a weak attempt to evade responsibility. But there’s something else in her finger wagging. Could it be that the investor (under poor advisement) didn’t practice due diligence in researching his investment? Were the financial accounts for Nakano’s market stall and pop-up events reviewed? Did the contract specify Nakano’s obligations to balancing the books? Was that tied to bonuses or penalties? It seems that the big pile of cash didn’t come with a whole lot in the way of restaurant business grey matter?
I’m reminded of a story told to me by a successful female restaurateur. Before striking a deal, she and her potential partner had a lawyer take them through every possible worst-case business scenario. She described the experience as traumatic and told me it struck fear into both of their hearts. They signed a deal and their restaurant partnership lasted more than 30 years.
I suspect it was a less rigorous, more optimistic beginning for Nakano and his partner. As a chef, I stand with Richie. I’d like to wave a wand and restore his dreams. I wish he’d found someone with business talent to match his own.
What remains between them is a lifeless brand. I hope that after the grief, something new comes. I’m sure that the mind that created Hapa Ramen from scratch can create more and next time he’ll know the value of his soul.
I began my cooking career in fine French restaurants during the mid 80s when the revolutionary ideas and techniques of France’s Nouvelle Cuisine movement were taking hold in Canadian kitchens. One of the most significant changes involved cooking vegetables—green ones in particular—for less time so that they retained their vibrant colour and pleasing texture. Anyone overcooking vegetables so all their natural appeal was discarded with the cooking water was thought déclassé. (Exemptions were made for grandmothers: Who had the courage to tell them times had changed?)
Cooking vegetables perfectly requires skill. Crunching on vegetables more raw than cooked is as disconcerting as eating those killed by overcooking. Ever had to wrestle with undercooked vegetables on a dinner plate? When a fork or knife can't penetrate, things can get very messy: carrots, broccoli or beans are projected, missile-like, across the table.
But there are times when vegetables are best cooked to completely tender. There's an essential pleasure in simmering or stewing them well beyond reason in dishes where the rich vegetable concentrate that results from long cooking is an integral part of the recipe, not to be drained away. These dishes, cooked in a manner the French call paysanne, have deep agrarian roots.
For me, there are three vegetable soups that deliver this kind of simple enjoyment. They're not the vibrant green or exotically spiced purées of celebrity chefs. They're made with little more than fresh vegetables, some good meat stock, and salt and pepper to taste.
The first is Marcella Hazan's Minestrone di Romagna. So dear is this soup to me (and to my father) that I used it to pay tribute to Marcella when she passed late last year. Here, a mixture of hardy roots and tender green vegetables are simmered over very low heat for three hours. Miraculously most of the vegetables retain their shape while hovering perilously close to deterioration. Because the simmer is slow and gentle, at the end of cooking discernible cubes of potato and zucchini remain along with the green beans. The vegetables that do meld into the base are the sliced caramelized onions that start the flavour-building process, and the shredded Savoy cabbage that marks the finish of the vegetable additions. They add sweetness and form a tender soft mush that is the soup’s underbelly. It's the kind of humble nourishing meal that would be found in the bowl of the farmer in the painting Il Mangiafagioli (The Bean Eater) by Annibale Carracci. Marcella writes that this soup "has a mellow dense flavour that recalls no vegetable in particular but all of them at once."
That descriptor perfectly suits another soup that I adore. It comes from a book I think no discerning cook should be without: Simon Hopkinson's Week In, Week Out. His Simple Cream of Vegetable Soup would be on my deathbed menu. When fully cooked and puréed, its colour calls to mind the muted green and golden yellow of split pea soup, the two bunches of fresh watercress called for losing their brilliant spring green after an hour of cooking. Hopkinson claims to have learned how to prepare this soup "as a keen young apprentice at The Normandie, the renowned French restaurant near Bury, Lancashire, when I toiled there during a couple of school holidays in the 1970s."
Like its colour, the soup’s flavour is a gentle mix of sweet and earthy from leeks, carrots, mushrooms and watercress. Its smooth, slightly thickened texture owes much to being puréed in a food mill rather than a blender, and it's finished with a lavish amount of whipping cream, no surprise given its Normandy roots. It's a soup that speaks of another time and perhaps that's what I like best about it. It's a reminder of wonderful simple dinners in French bistros, and of mature chefs who cling with fierce pride to the dishes of their youth.
Simon Hopkinson's Cream of Vegetable Soup
The final vegetable soup comes from The Roux Brothers French Country Cooking by Albert and Michel Roux, who were seminal influences during my apprenticeship. I met Michel Roux once and when I asked him to sign this book (now sadly out of print), he beamed and told me that it was his favourite book because most of the recipes were his mother’s. It was a golden moment for me.
Their recipe for Soupe au Pistou is stuffed full of just that kind of Gallic charm. It stands head and shoulders above all other versions. Over time, I have made a few small revisions to the recipe—I use good-quality chicken stock instead of water and cook the pasta separately—believing the brothers would approve. The cooking time here is the shortest of the three vegetable soups so the broth remains clear. The final flourish of thick pesto, stirred in just prior to serving, is a triumph. As the soup arrives at the table, an ethereal herbaceous cloud, pungent with fresh basil, envelops the eater, stimulating the appetite. This soup was on a lunch menu I crafted when I worked at The Old Prune in Stratford, Ont., and customers would often wax poetic about it (and about the goat cheese soufflé from the wonderful chef Sally Clarke of London, England).
If there were little in my culinary repertoire besides these three vegetable soups, I'd still be considered a damn fine cook. They're old fashioned, elegant and accomplished. So complete that they need little else—a good loaf of bread, some fine butter, a piece of ripe cheese and local fruit to finish.
Much is made of modern chefs planting gardens and turning to vegetables as a primary source of inspiration. Chefs everywhere want to be seen with their kitchen clogs sinking into a garden’s dark loamy earth. This trend is often pitched as a revolutionary state, a modern innovation, like nothing we've seen before. And in its subtleties it could well be. But when I look into a bowl of one of these three vegetable soups, I can see its roots. I know with great certainty that, where vegetables are concerned, everything old is new again.
 Hazan, Marcella. The Classic Italian Cookbook. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973) p. 63
There's a small window during early spring when I'm driven to irrational acts in the produce department of my local grocery store. I'm so tired of the limited contents of my winter fruit bowl; I begin to consider the out-of-season fruit on offer. I approach a display of melons, lifting a honeydew that is turning a soft yellow—a sign of maturity—and press the blossom end to my nose, hoping to inhale its honeyed scent. I smell nothing. Melons need the hot sun of high summer to ripen fully so I know that the good ones are still months away. Such is the state of my desire; I turn and consider the berries.
Fruit out of season is a taunt, a promise without the delivery. It's a caution against rushing the seasons. Harold McGee brings me back to this cold continent when he states that "quality depends mainly on how far [the fruit] had ripened on the plant. They're best when picked and shipped as ripe as possible."
But ripeness is a state at odds with travel. Consider the great care needed to transport fruit that is fully ripe and tender the few short miles from local market to your home. It's like carrying a stack of porcelain teacups. So growers who have to ship their produce great distances harvest fruit before it reaches its "last, intense phase of life." Its essential pleasure remains in the field, its natural cycle foreshortened. Edward Behr writes that "a melon that's picked only partly ripe will gain in juice off the vine but not in aroma or sugar", so those under ripe specimens I was contemplating will never realize their potential as a "feast for our eye and palate."
Ripeness is what I'm really after in the chill grey days of early April. When the tinge of spring green seems impossibly far off. I long to breathe in the soft floral fragrance of a melon warm from the sun, to have its juices run down my arm as I scoop the moist tangle of seeds and fibrous strands from its core and taste its succulence. I crave eating an entire melon in one day so that it won't sour or, worse, need refrigeration. Ripeness turns so quickly to rot.
My restlessness owes something to the fact that, come early spring, winter fruit starts to suffer its own deterioration. It loses moisture, a sure sign of months of storage under less-than-ideal conditions. The once thick, supple skin of Cara Cara oranges begins to thin and toughen; clinging so tightly to the juicy pulp it protects that peeling is tricky. Apples that should give with a pleasing crack and ooze milky sweet foam when bitten into are soft, dry and granular.
I'll have to be patient and wait the few weeks until rhubarb, Ontario’s first edible sign of spring, appears. Its deep pink colour at odds with its vegetable nature and the brownish-grey of a post-winter world. As kids we'd snap it from the patch and run inside to beg a bowl of sugar. We'd coat the moist end with enough white crystals to counter its acidic shock and the ensuing flood of saliva. Too much raw rhubarb and our tummies would ache.
So full of moisture is rhubarb in season that cooking should be gentle and brief. If cooked too long or over too high a heat, rhubarb quickly disintegrates into soft fibres that float like pink gossamer threads in sweet poaching liquid the colour of cherry blossoms.
After rhubarb come the local strawberries. Early last May I watched from the sidewalk in front of a local Asian fruit market as an employee picked berries out of a transparent clamshell from California and piled them into green fibreboard containers near a sign that read “Ontario.” There's profit to be made by tapping a desire that's not mine alone. I knew it was too early for Ontario’s strawberries. Those unnaturally large California berries were stripped of the fruit’s natural attraction: there was no discernible scent—fruit’s first lure.
Of strawberries Edward Behr writes: "The most aromatic varieties are typically smaller, softer, more vulnerable." They have a deep red pigment and sweet juices that ooze crimson liquid, bleeding through the container or paper bag. When eaten, their tiny seeds create an almost imperceptible crunch. I imagine macerating them with a little sugar, then watching as the soft red fruit and juices seep like watercolour pigment into fatty yogurt at breakfast.
Ripeness is exquisite; the desire it elicits ensures a fruit’s propagation. My response to its signals is ancient and hardwired. Harold McGee explains: "When the seeds become capable of growing on their own and the fruit is ready to attract animals to disperse them, the fruit is said to be mature." I'm impatient with the current seasonal "progress from inedibility to deliciousness". The destination is small consolation when we seem stuck somewhere on the front end of this journey. I feel like the kid in the back seat of the car: Are we there yet?
 McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. (New York: Scribner, 2004) p. 353
 Ibid, p. 353
 Behr, Edward. 50 Foods. The Essentials of Good Taste. (New York: The Penguin Press, 2013) p. 84
 McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. (New York: Scribner, 2004) p. 353
 Behr, Edward. 50 Foods. The Essentials of Good Taste. (New York: The Penguin Press, 2013) p. 365
Very soon Canadian foodies will find release from the long winter. Sunshine-filled, warm spring days will tempt them to throw open their doors and take to the woods in search of ramps. In short order, hip restaurants across this beautiful country will be stuffing their menus with this wild green, and ramp chatter will clog social media feeds. You'd think we still lived in a time when salt pork, navy beans and turnips were all that filled our winter larders.
Ramps, also known as wild leeks, are a perennial wild green that look like miniature green onions but with a wider, flatter dark green upper leaf. They can be used, like green onions, raw or quickly sautéed.
I don’t like ramps (or fiddleheads for that matter). Their flavour is far too pungent, like eating raw garlic cloves. But I do love them in the wild. There’s nothing better than going for spring's first mucky walk in the woods, clothed against the damp and chill in a warm and unstylish mix of long johns, worn jeans, lumpy wool sweaters, fleece and rubber boots (the red soled, black rubber kind sold at Canadian Tire). The white light from a clear blue sky, not yet filtered through the soft green leaf canopy of the trees, creates stark contrasts. Mounds of snow turn into grainy crystalized ice piles marking cool, shady places. And, those first licks of green emerge from a dark, loamy soil, covered with a thin ragged, gray-black blanket of decaying leaves. Ramps scent the air with a sulphuric tang and are the first sign of life after the earth’s long, cold sleep.
Writing that description is the closest I come to foraging. What I learned from having spent my formative years working and living in some of Canada’s most beautiful, wild places, is that we go to the woods to receive, not to take.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in foraging or marking the arrival of a new season with a feast. I love chef Michael Stadtlander’s annual Wild Leek Festival. I would happily eat anything (even ramps and fiddleheads) from thoughtful and sensitive forager-chefs like Michael Caballo of Toronto's Edulis; Jeremy Charles of Raymonds in St. John's; Nancy Hinton and François Brouillard from Les Jardins Sauvage near Montreal, or at Sinclair Philip’s Sooke Harbour House out west. I trust their connection to the land, and know their approach is educated and their harvest measured.
I’m reminded of my first trip to Europe and travelling east by train from Milan in early spring. As I rode across the countryside I'd occasionally catch sight of someone, usually elderly, stooped over in a culvert looking for what I soon learned were dandelion greens. Later, I enjoyed the green, cooked long and slow with lots of garlic, at Easter lunch with my host family. It was part of this feast because there were people at the table who knew war and hardship. They knew that wild greens made the body more robust, kept uncertainty and death at bay.
In her essay, Now, Forager, Charlotte Druckman points to the important role foraging played in the survival of American slaves. She considers the current culinary obsession through this lens and writes, "It’s the cavalier mis-appropriation of foraging as a trend that offends."
It's a feeble and desperate connection many modern chefs make to the wild. It's commercial survival that's the driver. How many take to the woods with any sense of what is enough or when to stop? The current market appetite can trump the need to leave enough for others or to ensure a return next spring. These trend-chasing wannabes are practicing what I’ve come to dub Noma-lite—a shallow rendering of Danish chef René Redzepi’s studied and thoughtful practice.
I shudder to think of the abuses heaped on our wild environs in the same way I cringe whenever I see Martha Stewart shilling some craft project that calls for found items from the forest. Amateur enthusiasts often don’t know that the wild is a tender place, lacking a defense against mindless culls.
The foragers I know are people who long to be in the wild. That need far exceeds anything the wild will yield. They often prefer the subtle communications of nature to that of humans. They’ve usually apprenticed to a master, never flaunt their expertise, and respect tradition. They know their place and their responsibilities to the cycle of life and death.
I’d be happy with less ramp madness this year. I’m encouraging enthusiastic urban dwellers to consume wild goods with a conscience—to eat and enjoy in a manner befitting a finite resource. I’d like everyone, including most chefs, to purchase from specialty purveyors like Forbes Wild Foods in Ontario, or to leave the preparation of wild ingredients to the few true forager-chefs. Urban dwellers can take to the woods by virtually trailing our few Canadian masters in the beautiful video series In The Weeds.
I don’t want to wonder, when I see bags of ramps sold in upscale grocery stores or spot a sauté on every corner bistro menu, if those green leaves have been stripped completely from my first spring walk in the woods.
I like cookbooks and own a lot of them—more than a 1,000 at last count. Several are written by chefs from internationally celebrated restaurants and are designed to highlight the author’s artistry. Cookbooks like these, from posh establishments, are a source of inspiration but I rarely cook from them. In fact, given their size, some of them are more suited to the coffee table than the kitchen table. Recipes from professional chefs can be intimidating, generally requiring a serious commitment of time and ingredients, not to mention confidence and skill in the kitchen.
There are exceptions. Thomas Keller’s recipes work, and I love some of the dishes in Martin Picard’s Au Pied De Cochon cookbook, especially his Tomato Tart. I also love chef Paul Wilson’s book Botanical from the namesake restaurant in Melbourne. I bought Wilson’s book in October 2008 (I inscribe the purchase date in all my books) and cooked from it a lot at first, the recipes I treasured most coming from the “Basics” section at the back. His book is sadly out of print but worth searching for in second-hand bookstores.
There’s something fresh, appealing and unaffected in Wilson’s cooking. I can easily look beyond the expensive ingredients and lengthy methods. This is a book from a celebrated kitchen, reflecting complex skill.
One recipe in particular, for chermoula marinade, is worth the price of the book ($110 dollars at the time). It takes time to prepare but I can’t imagine a better recipe exists anywhere. The results are spectacular. I care little if it’s not “traditional” and believe a more delicious result could only come from some aged woman working a charcoal brazier in a Marrakech souk.
Because grilling season has finally arrived in Canada I asked chef Paul Wilson if I could include his recipe in a post and he graciously agreed. I’ve tweaked the recipe to suit my own way of working (there’s a photo of the original recipe to compare). For instance, after chopping the onions and garlic, I run them both through the food processor for a finer chop, being careful not to over-process
to the point where the onion starts oozing liquid. I buy ras-el-hanout as a whole spice blend from the esteemed Quebecois spice purveyor Épices de Cru. It’s a gorgeous and exotic mixture that is worth the expense, and can be ordered online.
The chermoula recipe yields enough marinade for four meals. Divide it among four small containers and freeze what you don’t use immediately. It’s perfect to have on hand in the summer for a quick and delicious meal. I use it often on chicken but it’s also delicious on meaty fish or lamb. Put the meat to be marinated in a heavy- duty zipper-topped bag and add the chermoula. Seal the bag, rub the marinade into the meat and refrigerate overnight. The meat is best cooked over a charcoal fire but is delicious on a gas grill, rotisserie or roasted in the oven.
Adapted from Botanical by chef Paul Wilson (Hardie Grant Books)
1 bunch coriander (cilantro)
1/2 bunch Italian parsley
1/2 large bunch mint (or 1 small package)
350 mL extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
3 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons whole ras-el-hanout
2 red onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Grated zest of 2 lemons
Strained juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
Onions and garlic
Pick all the leaves from the herbs, discarding the stems. Soak the leaves in a bowl of cold water to clean them and dry in a salad spinner.
In a food processor, combine the leaves and enough oil to make a slurry, then process until the leaves are finely chopped (like pesto). Transfer the slurry, and any remaining oil, to a large bowl.
Place the coriander and cumin seeds, either together or separately, in a cast iron skillet and toast them over medium heat, shaking the skillet often to ensure the seeds don’t burn. When toasty and fragrant, remove the seeds from the skillet and process to a powder in a spice grinder. Add the ground seeds to the herb slurry.
Grind the ras-el-hanout to a powder in a spice grinder and add to the herb slurry.
Add the onions and garlic to the herb slurry, along with the lemon zest and juice.
Stir in the smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, salt and Hungarian paprika.
I’m up today at 6 a.m. Not normally an early riser, I love the night and fit easily into the rhythms of the restaurant business. Working until midnight, falling into bed at two or three in the morning and sleeping until after eleven all suit me.
I recall a time not so long ago when I slept like a babe in arms. Sleep’s a new frontier at mid-life. I’ve decided it’s futile to rail against this current state. Instead I try to accept it.
So I’m up and writing at daybreak. That hour some writers, overstuffed on self-righteousness, proclaim to be the most creative time. A night owl by nature, I generally don't rise until ten and wonder if my nocturnal leanings disqualify me for membership in that particular club. There’s a magnet on my fridge that reads: “Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.” God bless Oscar Wilde.
The restlessness I’m feeling is more pervasive than just this one night. It’s an energy that is shot through late winter, when all northern dwellers grow weary of the snow and cold. My landlord recently decided to switch from salt to sand for roughing the surface of the slick ice in abundant supply this season. The grey-brown waste on my walkway seems to sum it all up. Dirty pools of this snow-sand debris melt to muddy slurry on the white tiles in my foyer. How I long to wash it all away.
I rushed outside into brilliant sunshine two days ago, walking directly into its warming path. The light buoyed my flagging spirit and, for a moment, made an early end to this season seem within reach. The temperature rise softened the snow and ice underfoot making it crumble like shale as I walked. Out on the street in Bloor West Village, people unzipped their jackets and were soon carrying woolen hats and gloves in hand.
I’ve been thinking about my bike and warm night rides in the streets between my house and the Humber River. I’ve put my name on a waiting list for a garden allotment in High Park but won’t know until April if I’ll be plunging my hands into earth that’s my own this spring. I push down the desire to purchase dahlia tubers with wild abandon, imagining myself sitting in the shadow of their tall, heavy, multi-coloured flower heads in late summer bloom.
I’m stuck between the oppression of this endless winter and the too-far-off promise that is spring. This cold season can’t pass quickly enough for me. March surely must bring relief. The sun will hang high in the sky long enough to trigger epic melts. Snow banks will begin to recede, exposing a dirty and dormant terrain.
My restlessness finds temporary relief in marmalade making. I’ve pulled from my shelf a book whose title--Saving the Season--makes me chuckle. I like marmalade and it was the appearance in my local store of Seville oranges—with their distinct skin like cellulite on aging dames—that reminded me of this kitchen pleasure. I have a great recipe from Sally Clarke, one of Britain’s best cooks, that makes use of this prized citrus fruit from Spain. But truth is, orange marmalade is not my favourite. I prefer lemon and, when marmalade of my own making is in short supply, I purchase Robertson’s Silver Shred. There’s something less bitter, more acidic and fresh in preserves made with lemon. I have a recipe for a quick marmalade using Meyer lemons that I want to try. They’re an ideal flavour cross between an orange and a lemon: sweet and tart all at once. Meyer lemons’ skin is thin and tender and suited to a quick cooking preserve. I can imagine the marmalade’s pale orange translucence suspended with bits of soft, saturated citrus fruit.
I’ve also settled on making something new: Fine-Shred Lime and Ginger Marmalade from Kevin West’s extraordinary book. It’s a three-day process, just the kind of project that will chip a few more days off this dreadful time of year. I learn from West that the spongy white pectin-rich pith that cushions the delicate inner fruit is called the albedo. There’s something in the tumble of language he uses to describe the results that rallies my enthusiasm, making my mouth water in anticipation. This marmalade, he writes, is “a translucent mass suspending a tumult of finely shredded green peels—and the powerful flavours of raw lime and ginger become elegant through dilution.” It’s a preserve tinged the delicate green of spring hope. There’s a Marmalade Cake that I want to try, imagining spectacular results using lime preserve instead of orange.
I know marmalade making is the right task for today. It will ease my weariness and leave me with the impression of productivity. I’m going to set out in search of the ingredients after another cup of tea. The city has issued an extreme cold weather alert (too many of those this year to track). There’s a storm bearing down on Toronto that’s promising to wreak havoc on our already frazzled systems. So today I’ll gather fruit from far-off sunny places and shake my wooden spoon at this fierce season. Winter be damned! In my kitchen for a time there’s the promise of sweeter, brighter, fresher things to come.
 Kevin West, Saving the Season (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) 477.
 Ibid. 477
 Ibid. 477
In 2007 Jeff Crump is in the kitchen at Heston Blumenthal's Michelin three star Fat Duck restaurant in Bray England. He's a stagiaire, a skilled cook undertaking a lengthy period of study with an international master in order to hone his skills. But Jeff's also a man on a mission having just signed a deal in Canada to produce the cookbook of his dreams. He's certain Heston can help.
Jeff plants a treasure from his cookbook collection on Heston's empty desk one day—a rare edition of The Physiology of Taste--at that time his most prized possession, with a value of $1200. Jeff knows he will likely never see that book for sale again in his lifetime.
He waits, watching Heston come and go from his office. As days pass he loses heart and wonders about ways to get the book back. On the third day Heston yells Jeff's name into the kitchen and Jeff steps forward. That magical exchange that Crump initiated "worked like a charm" he says, paving the way for Heston to make a lasting contribution to the Earth To Table cookbook.
It's a story big enough to fill the hole the book left in Crump's stellar cookbook collection. He'll continue to look for that book. But the looking is also an interesting thing. Crump eschews the Internet beyond its usefulness as a tool for research. He doesn't buy collectibles online. "You can get any book you want online," he says. Turns out that one of the best things about building a cookbook collection is the real life search.
It's a sentiment echoed by Elizabeth Crahan in a 1984 New York Times piece written on the sale of her late husband, Marcus Crahan's extraordinary gastronomic book collection. She states: "a lot of the fun is in the collecting itself." Crump's first edition copy of M.F.K Fisher's How To Cook A Wolf has a Marcus Crahan bookplate affixed to its inner cover. They are kindred souls separated by a couple of generations.
In fact the owning of a collection can raise some downright practical issues as anyone who's ever had to move a library well knows. Books are heavy and come in all shapes and sizes. A collection will inevitably expand. Up until quite recently Crump's collection was in boxes in the basement of his home. His new office—a calm, earthy, accomplished space—was built with the books in mind. He has roughly 1,000; most in this office but many in the kitchens of restaurants he manages. Jeff's passion is contagious—he's created a two-week sign out system for his cooks.
He knows it begins early. His own collection started with the purchase of Chez Panisse Cooking, the Random House paperback edition, while a student at the Stratford Chefs School. It's held together with duct tape and is full of stains and handwritten notes. The glorious 1988 hardcover of the same book—now a collectible itself—is also in Crump's possession. The search for that book is what lured him into serious collecting. But from the very start, even at just 7 books housed in a small apartment in Toronto, his cookbooks were his most prized possession. His current search for collectibles is for him a privilege born of success.
It's not about the physical books, the scale of the collection, or the monetary value. "If it was about the money you wouldn't collect cookbooks" Crump states. It's about a book's life—its content and passage through time.
While on a family trip to California several years ago Crump lands at San Francisco's Omnivore Books at the same time as several boxes of cookbooks from Jeremiah Tower's collection. He talks with wonder about standing among those boxes. The occasion seems much more than coincidence; it's serendipitous. Tower's was the first chef at Chez Panisse. From the boxes Crump purchases a copy of Richard Olney's French Menu Cookbook. The books original purchase date of 1970 recorded in the front cover by Tower's own hand; Chez Panisse opens in 1971. Crump knows that book was in the kitchen with Alice and Jeremiah when it all began—the stains on its pages the product of their labour. That's what Crump values–the life or soul of a cookbook.
He's taken with what he dubs "halo" books—famous books owned by famous people. Beyond the Tower's and Marcus Crahan purchases he has a copy of the Simple Art of Japanese Cooking by Shizuo Tsuji, once owned by the writer and gastronome Samuel Chamberlain famous for the cookbook Clémentine in the Kitchen.
But Crump remains unaffected by lofty purchases. He pulls a copy of the River Cafe Blue Book gifted to him by Anne Yarymowich from the shelves. As a line cook in the AGO kitchens he cooked that book, cover to cover. When he left, Anne replaced his used copy with a new one and taped a photo of the AGO kitchen crew to the book's front page. It's the kind of gesture that reaches right into his heart. He opens it up with great pride.
Before he leaves this earth he wants to own all of Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher's first editions in mint condition. He has some but will repurchase books if they're in better condition. He's also on the hunt for first edition books from Michael Pollan and Anthony Bourdain. He looks for books that have staying power, that are of interest to those with little connection to the original. He uses White Heat from Marco Pierre White as an example of a cookbook many young people covet but were not old enough to recall that moment in time when Marco shared his youthful brilliance with a hungry world. Crump wonders if current books like Alinea and Noma will rise to collector status.
He thumbs through Chez Panisse Cooking to demonstrate the timeless quality of a great cookbook, landing on the recipe for "Marinated Veal Chops Grilled Over an Oak Fire." He talks of the first appeal of that recipe in 1997 and then goes on to marvel at the practice of cooking over a wood fire—that skill now the thing that gives him pause.
He doesn't know what the collection's afterlife will be. He holds out hope that his sons might want it but doesn't want it to be a burden should they not. "This is only valuable to me because it is incredibly personal. I bought every book for a reason."
He shrugs off the notion that he is the keeper of tradition and proclaims himself a student, just as he was in the kitchen at the Fat Duck. "I'm a very committed student—that's what I've always been." It's an attitude that's led him to tremendous success. There's humility in the idea that the learning never ends and his cookbook collection tells a remarkable story of his passage through time.
 Paul Bertolli with Alice Waters, Chez Panisse Cooking, (New York: Random House, Inc., 1988) p. 234
The Tartelette aux Fraises sits on a well-worn, cream stoneware plate whose only embellishment is a burgundy band round its edge. The thick plate has the telltale grey hue of cutlery wear. Its surface holds the history of delicious bistro dishes enjoyed. It's a humble place for such a beautiful slice to land.
The 'raison d'être' is a tumble of strawberries spooned with seasonal abandon on top, hiding the dessert's sweet foundation. A suggestion of sugar has been applied that teases the flow of crimson juices from the fruit, wetting it down in a glistening cloak. The berries have the subtle tropical honey taste of ripe pineapple, occasionally punctuated by small shards of fresh mint.
This simple fruit salad rests on a soft mound of crème pâtissière. The egg yolks and whole milk turn the pudding the colour of butter, flavoured and flecked with black seeds from fresh vanilla. It's thickened just enough to bear the weight of the fruit. Crème pâtissière is a foundation preparation in French pastry — never the star, always the support. It's rarely this well made.
A crust of pâte sucrée, another classic French sweet preparation, supports it. It tastes of good butter and sugar and has a tender sandy crumble like the give of shale underfoot. Salt crystals hurry the flow of saliva and are a reminder of its importance as a counterpoint in great pastry making.
I know its promise even before I take a bite. When I do taste the Tartelette aux Fraises, I'm flush with a feeling of well-being I associate with fine French food. It's like meeting a friend long absent but still dear.
I'm reminded of why I spent years toiling in fine French kitchens. Because I can look upon a simple sweet like this and see straight through its flavour and technique to the innate perfection at the centre.
Pro-chef living a delicious life. More than twenty five years working within striking distance of a gas range. My appetite is as large as my enthusiasm.