Home cooking on the road

Ann Walmsley December 10 1984

Home cooking on the road

Ann Walmsley December 10 1984

Home cooking on the road


Ann Walmsley

The favored American chefs blanched with shock at the October announcement, and overwrought members of the French and Italian teams wept openly. But five chefs from Canada, winners of the first overall championship at the World Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, West Germany, quickly overcame their initial surprise at the judges’ decision and gloried in their newfound status as the gold medallists of cooking. Even the last-minute scramble for champagne—caught up in the excitement of the competition against chefs from 28 countries, a Canadian official forgot to stock celebratory bottles—did nothing to sour the taste of victory. Declared team manager Henri Dane of Nanaimo, B.C.: “We have shown the world that we can develop great dishes that can be called typically Canadian.” Indeed, the five chefs representing Canada appealed to the judges’ taste buds during the week-long competition with two decidedly Canadian dishes: wild Quebec duck served with Saskatoonberries, gooseberries, cranberries, morels and other wild mushrooms; and a mousseline of northern pike with shellfish. Yet the win was not entirely surprising: chefs from Canada have been competing in the quadrennial Culinary Olympics since 1968, which until this year consisted of national teams competing for various medals in three main events with no overall win based on total points. By that reckoning, Canada gained fourth place in 1972 and moved up to second in 1976 (behind Switzerland) before achieving a thirdplace finish behind the United States and West Germany four years ago. Federal Tourism Minister Thomas McMillan predicted that on the strength of this well-publicized victory alone, curious foreign visitors would come to Canada to sample local dishes.

Not one of the winning team members was born in Canada, and all received their early training outside the country. But collectively and individually their techniques and the dishes they favor represent a style of cooking that is growing in popularity among restaurant-goers and amateur cooks alike. In essence it relies heavily on fresh local ingredients and delicacies. It also draws on traditional regional recipes and avoids calorie-laden and heavily sauced traditional French cuisine in favor of lighter, smaller dishes designed to appeal to weight-watching diners. Originally founded in 1896 and open to all members of the World Association of Chefs’ Societies, the medals distributed at Frankfurt are among the most coveted—and hotly contested—prizes in the world. New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne, for one, believes that the event is “the ranking culinary competition in the world.”

It breeds hot controversy. Team managers double as judges, although they are not allowed to vote for their own national representatives. And, mimicking the attempts of good restaurants to create a receptive atmosphere for their dishes, most national teams threw lavish parties for the judges. The members of the second-place U.S. team were particularly disgruntled at being outmanoeuvred both in the kitchens and in the hospitality suites as they argued in vain to examine the judges’ scorecards. Said U.S. team manager Ferdinand Metz: “It is a big mystery. The judges never make their cards available.” U.S. team member Daniel Hugelier complained that the Canadians “probably spend 10 times what most countries spend on a party and they invited all the judges.” Indeed, the Canadians spent $40,000 on a banquet for the fellow contestants and judges. Said delegation co-ordinator Georges Chauvet: “It could not hurt.”

The squabbling over the Culinary Olympics cannot obscure growing international recognition for Canadian chefs who promote indigenous dishes. The New York Times Magazine recently featured a Quebec après-ski meal, which included rabbit pie and a meringue dessert filled with maple syrup ice cream. Earlier this year Bon Appetit, a widely read U.S. food magazine, featured a 10page article on Bonnie Stern, who runs a cooking school in Toronto. Like others in the forefront of the New Canadian Cuisine, Stern is a tireless proponent of Canadian foodstuffs ranging from British Columbia salmon to Ontario lamb. She advocates such hearty cold-weather fare as split-pea soup, meat pies and buckwheat crepes. Concluded Bon Appetit: “There is no doubt that her recipes will become a treasured legacy, not unlike the food of Canada itself.” And Stern is not the only Canadian cookbook author in demand abroad. American food reviewers have been calling her publisher, James Lorimer & Co. and demanding copies of Elizabeth Baird's Favourites: 150 Classic Canadian Recipes, the latest compilation from Toronto’s veteran author/cook. And Jehane Benoit, who at 80, is still the celebrated first lady of Canadian cooking, has sold nearly three million cookbooks in Canada, France, Belgium, England and the United States since publishing her first book, The Encyclopedia of Canadian Cooking, in 1968.

Baird in particular occupies an honored place in the movement to popularize Canadian cuisine. Her first three books, Classic Canadian Cooking, Appies Peaches & Pears and Summer Ber ries, concentrated on resurrecting longforgotten pioneer recipes including pumpkin and apple pudding and Indian custard made with corn meal and cream. In her new book, Baird includes recipes from more recent waves of immigration, including pane duice di Pasqua (Italian sweet bread baked for Easter). At the same time she promotes using such native items as chicory and juniper ber ries in salads. And her culinary patrio

tism extends to the names of her dishes—Along-the-Danforth souvlakia and Niagara Peninsula conserve. Said Baird: “Canadian cooking has to draw its inspiration from all the people who make Canada their home.”

Classic Canadian Cooking is an eloquent argument urging readers to regain their sense of the growing seasons.

Modern methods of storing and transportation make imported produce available year-round,but Baird maintains that local items will be cheaper and fresher than exotic fruits and vegetables that are picked before ripening and shipped long distances.

With its emphasis on regional dishes, ease of preparation and some concern for calorie content, the trend in Canadian cooking has much in common with such other currently fashionable cooking techniques as

France’s nouvelle cuisine and the United States’ “New American Cooking.” France’s new cooking rejected the widespread use of flour-and-butter-based sauces which often smothered the flavor of meat and fish dishes. The new American style also highlights the unadorned taste of ingredients.

The Canadian version of the international movement meets with the overwhelming approval of Canadian food critics. Said Joanne Kates, who writes regularly for the Toronto Globe and Mail: “We value Canadian cooking because it is better cooking than imitation French and is better suited to using ingredients when they are at their best. It means that come late November, instead of eating tasteless imported strawberries, we eat cranberries that are in good shape.” Added James Barber, a Vancouver-based critic: “Food is local. So you should be able to have different cooking in Vancouver and Toronto.” Some of the best chefs in the country have worked under Swiss-born Herbert Sonzogni, who has worked in Canada for the past 24 years. He has operated his own restaurant, Babsi’s, in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, for the past three years. Sonzogni advocates cooking that uses almost exclusively Canadian foodstuffs and has stressed that belief to the chefs and sous-chefs working for him, singing the praises of chanterelles (richly flavored mushrooms)

from Nova Scotia and barberries, small hard berries that grow on hedges throughout Ontario which he serves in a maple syrup sauce over breast of pheasant. Said Sonzogni: “The motto is fresh.”

Yet rigidly following a resolution to use local products whenever possible can increase the time and effort a chef must expend on the preparation of his dishes. In Halifax, 33-year-old Frenchborn chef Bernard Meyer spent six years building up a network of local farmers and fishermen who provide him with most of the ingredients he needs for his kitchen. As a result, customers at his two restaurants, The Grand and The Grill, can order in summer young zucchini squash with the flowers attached and meats grilled with fresh herbs— omitting the heavy sauces associated with the old French style of cooking.

Renaud Cyr, the chef and owner of Le Manoir des Erables in Montmagny, Que., 65 km east of Quebec City, eases his supply problem by relying on his neighbors. Now Cyr’s menus include everything from local salmon with fresh ginger to home-made maple ice cream. Said Cyr, who has refined his cooking skills since his start as a lumber camp cook in his native New Brunswick 37 years ago: “Here in Quebec, everyone has a garden. We can buy partridge from lie d’Orleans, crayfish from the St. Lawrence fishermen, smoked pink trout from St-Paul-de-Montmagny and gallons of local fiddleheads.”

Cyr’s personal campaign for local products is strengthened by the Quebec government’s promotion of foods grown in the provinces. Quebec’s ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food will spend more than $100,000 this year alone elevating the consciousness of chefs with cooking competitions, excursions to local farms and printed guides on where to buy fresh delicacies such as quail. As a result, formerly overlooked products including endive—a salad vegetable—and snow crab have appeared more regularly in restaurants across the province. Said ministry food consultant Suzanne Leclerc: “Ten years ago you could never find snow crab from the north St. Lawrence River on menus. Fishermen threw it back because it was small. Now, since our promotion to chefs in 1979 we have snow crab everywhere.”

Meanwhile, other provincial agriculture departments and producers’ marketing boards have used television, radio and newspaper advertisements to trumpet the virtues of southern Ontario cheese, Saskatchewan grains and Okanagan fruit to chefs and consumers. But the sales promotions are not always unqualified successes at the restaurant level. Although the Ontario Pork Producers Marketing Board claims it has boosted its per capita consumption of pork by as much as 20 lb. annually, with the help of campaigns such as “Put pork on your fork,” its Toronto restaurant, The Pork Place, closed last February after five money-losing years.

Still, the increased use of local ingredients has led naturally to the adoption of regional dishes that often include variations of native and immigrant cuisine. Like many other chefs in the Maritimes, Halifax’s Bernard Meyer has adapted Acadian dishes but his version of “rappie” pie, a classic Acadian chicken-and-potato casserole, is a lighter stew with a chicken sauce and fresh herbs. And near Mount Carmel, 25 km from Summerside on the south shore of P.E.I., the Etoile de Mer restaurant devotes its entire menu to Acadian-inspired food, including steamer clams boiled in butter.

Winnipeg also offers a culinary experience not found in much larger cities: native Indian recipes featuring game and fish dishes served with vegetables such as wild rice and bitter soapberries for dessert. But Mary Richard, a coowner of that city’s Tepee restaurant, who has helped operate it for the past four years, candidly admits that she had to make drastic modifications to native recipes in order to keep her customers coming back. Said Richard: “Traditionally, I would pound dried buffalo jerky [dried meat] and chokecherries into a powder and mix it with melted buffalo fat to make pemmican. But people would not go for that, as the buffalo fat leaves a bitter aftertaste and the chokecherries are too gritty. So I put in butter and wild blueberries instead.”

Restaurateurs searching for new and interesting ways to combine local ingredients often find themselves in local produce markets rubbing shoulders with customers eager to enliven their own home-cooked meals. Devoted cheese enthusiasts from Toronto drive to Pat and Ramelle Harkins’s Woolwich Dairy, 100 km west of the city, to buy fresh Ontario goat cheeses, including feta and chèvre tidbits marinated in olive oil and spices. Toronto cooking instructor Bonnie Stern finds the rising variety of such markets a welcome change. She can vividly recall when most local supermarkets had a limited produce department. Said Stern: “Ten years ago there wasn’t good produce in the stores. In the mid 1970s, for example, the only variety of lettuce that most shoppers in smaller communities could find was iceberg. Now romaine and leaf lettuce are available throughout the country.”

Expanded racks in grocery stores and markets and the rows of glossily bound recipes in bookstores is testimony to an increased awareness of food and cooking. Canadians spend 30 per cent of their food budgets on meals prepared in restaurants (an average of $21.75 weekly by each family and a 25-per-cent increase over the past five years), giving proponents of the new Canadian cuisine an already-receptive market for their message.

Nowhere is the restaurant-going public more active than in Montreal, where there are some 4,000 restaurants. Said Claude Tessier, director-general of the Association of Quebec Restaurateurs: “In 10 years the number of restaurants has gone from nine to 76 on Crescent Street, and on St. Denis Street there are now 328 restaurants between Sherbrooke Street and the beginning of Old Montreal.” In Toronto Sonzogni, for one, says he must constantly remind his chefs and patrons that Canadian dishes can provide delightful, sophisticated eating. He noted that some customers who choose his loftily named soupe aux navets from the menu “are surprised to receive puree of turnip soup. They cannot believe it when I tell them, ‘white turnips.’ ”

Georges Chauvet, the Olympic delegation co-ordinator and president of the Canadian Federation of Chefs de Cuisine, an influential organization with more than 900 members, has plans to foster the acceptance of the new cuisine. He intends to open a culinary school next September modelled after the Culinary Institute of America, based in Hyde Park, N.Y., 120 km north of New York City. Professional chefs would teach relatively basic classes and tutor other professionals returning to update their menus and techniques. To help support the school, Chauvet plans to open a companion restaurant for students to try their hand at duplicating the winning Canadian Frankfurt entries. Chauvet is negotiating with the department of employment and immigration for as much as of 50 per cent of the start-up costs for the program.

The Culinary Institute of America opened its restaurant, The American Bounty, two years after the U.S. team finished first in the 1980 Culinary Olympics. Now, students serve dishes ranging from Hudson Valley pheasant breast wrapped in grape leaves and lentils to deep-fried Monterey Jack cheese with guacamole, and customers regularly deposit $20 to hold a dinner reservation in the 148-seat restaurant. Boasted Institute director Ferdinand Metz: “Eighty per cent of our clientele travel 80 miles each way for a meal.”

Diners might willingly pay for dishes that won gold for Canada in Frankfurt. But despite the emphasis on simplicity and local produce in the new Canadian cuisine, cookbook author Baird warns food lovers that cooking some of the award-winning dishes is not as easy as that perennial favorite, the grilled cheese sandwich. For one thing, the Frankfurt recipes include such ingredients as Saskatoonberries, tart red berries resembling red currants, which are still difficult to find in most grocery stores. Yet Baird, recalling the spirit of the pioneers, urged Canadians to emulate their forebears and improvise with what they have. The new Canadian cooking is not limited to elegant recipe books issued by celebrated Canadian chefs, but belongs to everyone. Said Baird: “Food is part of our culture. It comes from people and it is important because it gives a sense of place.” Clearly, Canadians can take new pride in their country’s cooking, secure in the knowledge that it belongs in good company on the international stage.


Diane Luckow

in Vancouver,

Gordon Legge

in Calgary,

June Rogers

in Toronto and

Veronique Robert