Monday, September 26, 2011

A Fly on The Kitchen Wall

The work that goes on behind restaurant kitchen doors is often taken for granted and why not? They make it look so easy! So I went behind the kitchen doors of the Idlewyld Inn in London, Ontario to see if it is indeed as easy as they make it look.

The Idlewyld is a stunningly beautiful Inn in the centre of London. Co-owners Marcel Butchey and Executive Chef Alfred Estephan run three busy dining rooms in the 23-room Inn and amazingly they do it in a postage stamp sized kitchen. Chef Estephan let me stand in a corner where there was the least amount of activity so I could watch first hand, what it takes to make it all look so easy.

A peoples’ chef and you can often see Estephan mingling with his guests when he’s not orchestrating his kitchen. Estephan has no choice but to run a tight ship in this small space. At any time there could be 4 white jackets scurrying around, flipping skillets, stirring saucepans, carving meat or hovering inches away from dishes constructing food like an artist creating a sculpture. Globes of lobster and shrimp pate are topped with butter cooked lobster meat and drizzled with vanilla lobster broth. Luscious pickerel fillets are perched strategically over sweet potato medallions and portions of ultra thick, juicy pork tenderloin are stacked on patties of crunchy potato rosti.

Waiters come in and out of the swinging door, bringing in little slips of paper with an unrecognizable language on them and they talk of table numbers and dishes to Estephan – it’s gibberish to me. Chefs take the paper slips and chatter about time and dishes and each word inspires a flurry of great activity. Maybe it’s me, but I notice the absence of the Gordon Ramsey language here.

The room is full of food. Pails of colourful heirloom tomatoes, small bins of sprouts and flowers, baguettes piled high on the top of a baking rack. Inside the rack are layers of sweet potato medallions and potato rosti triangles.

I watch as classic dishes are created by chefs who hover very low over the dishes. They’re so low I think they’re trying to read tiny words on the plate with bad eyes. In the centre of the work space are plastic bins, julienned vegetables on ice, slivers of fennel, fried cauliflower, fresh shucked corn, sweet candy cane beets and a bin of wheat berries. Large squirt bottles of oil and other coloured liquids stand next to them.

Everything in the kitchen is spotless. One of the chefs open the oven and with a pair of tongs, pulls out a skillet with the most seductive rack of lamb sizzling in its juices. He walks it to the carving station and leaves it. Then he walks back and shakes a skillet only to have the flames lap up and almost touch the hood above the 12-burner stove.

In between the dishes the chefs clean the counters and their workspace. They never stop moving, like a dance with a million miniature partners. Dishes are warmed under heat lamps, then they’re dressed with beautiful colour, bright zucchini slices, beets and a few blackberries. Then on top they lay slices of cherrywood smoked duck breast. The chef returns to carve the rack of lamb and he sits it, brick red insides showing to tempt diners – or me, and it’s working.

Waiters stream in and out with black notebooks, they rip pages out of them and call in new orders. Escargot with chantrels looks incredibly creamy and luscious, I just want to dip my finger into the sauce I’m swooning over this dish and I haven’t even tasted it. Pans of roasted tomatoes come flying out of the oven and like a symphony of movement, aromas and food coexist to perfection. Oil squirts into skillets followed by spoonfuls of butter and the pan begins to spit and sputter then smoke. This is where, as a home cook, I’d be intimidated, but not here, these guys are masters of their kitchen and to them, a hot sputtering pan is to be tamed not surrendered to!

The baker arrives from her downstairs bakery with cookies. She’d just baked over 800 of them for an event the next day – now there’s a job I’d love! The chef indulges – or as he puts it, tastes the cookies. Estephan admits to having a sweet tooth but has no interest in baking himself. Ok, the cookies seemed to distract the symphony long enough for the smoking skillet to burn and the chef tosses it into the sink and starts over again.

This busy kitchen changes by the minute. I stand in my little corner for over an hour and no one stops. Everyone just keeps going, faster and faster, reacting intuitively to the language that goes around the room, food moves faster than a freeway, juggling skillets with food flying through the air while whispers of “behind you”, “coming in front” are warned by moving chefs. This tiny little workspace is busier than Toronto’s Union Station at rush hour.

Chefs move around tasting dishes on the stove, offering suggestions for improvement, although there’s little room for movement on perfection. Food safety stickers line the refrigerators, I think I just spotted a culinary secret – you know one of those moves a chef makes that he never tells you about but it makes the dish ultimately better than you could make at home. I saw a squirt of honey in the poaching liquid – or was it honey? It was so quick, now it’s gone forever. Should have never doubted what I saw.

More food is created on a dish and put on the steel shelves with an order for Estephan. He takes the dish and inspects it for presentation. He takes a rolled up towel and wipes away fingerprints and anything else that splashed on the rim of the dish, next he garnishes with something fresh, crisp and brilliant green – pea sprouts I think.

The chef approaches with a small dish and I notice something foamy. He holds it up to me – yum, I run my finger through the foam that feels more like a cloud. I feel nothing in my mouth except a delightful airy texture on the palette and a huge vanilla, cream, lobster flavour in my mouth – wow I’m speechless and utterly excited – excited enough to lick the plate, but how embarrassing for me if I did. He takes the dish from my hand and puts it into the sink. OMG - I have this uncontrollable urge to dive into the sink after it…aughhh this liquid gold shouldn’t be wasted!!! I notice my notepad has a few smudges on it, perhaps I can lick it later tonight.

I’m getting to understand some of the language and lingo of the kitchen. I now know when to duck and when to pivot. I can’t help but admire the dishwasher, he hasn’t stopped all night. He washes dishes and puts them away, waiters bring in more dirty dishes and pile them on top of the pots and pans the chefs contribute. He keeps on going the entire night. The pile of skillets on top of the stove goes up and down as does the dishes and silverware – this guy is just as amazing as the chefs!

It’s now 8:30 and I’ve been here since 6 o’clock. I’m exhausted just watching and writing, learning and tasting. The line begins to slow and the cleaning begins. They call this the calm before the next storm, the time to catch their breath. I look around and they don’t really stop, the work just changes. I suspect if they did stop, they’d collapse.

Throughout the evening the chef disappears periodically. He’s smoozing the guests in the dining rooms. A waiter comes in and announces one appreciative guest wants to order a round of drinks for the kitchen staff. Smiles widen across the kitchen – hey I’d never thought of doing that after an amazing meal! Dessert orders begin to come in and the chefs are busy hovering over sweet smelling syrups and sauces. They flambé crème brulee and scoop ice cream. Talk turns from dishes to planning the next days business – tomorrow will be twice as busy.

Ok, this is my queue to exit. I’d much rather be a diner, being pampered by an amazing dish – perhaps I’ll order the lobster. Part of the pampering of dining out is having the establishment make you feel like your meal is effortless, it contributes to your relaxation. But having spent a few hours in the Idlewyld kitchen I now am so much more appreciative of my dining experience and I will never again, ever complain about restaurant prices!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Why Eat Local?

I think the biggest issue with local food is people’s understanding and attitude.

We live in an international food world where super large quantities of food are produced cheaply and many people will tell you, efficiently, then it’s shipped around the world. This so called efficient system presumes food is a commodity where numbers and business plans make more sense than the quality of food. Here is where the system begins to break down.

Food is not a commodity. Yes, we need to eat to live but high quality food that is living and vibrant gives our bodies vibrancy, health and energy – dead food does not and therefore compromises the quality of our lives on many levels.

Think about it, food produced and consumed locally can stay on the plant, vine or tree for a longer period of time because it doesn’t have to be shipped or warehoused. When it stays longer, it ripens further developing nutrients and flavour along with colour and texture. It’s the difference between a dry, tasteless cantaloupe and one that is ultra sweet, juicy, soft and exciting in clean, clear flavour. Therefore, local food not only nourishes better but it pleases and excites as well.

Food is far from a commodity, it’s a personal experience. With food produced locally we can meet the people who produce it. These are people who live in our community and chances are you have something in common. Either a passion for food, perhaps you discover your children go to the same school, many times you have common acquaintances, but always you live in the same community and have opinions on community issues that can be discussed and shared. You discover you both pay taxes and thanks to the both of you, your town or city has services that enhance your lives. You’re linked to a farmer more than you know.

Local food is not only personal, it’s seasonal. We live in Ontario where the winters prevent us from growing fresh produce year round. Our ancestors would preserve and fill their root cellars to keep themselves fed throughout the long winter months. The root cellar was stocked with winter vegetables, sausages, flour, wine, preserves and more. The root cellar held foods that were both seasonal and year round.

Today we no longer fill our root cellars because grocery stores fill their shelves with all foods at all times of the year. This modern, convenient, access to food successfully strips the seasonality out of our food cycle and we forget what seasonality is all about. But seasonality comes natural to all of us. Take for example the way we crave lighter salads in the hot summer weather. This is when the growing season is prime for tender, delicious salad greens. Then in the frosty winter days we crave a slow roast in the oven with savoury root vegetables to fill not only our stomachs but our soul as well. Isn’t it amazing how Mother Nature is right there to feed our cravings at just the right time? The reality is that as humans, we’re much more connected to our environment than we remember.

Grocery stores are definitely convenient places to buy food but remember that they’re called grocery ‘stores’ because they were meant to ‘store’ food. To store fresh produce, special varieties have been bred to withstand rigorous transportation and to extend shelf life. This benefit of designing food for international markets compromises it’s integrity, quality and most certainly flavour. That’s why a tomato purchased in a grocery store in January can’t hold a candle to a tomato picked from your own back yard in September. The flavours are as different as black is to white.

People who love local food, love it because of the mouthfuls of bursting flavour and the joy and excitement it offers; artisan sausage with savoury herbs; rich and beefy butcher steaks; free roaming chickens with robust flavour; candy sweet and finger staining strawberries; tender just picked sweet corn, crunchy, snow white apples and soft, juice dripping peaches. People who love local food shop at their farmers’ market for fresh garlic that oozes with juices or crunchy peppers that spit back when you slice into them. The world of local food offers all this and more.

So how do you begin buying and eating local? First, remember it’s about doing the best you can. Eating local is not about only eating local food at the expense of any other foods. Eating local is about supporting your community, about finding a safe source of food, about discovering healthy, flavourful food and it’s about preparing and sharing the local harvests.

Start out on your eating local journey by doing the best you can and deal with the challenges as they arise. Start by taking an inventory of the local foods you have in your kitchen right now. Eggs, cheese, milk, chicken, butter and more; these are most likely locally produced. Pat yourself on the back for a great start. Now plan to shop at the farmers’ market or an on-farm market regularly, buy what you can there and discover new things. Remember, local food is personal so ask the farmer about foods and how to cook them. You have now grown your local food purchases.

Check the grocery store for local foods such as meats, dairy products, tinned tomatoes and bags of beans. Once you can identify locally produced foods, you’ll find a grocery store to offer more selection than you thought. The Ontario Table can help identify more grocery store foods in the chapter called, The Ontario Pantry.

As you grow your inventory of local foods, remember the seasons change and so will the amount of local foods you buy each season. But as you become more and more confident about buying local, the dance will be one of anticipation and hedonistic pleasures.

Vote on Food & Farming - Foodlink: Find Healthy Local Food in the Waterloo Region

Vote on Food & Farming - Foodlink: Find Healthy Local Food in the Waterloo Region

Monday, September 12, 2011

In Search of the Best Lake Ontario Pickerel

Another great weekend in Prince Edward County. Pizza on the crush pad at Norm Hardie Winery, sipping some great wine at Wapoos Winery and now it’s dinner. I’ve followed chef Michael Potters over the years, tasted his food and now, I’m wanting to dine at Angelina’s so I can once again, be pampered by his flavours.

But it’s just not meant to be, Michael and I – the restaurant is full! Not a seat to be had, pity. I was here on Canada Day and it was closed, now it’s full. Oh well, third time a charm? Sure I’ll try another time, but he’s leaving for Hockley Valley so it must be before the end of the season.

All is not lost because East on Main Street Bistro in the trendy little village of Wellington is a fantastic place to dine, but right now I’m now in Bloomfield so I’ll go around the corner to The Carriage House where there’s none better pickerel than chef Scott Rapitan’s. It’s uber delicious; sweet, juicy, flaky flesh with the thinnest, crispiest, and tastiest skin ever! OMG!

In front of The Carriage House is the Marshmallow Room, an amazing bakery cafe with seductive pastries, crispy bread with doughy insides and high quality coffee and tea. It's a great little place for a leisurely, pampered breakfast or just for anytime your hungry!

There are those who claim the pickerel at Portobello’s in Picton is the best – I look forward to trying it soon. Lake Ontario pickerel is one of the most amazing fish when fresh and while it’s a delicious debate to claim the best in the County, all I know is that Prince Edward County has cornered the market on the absolute best pickerel to be had in Ontario! Get out there, try them all and let me know which is your choice. Check out The Ontario Table facebook page for more pictures.