On cooking local

On cooking local

Trying to cook local isn’t always easy. You have to work with what you have in front of you. And when you’re challenged, that is often when the really worthwhile culinary moments are found. When Union really gets going, I am hoping to find the inspiration that will lead to that kind of gut-instinct cooking—the kind that saves your ass when you are beaten down and you don’t think you can pull it off, but then something kicks in and you do.

The best example I can think of happened up at the farm. I was on my own, cold-smoking splake (a cross between speckled and lake trout) from Georgian Bay. Bill and Dorothy, the farmers down the road, came by to drop manure on the garden and asked me over for dinner. I thought they were joking because lots of people joke about asking a chef over for dinner. So I laughed. He looked at me funnily and said, “I’m serious, kid—you want to come for dinner tonight?”

I did, too. There was another couple from up the road there, and we had a hell of a night talking about the cattle that Bill raises and how he was losing money on them. Apparently, there used to be a creamery nearby that had space in the back to hang meat for local farmers. The creamery doesn’t exist anymore, though; now Bill has no idea where his bull calves end up after he sells them off to get fattened. This led to a big conversation about keeping his cows local, and not having pieces of them sent all over the continent. We talked about building a place close by to hang the beef properly so that, as my aunt used to say when she hung her meat in her own cellar, “you could cut them with a fork.” We also got into a lot of gin and tonics and I fell down a hill walking home at two in the morning. I bruised my ribs so bad that I thought they were broken.

The next day, I felt bad—gin bad—and thought I would never be the same again. I had these two lobsters I had to cook for a big dinner the next night. Just looking at those poor bastards sink into the boiling water with their claws clutching the sides of the pot, I told myself that I was going to use every bit of them. I was making a lobster carrot galangal risotto. I took every bit of meat out of them, including the green stuff close to the head that tastes like the sea. I made a stock with the shells and ground it up just a bit at the end to get every bit of flavour out of them. I cooked the rice in the stock with a bit of shallot and galangal, then finished it with some juiced carrots and the lobster from the claws. At the very last moment, I squeezed in the green stuff from the head. I topped it off with a piece of the tail poached in butter.

I was so spurned by my pain that day that I put everything I had into it. It was the best damn risotto I ever made. One of the ladies at the table said afterward that when she ate it, it reminded her of the feeling she had when she first fell in love (prompting her boyfriend to pipe up and say, “Hell, I didn’t think it [the risotto] was that good”).

Point is: cooking is all about feeling it, and people really pick up on what you put into it. And I guess love and pain are just the same damn thing anyway. At Union, I hope I can find some balance in between.