Q&A with Christine Cushing: the fearless chef on trends and the balance between prepared foods and cooking from scratch

Q&A with Christine Cushing: the fearless chef on trends and the balance between prepared foods and cooking from scratch

Christine Cushing at Terroir earlier this month (Image: Renée Suen)

Christine Cushing is a face that most will recognize from TV shows like Fearless in the Kitchen and Christine Cushing Live. But Cushing has also done stints at some of Toronto’s most renowned kitchens (Four Seasons Hotel, Scaramouche), and more recently, she’s become the developer of a line of upscale food products, Christine Cushing’s. We caught up with Cushing, who has been promoting her latest discovery—a yet-to-be-named roasted red pepper paste—at the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association Show.

The results of the Canadian Chef’s Survey recently reported that local, healthy and sustainable foods are still the top trends. What’s your take?

After going to Terroir, I really do think the idea of grass-fed beef and the move away from commercial meats will become more mainstream. We may eat less meat, but the quality will definitely expand. Also, on the tails of Food, Inc. and all of the negative impacts of bad food management in North America, I think people still want to have trust in what they’re eating. It doesn’t necessarily have to be local, but how did it get here? Is it safe for me to eat and is it nutritious? Is it giving me what it says it’s giving me? Those are really going to be the dominant trends, in my view.

How about organic?

I don’t know how important organic is to people. For some people it’s a deal breaker, but I think the definition of what counts as organic is going to start becoming more specific. People are going to ask if it’s the milk, meat, poultry or vegetables that should be organic. Where am I getting the most bang for my buck?

So do you follow trends?

I think trends can be kitschy and fickle, like fashion: they come and go and are difficult to predict. What drives everything I do is really the equation of quality. I’ve spent probably 20 years of my culinary life building this reputation. The key message for me, both as a chef, but also as a developer of products, is that you’ve got to have a product that people believe in, are loyal to and will go back to. When you get to the heart of it, there has to be something there.

Many new products were featured at the CRFA, including your own. What was your reason behind entering the prepared foods business?

There’s a disturbing trend in the generation down from me where less time is being spent in the kitchen, along with a rise in fast and prepared foods. I think the marketplace is flooded with lots of prepared foods and gimmicks. Low-fat, high-this, high-that and all these claims, but for lack of a better word, the meat is missing. But there’s also a small niche of people who want more and better understanding of food, organics and sourcing. For me, it’s about making real food that people can eat, but with the knowledge that people seem to have less time. I feel that these products are a way for me to stay connected to foodies and people who are looking for help in the kitchen, but still maintain that Mediterranean sensibility and quality equation. I don’t want us to lose our connection with our food.

Would you consider your products a spinoff of what you’ve been doing on Fearless in the Kitchen?

Yes, it is coupled with the show. A lot of times I’m shocked to find food-educated people, who perhaps watch cooking shows, but don’t in fact practise it.

Is it safe to say that people want to be a part of that food making process?

Absolutely. People are constantly looking for ways to get flavour, but they also don’t have the time to develop it. That’s the double-edged sword. People probably eat out more than they ever did—they’re exposed to a myriad of different ingredients from around the world and know more about interesting flavours, but at home, we don’t have the time. So these products are helpers and enablers—things that can help people take ownership of their meals, but they don’t do everything for you. That’s the key.