And then there’s me

And then there’s me, Christopher, Executive Chef of LEAT Catering and Paese and this is how I ended up writing this story.  

Me, and the beginning of my fascination with fire and possibly cooking

And some thirty years later at the L EAT farms

 By three degrees of separation I was introduced to Tony a few years ago through former employees who had jumped ship at a sinking catering company we were trying to rescue. My first interview was in the early morning at the bar in Paese which involved numerous shot of espresso and my second interview was in the late evening up in Tony’s office which involved numerous shots of bourbon. That’s how most chefs’ days go, if the truth be spoken.  

In the morning

And in the evening

Toronto is full of great chefs; a melting pot of food cultures and people. Almost any food stuff is available and our size provides us with an amazing network of wineries and farmers, but it’s Achilles heel is in its mediocrity. It seems like a fickle city always wanting to be New York but forgetting also that its real roots lie in the people who immigrated here and brought with them their packets of vegetable seeds and their family recipes.  Want the best Italian, Greek or Indian food?  It’s hard to find in most restaurants in this city but its here, on tables in kitchens being made by mothers who are a last generation of people who raised families, planted gardens, who bought the cheapest cuts of meat and had the ability to turn it into something that any chef in this city would be proud to serve.  

I come from one of those families and I arrived in this city 7 years ago, leaving the west coast attitude and cooking style of Vancouver for the bright lights of Toronto.  Vancouver is a small city and it shows in the even smaller amount of high end restaurants. As a cook working your way through the system you reach a point where there are only so many good restaurants left that you can work at to pad your resume. There comes a time when you have to settle into a place and wait for your turn, work hard and hopefully when the sous chef moves on you will have impressed management enough that you can move up. I didn’t want to wait my turn, my family had moved east to Toronto and inevitably I had started to read about the culinary scene, familiarizing myself with the movers and shakers, all the while knowing I would eventually make the move to the big smoke myself.  

My first fish caught at my grandfathers cottage on Jeanette Lake, Saskatchewan

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go back a ways.  If you could draw a line through all my culinary influences, it wouldn’t start with any three-star Michelin French chef; those influences would come years later. As a young boy my siblings and I would spend time at our father’s parent’s farm in rural Saskatchewan watching my Hungarian grandmother cook. I remember her as only ever being in the kitchen and that was probably my earliest food memory. With her apron tied tightly around and towering over a stove full of cast iron pans, she spent years being the engine for a family of ten kids. 

The Palik farm, Kipling Saskatchewan

Some of my fondest memories of food and other wise took place at this farm. Chicken coops, crab apple trees, and endless fields of wheat gave me a reference point for cooking that could never ever come from the Food Network. There must have been something in that Saskatchewan water or perhaps it was the influences of growing up outdoors because both my brother and I with the passion of food and cooking deeply ingrained in us would both go on to become chefs. Little did we know the impact that those summers had on us as kids, stopped along the side of a dirt road picking as many Saskatoon blue berries as possible or spending the afternoons in the sun shelling peas. Canning in the late fall was essential, buying a whole cow and having the thing butchered so that you could have a freezer full of meat all winter was tradition;  and turning that prize winning buck into sausages was a rite of passage.  

Country Kitchen in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan was the first restaurant that let me cook professionally. It was a truck stop style, family restaurant and once I proved adept at washing dishes, I was quickly moved up to the next important position of  “Belgium waffle boy”. Every morning I was sent out the kitchen door with two, 16 liter buckets of waffle mix and a case of non stick spray to anchor the end of the buffet line. Two waffle makers, whipped cream and strawberry sauce were all that separated me from hungry packs of screaming kids, the elderly and hungry families. Something about the crazy characters that inhabited the kitchen and the magic of making people happy with food sparked an interest in me.  It was the late 80’s and I was about to graduate from high school. Fortunately for me, my family was moving out west and the economic boom of Vancouver meant actual opportunities for our family. I had applied, and was accepted, to one of Canada’s best cooking schools. A few months later I found myself on the doorstep of Vancouver Community College’s, Culinary Arts Foundations program.  

With my brother Greg, unleashing one of my creations on my family

I quickly became immersed in the cultures of Escoffier, Carême, and Bocusse. It was a complete shock on so many different levels. I had left small town Saskatchewan, school was in the seediest part of Vancouver and was working with foods I had never heard of. My palate exploded, anchored by Vancouver’s vibrant multi-cultural scene. The huge Asian population meant there was sushi on every corner; the Indian culture brought shawarma stands everywhere and on our doorstep the Pacific Ocean gave us an abundance of wild seafood.  

Vancouver Community College, 1990

Ten months later with a basic diploma in my hand and armed with the ability to cook potatoes 89 different ways, what did I do?  I became the “deli boy” at the Real Canadian Superstore. Why? I wanted to socialize, work part time, traipse around in the old growth forest and figure things out. Looking back now I recognize that this was a smart move. Truth is I realized in culinary school that being a chef amounted to an incredible amount of pressure, and there was no way that, at twenty, I was mature enough to handle the extremes of working in a professional kitchen. I followed my short deli career with attempts at construction and as a diesel mechanic before realizing that what I wanted was a combination of working with my hands and the creativity that cooking provided. When I made the decision that being a chef was what I wanted my brain became a sponge and opportunities came easy. I worked my way through Vancouver’s best restaurants; I spent a year cooking in France  where I witnessed  a level of food culture never to be seen by myself since, and made an eventual move to Toronto that brought my career to the next level. 

Megeve, the French town in the Alps where I cooked and lived for a year

What is my philosophy on food? Well I don’t care for food foams, cooking in plastic bags under pressure or kitchens as laboratories.  I am not a scientist or a scholar but I love to wax poetic to anyone who will listen. We are all seduced by networks full of sexy chefs with long exaggerated shots of expensive kitchens, making food that’s now coined by the term “foodporn”. I admit I have been guilty of trying to be as sexy with my food and forgetting that it was a matter of sustenance first. I am not trying to change the world with my cooking or reinvent the wheel. How can you when everything has already been done before? When I first started out I naively thought that most of my culinary creations were pretty good, if not ground breaking, but after years of careful research I have been disappointed to find out that every single one of them was mastered long ago. It’s once you reach that point that you understand that to cook in the manner that I get to do is a privilege, not a right, and by that token it has to be respected. Ever since I came to that realization, my food has taken on a soulful quality it never had before.  

My first Chef position. The Strand, 2004

Chefs have been quickly changing their philosophies about where their food comes from. Terms like “nose to tail eating”, “locally sourced”, and “organic” now appear on menus everywhere.  Growing up in Saskatchewan my family’s farmers market was our garden; our “Healthy butcher” was our neighbour down the road, and “locavore” was what we were, long before we knew it was a food revolution. Today television and the internet have broken down food boundaries our grandparent’s could have never imagined. Our access to recipes and products has blown our culinary tapestry wide open. Now days styrofoam boxes packed with other countries bounty arrive on every flight from where ever you have just been, and and arrive at your grocery store and at my restaurants back door.  

My brother Nathan and myself, Toronto Taste 2006

The internet age has made it hard for people my age to think of a time when everything wasn’t at our finger tips. I have  seen this generation gap in terms of food and have seen it come full circle through my own family. On the one hand, I was surprised that we had just introduced my 97 year old grandfather to his first steamed mussel and that he had never heard of, let alone eaten, a pomegranate.  I was both amazed and inspired that, at his age, my grandfather, completely unaware of the “Food Network” world, is still open-minded enough to be discovering and trying new foods. I was equally amazed and inspired by my 12 year old niece who with my assistance recreated a scene from the movie “No reservations”, in which the both of us together cooked a traditional Italian meal for our families. What inspired me was the day after, when she was replicating and teaching others the recipes and tips I had shown her. I was proud to have been given the chance to pass down these things that were passed down to me. Finally I was given a tattered old cookbook by my mother, once used by her mother and upon flipping through the recipes, I was struck at how my grandmother, years ago was cooking with the same simple sets of ingredients I always keep in my fridges at work that form the basis of my cooking.  It’s been interesting to look at the role that food has in my life, not only as nourishment but as something connective that ties my family together.

My grandfather Fritz, my mother June and myself November 2009

Cooking with my niece Chantal, christmas 2009

Through a series of adventures and misadventures and through the kitchens of some of the best and worst of Toronto’s culinary scene, I can say that I have “almost” seen it all. From alcoholic chefs to mafia connected restaurant owners, I have worked my way from the dish pit of a truck stop diner in a little Saskatchewan town to being behind the stoves cooking for Toronto’s rich and famous. It takes more than hard work, it also takes catching some lucky breaks along the way, and one of mine came a couple of years ago sitting in Tony’s office.  

Myself and Tony, enough said.

Great restaurants are not about just one person, it is about a collection of people doing a lot of little things right. And by doing a lot of little things right, is how we came to have the chance to be standing in front a neglected space in a strip of restaurants that seem to have been from a time long forgotten. Garish neon signs, dated menus, old waiters in stuffy uniforms putting down plates of food that had long lost their love. Now it’s our turn, time to take all that knowledge accumulated over the years and to really put our money where our mouth is. This is the story of Paese on King Street.


1 Response to “And then there’s me”

  1. January 13, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Love the blog, Chris! More posts, please!

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