Thursday, December 14, 2017

Rising Culinary Stars 2018

I am dedicated to supporting and mentoring emerging talent in the culinary and hospitality industry. Rising Culinary Stars are young, up-and-coming culinary professionals who represent the vanguard of the modern Ontario culinary scene and have a reputation for originality and creativity. They have exceptional, compelling culinary philosophies and are committed to fostering a cutting-edge farm-to-table culinary repertoire by sharing their knowledge with fellow professionals. Ultimately, it’s innovation, ambition, exquisite presentation and most importantly, delicious cuisine that combine to be awarded the distinction. Please send me your nominations for 2018.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Chili Chowder Chow Chow: It's all Scots to Me.


Decades have passed since I worked with my best friend Bonnie at the Corkscrew Restaurant in London, Ontario, yet our friendship remains solid and enduring. The Corkscrew was one of the ubiquitous steak and lobster, salad bar chains that plagued the culinary landscape in the late-1970s and 1980s. Surprisingly, the Corkscrew with its fake castle motif and servers in festive peasant garb attracted a hot-bed of raw talent and many employees went on to illustrious careers in the culinary world. Bonnie was not among them. She set her sights elsewhere.

At nineteen, Bonnie and I were fledglings and hungry for life experience. Though newly acquainted, we decided to travel across Europe together. Yet it was on this trip that our culinary competitiveness first reared its head. Returning from Amsterdam and Brussels, we were boarding with friends, (of our mutual best friend Tara’s cousin) in Barking, just  outside London. In an ill fated attempt to thank them for weeks of self-sacrificing hospitality, I decided to prepare what I then mistakenly deemed a typical Canadian dinner.

Today this day, I recoil when I recall that my meatloaf 
 a noble staple of my childhood and a praiseworthy dish that personifies "peasant" rusticity – resulted in shameful failure. It was due to youthful bravado coupled with an unfamiliar oven. Bonnie, has since mastered the art of a wry, well-delivered anecdote (read fable), alleges our startled hosts hid the undercooked, half-eaten meatloaf behind the sofa. She further claims that while I was doing the washing up they moved it to their bedroom to be discretely disposed of at a later date.

Dreading a repeat performance, I soon learned the eccentricities of the British stove and not to attempt to pass off culinary failures, no matter how high the expectation, or how self-sacrificing the guest. Bonnie, however, did not immediately benefit from my disaster. Her pay off would come later and with alarming frequency in her self-satisfied retelling of this unfortunate incident.
Through the years, she has continued to multiply her litany of complaints about my culinary abilities with fresh embellishments. Chief among them is an exaggerated version of an overly sweet blackberry crumble recipe which I served on a pleasant holiday weekend in Parry Sound some years ago. She has a taste for blood and there has been no stopping her.
Shortly after my youthful calamity, she took her turn in the kitchen. In those days, blackened food had not acquired the patina of respectability it briefly enjoyed in the 1990's. The jury is still out on whether or not the smoke and the flames were intentional.

Bonnie was unaware of our host's discomfort and less-than-enthusiastic reaction to their smoke-filled living room. She asserted that this dish made with turnips and beef marinated and braised in stout was an ancestral Scottish recipe. She misidentified this invention as beer steak with pedantic insistence, despite evidence to the contrary. And, of course, this was her original claim to clan-and-tartan Highland blood, and the first of many ill-considered attempts to revise Scotland’s culinary repertoire and customs. Her lineage are Stewart`s known for several  illegitimate offspring which include King James IV. Never mind the dubious marriages. 

Imagine regional Scot's dishes with names of mysterious origins like Partan Bree (cream of crab soup), Cullen Skink (finnan haddie soup), Feather Fowlie (roasting fowl), Smoored Pullets (fried chicken), Finkadella (meat ball), Howtowdie(roast chicken with poached eggs and spinach) and ForFar Birdies (meat pies). These curious and tempting recipes are all gathered from the rugged Highlands and the loch-studded Lowlands of Scotland in a book of recipes called The Highlander's Cookbook, that belonged to Bonnie's mother Norma. There is no such listing for "beer steak".

Bonnie's true claim to culinary fame, though, is her recipe for Chili Chowder Chow Chow. The chili part of the equation has little to do with the famed bowl of red. Chili may be a generic term, embellished by traditions, mostly to do with heat, but this logic does not apply here. Nor does the mixture bear any passing resemblance to the hearty dish known as chowder. It has crossed my mind that she calls it chowder in honour of the French chaudiere, meaning cauldron. But this explanation is unlikely, since the dish is prepared in the microwave.

Hostility has simmered for generations over New England versus Manhattan clam chowder (Maine once passed a bill prohibiting the integration of tomatoes with clams). But that is a minor dispute next to the intense arguments over chili recipes. In Texas, where it is considered a crime to add beans to chili, Bonnie would be looking at life, for this concoction.

Chow chow, an assortment of pickles of various types, especially mixed vegetables in mustard, must have been added solely for alliteration, because there is none here. If memory serves, this hodgepodge consists of a can of kidney beans, another of creamed corn, some tomatoes, perhaps some canned soup and whatever else might be on hand. Chili Chowder Chow Chow has little hope of gaining a following but, then again, you never know.

Dragonfly Bistro — Intimate, Stylish and Attentive with an Indo-Dutch Flair — Celebrates 10 years

Chef/Co-Owner Donald Yuriaan 
Kari Kol
Ayam Bumbu


“Bistro,” a restaurant category that harkens back to the late 19th century in France and the early 20th century in England, is flexible in its connotations, but always refers to an establishment where one can have a meal as well as drinks. True bistros are generally small, and their menus are characteristically comprised of straightforward selections, often rustic in nature but not pricey. Dragonfly Bistro is one such place.

For me, the name Dragonfly conjures up images of beauty and exotica. The adult dragonfly can thrust itself in six directions: downward, upward, forward, backward, and side to side, so the choice of the name Dragonfly for the restaurant intrigued me.

Even though the restaurant has large and attractive windows facing the street, in some respects it remains hidden in plain sight at the north end of Richmond Row, housed in the premises once occupied by the Village Café next door to the Ground Up Organic Cafe. Seated by the window, I have on several occasions watched many inquisitive passers-by stop to peruse the menu posted in the window and then resume walking. I want to advise them to step inside to the intimate and charming 24-seat dining room, which is now in its tenth year of operation.

When you first enter the restaurant, you are immediately greeted, your coat is taken, and you are properly seated. There is a disposition of giving and taking pride and pleasure in giving hospitality and providing warm service. Co-owner Nora Yuriaan's service is attentive, personal, efficient and warm.

Smaller restaurants seem to impart an intimacy, conviviality and hospitality that can never be duplicated in larger spaces. Compact premises might bear more scrutiny, but the type of familiarity they afford often breeds mutual respect and appreciation for both the kitchen and patrons. This has been evident on the several visits I have made to the Dragonfly. There are starched red linen tablecloths and napkins here, as well as impeccably set tables with quality stemware and polished glassware that adds panache to the surroundings.

The kitchen is compact but ordered. Chef Donald Yuriaan produces classic dishes that can be executed with ease and simplicity. He emphasizes that the menus are designed to accommodate seasonal ingredients and locally procured foods.

The culinary legacy of West Java, in Indonesia, might seem like an audacious muse for this intimate and stylish restaurant. However, chef Yuriaan is Indonesian by birth and was previously employed at the Grand Hotel Preanger in Bandung, the capital of West Java, after graduating from Hotel Management. For several years, Chef was employed by both Holland America and Norwegian cruise lines. It is interesting to note that the archipelago of 17,504 islands known as Indonesia is home to over 360 ethnic groups.

On the menu, there is spice for those who seek heat. Mere heat, however, is not all that most of Dragonfly Bistro’s clients desire. We were enthused by the sambal-like hot and spicy chili sauce that bathed the Indonesian- inspired Ayam Balado (chicken breast served with a spicy red chili, tomato and spice sauce with shallots, garlic, ginger, galangal, lemon grass, palm sugar, lime leaves and Indonesian Bay leaves) on the inner menu. Other entrees on the dinner menu might include chateaubriand, maple-glazed filet of salmon, lamb and wild mushroom spaghetti. There is a daily homemade soup. On several occasions, we were impressed with Chefs’ velvety Cream of Jerusalem Artichoke Soup.

Chef proffers a prix fixe  Indonesian menu in the evenings that is perfect for anyone looking for a rich and varied range of authentic favours. Sour notes of galangal, lemon grass, tamarind and lime leaves offer more subtlety and range to the cooking. Not since Mies Bervoest stopped serving a skilled repertoire of Indo-Dutch inspired dishes in a rijsttafel at the former Miestro restaurant several years back, have we had access to these flavour mixtures.

From the Indonesian menu we ordered the Ayam Bumbu (sliced chicken breast) with Indonesian peanut sauce. It was served with Kari Kol, cauliflower in a sauce of Indonesian curry; with steamed jasmine rice known as Nasi Putih. The Indonesian menu is served family-style, priced based on portion per person, not an all you can eat buffet.

For dessert there is sticky toffee pudding and vanilla crème brulee which can be ordered ala carte. The Dragonfly Bistro has a refined kitchen, a moderately priced menu, and service that is professional and hospitable.

Join them Mondays for the Indonesian prix-fixe menu only. On Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday you can order from the ala carte menu. 5.30 - 9:00 pm for dinner. Open for lunch Wednesday, Thursday and Friday .

Please call in advance to make a reservation. 519.432.2191

Monday Night Indonesian Prix-Fixe Sample Menu - Menu Changes Monthly :

Daging Rendang
Beef marinade with coconut milk, chili, coriander, galangal, tamarind, lemon- grass, turmeric, lemon leaf, white pepper, garlic & red onion

Nasi Uduk
Yellow coconut rice with lemongrass, turmeric, Indonesian bay leaf and coconut milk

Bakmi Goreng
Indonesian-style fried egg noodles with bok choy, shredded cabbage and green onion

Acar Acar
Pickled Cucumber and Carrots

$20.00 per person

Dragonfly Bistro
715 Richmond Street
519 432 2191

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Ruminations on Appetite for Words: Literary Dinner with Stratford Chefs School, Gastronomic Writer in Residence, Chef Andrew George Jr.

Stratford Chef School Co-founder, Eleanor Kane & Chef Andrew George Jr.


DigiWriting Book Marketing Agency (producers of the Stratford Writers Festival) launched Appetite for Words: A Literary Festival with a Culinary Twist! at Stratford Chef School at end of October 2017, with Chef Andrew George Jr. At the literary-themed dinners, food is paired with the author’s readings, so participants can taste the words they’re hearing.

Canada 150 has been a year-long celebration of the sesquicentennial of Canadian confederation. Fifty years ago the Canada Pavilion at Expo 67, Canada’s centennial celebration in Montreal, contributed to strengthening a powerful cultural unity. At the time the pavilion’s two restaurants were seen as providing a national culinary narrative. Restaurant La Toundra, operated by CN Hotels, served a Katimavik (which means “meeting place” in the Inuktitut language) Special that included chilled Okanogan apple juice and “Tourtière Chateau” with buttered peas and Saratoga chips. This was followed by Coupe Innuit [sic].This conceptualization of a Canadian cuisine was viewed as an all-encompassing initiative containing regional dishes and traditions derived from the First Nations and other clichéd multiculturalism stereotypes within the country. It seems to me the idea was to unite all recognizable cultures practising their own culture within Canada. 

Canadian cuisine really is an abstract concept, indefinable due to the contradictory nature of Canadian identity. Indeed, ours is a complex identity, and paradoxically includes vast cultural and culinary differences. For many years serious attempts to define a national cuisine have either met with derision or devolved into stereotypes.

If you were to ask most people about what is meant by Canadian cuisine, many would respond with the stereotypical dishes like cod tongues, prairie oysters, Nanaimo bars, poutine, tourtière, back bacon, Montreal-smoked meat, butter tarts, seal flipper pie or fried bannock – a bread introduced to First Nation communities by Scottish settlers. It would seem to be unjust to identify one particular dish as being emblematic of Canadian cuisine. 

Co-Founder, Stratford Chefs School, Eleanor Kane said, “It only seems right that chef Andrew George, Jr a member of the Wet’suwet’en First Nations people be invited to be Stratford Chef School Gastronomic Writer in Residence, during sesquicentennial year.” The program is one-of-a-kind and unique to chef training in Canada. Launched in 2007, the program is sustained by the family of the Joseph Hoare, former food editor at Toronto Life magazine, and a group of other donors. The school's previous writers in residence have had wide-ranging experiences in gastronomy, but have been mostly celebrated authors or columnists. Chef is the co-author of Modern Native Feasts: Healthy, Innovative, Sustainable Cuisine; and A Feast for all Seasons: Traditional Native Peoples’ Cuisine

At the Appetite for Words Literary Dinner at Stratford Chefs School featuring Chef George, he spoke about giving instruction to both first and second-year students ranging from cultural writing to recipe writing. Chef also talked about his journey from the Bush (Wet’suwet’en traditional territories and camps) to the World Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt.

The Wet’suwet’en First Nations are semi-nomadic with two semi-permanent camps villages on the Bulkley River and around Broman Lake and Francois Lake in the northwestern Central Interior of British Columbia. Chef tells us, “The Wet’suwet’en First Nations follow the cycle of the Salmon People”. Fishing for salmon is just as an essential aspect of First Nation’s culture as eating it. It’s difficult to measure the incredible bearing salmon has had on the Native people of British Columbia. Salmon has been central to the First Nations diet, economy and mythology for centuries.

Going back and looking to tradition, Chef was required to do a lot of research to write his cookbook. He spoke to us about translating personal history into a cookbook.  He said he first he looked to his ancestors and his elders for guidance. There weren’t any written recipes and cooking was based entirely on oral history. Part of the difficulty and challenge was that it might take ten English words to describe something fundamental to the Wet’suwet’en First Nations culture.
A Feast for all Seasons: Traditional Native People’s Cuisine is not only broken into seasons but into elements of water, earth, land and air. There is significance in fours, directions, seasons, elements and colours.  The book pays homage to clan gatherings and respect for the land. For everything that is taken from the land, there is always something given back. When First Nations communities think about the future, they’re not just considering the next generation, they’re thinking about the following seven generations, George explained. This long-term perspective makes them exceptionally competent to cope with climate change and other environmental issues.

George has travelled the globe world to demonstrate and promote the traditions and techniques of First Nations cuisine. He was part of the first all-Aboriginal team at the World Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1992. George was head chef at the Four Host First Nations pavilion during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. George was one of 25 international chefs to participate in an event called Culinary Diplomacy: Promoting Cultural Understanding through Food, by invitation of Hillary Clinton and organized by the US State Department in 2012.

The Appetite for Words Literary Dinner with Chef George Jr.’s menu included Three Sisters Soup with Cornbread; a quartet of Smoked Fish with Bannock Crisps, Braised Buffalo Ribs, Red Pepper Pesto, Baby Root Vegetables and Wild Rice Pilaf. The dessert was Bannock and Berry Galette with Crème Fraiche Ice Cream. Each course was expertly paired with a wine from Joie Farm.

The Indomitable Restaurateur Marika Hayek Celebrates 60+ Years at The Budapest


Budapest Dining Room and Tavern is a local gem with yards of red velvet and charming unintended kitsch. Over the years the Budapest has continued to evolve while its grand interior remains virtually unchanged. The décor with plush velvet valances and curtained alcoves, brocades, red and gold wallpaper, comfortable arm chair seating evokes another other era. The Roma “Gypsy-style” aesthetic is also the restaurant's brand. It has become both an anomaly and anachronism.

Two main rooms lead back from Dundas Street and are linked by an arched passageway across the middle, an ornate banquet hall at the far end, and the kitchen at the other end. There is a musician—a piano player with a penchant for delivering uninvited political observations—playing the sentimental melodies traditionally adopted by Hungarian Romani musicians. He plays to the Budapest's patrons between brief monologues. He is part of the  idiosyncratic charm.

Before I go any further, I want to begin by saying, I have known owner Marika Hayek for several decades. We were friendly restaurant neighbour's for a decade and she was only too happy to lend me a pound of butter on a busy Saturday night. She once invited me to go on vacation with her to the city of Budapest as her companion. "All expenses paid." And by the way, Hayek alternatively refers to me as Bruce, Byron and Bryan. I answer to all three. It has become an endearing dog and pony show.

The Budapest happens to be the first fine dining restaurant I visited when my family and I moved to London in 1970. My stepfather's father's family is Hungarian. My stepfather an excellent cook has intimately acquainted me with the cuisine.  Chicken paprikash is the Hungarian National dish, its name derived from liberal use of paprika, a spice emblematic of the cuisine. Last year he brought some very fine paprika back from Budapest. I treat it like gold.

On top of that, I have been a long-time patron. My friend Kathy and I are devotees of the stuffed pork. Hungary, of course, is known for all matter of stuffed things, from cabbage rolls, dumplings, and perogies to blintzes, which are among  Hayek's specialties. Her warm hospitality, coupled with menus filled with goulash, schnitzels and meaty paprikash, can make dining at Budapest feel like stepping back in time.

Hayek has been delighting clients by serving Hungarian specialities in this traditional old-world tavern setting for over 60 years. The offering consists of a large selection of proper dishes. House-made chicken and rabbit paprikash, beef stroganoff, wiener schnitzel, combination platters or prix-fixe Hungarian dinners — spätzle and the gnocchi are delicious — save room for the palacsinta, strudels and the walnut roll. The a la carte desserts are much larger portions. The desserts that arrive as part of the prix-fixe arrangement are presented minus mounds of whipped cream.

A couple of years ago, Hungarian Consul-General Dr. Stefania Szabo celebrated Hayek’s landmark achievements as a successful business owner and pillar of the London community. Hayek is no stranger to such fanfare. She is admired and well-regarded for her hospitality, wit and risqué repartee.

Hayek arrived in Canada in March of 1957, then 25, she and her husband were part of a wave of immigration to Canada that occurred after the 1956 Hungarian revolution against communist rule. Between 1956 and 1958, an estimated 200,000 fled to the west to avoid Soviet reprisals, leaving their possessions behind. Around 38,000 Hungarian refugees arrived in Canada. About 6,000 of these refugees arrived in Ontario. Hayek was among them. All were admitted and accepted into Canadian society within a two-year period. The impact of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the mass of emigration of Hungarians who consequently arrived in Canada forms a watershed moment in Canadian History. 
Knowing this, helps to put Hayek’s formidable achievements into perspective.

A trained cook in Budapest, Hayek was drawn to the hospitality business when she arrived in London. Initially, she was employed by Moskie Delicatessen on Dundas Street at Waterloo.  Always thinking ahead, Hayek bought the building that housed Moskie even before she purchased the delicatessen from its owners. That transaction included the Giant ice cream shop next door. In 1968 she and her husband merged the two storefronts into a single premise. Ripping out the interior they refurbished the basement and main floor areas to build the present-day restaurant.

A formidable restaurateur with a keen aptitude for the business and exacting standards, the fledgling businesswomen embodied the height of Mittel European elegance and sophistication in the 1970's. There are plenty of framed glamour photos of the striking Hayek in her prime.  

Until recently, Hayek’s routine has been to rise before dawn, have breakfast, exercise, and until recently, swim laps in her indoor pool. She arrives at the restaurant early in the morning to begin the workday. Hayek insists, “Everything on the menu is made in-house.” She oversees and helps to prepare the large variety of Hungarian staples for which she has built her reputation.

Hayek greets her guests with a gracious "please come in, my lovely peoples" or "my lovely ladies and gentlemen" and has penchant for referring to guests as "dah-ling" in her Gabor-like Hungarian accent. She is known to be a harmless flirt, it is part of the schtick. She likes to engage men in bawdy repartee and often refers to what she calls as “make the sexy-sexy." Hayek is on hand to pepper a conversation with a compliment or relationship advice for women patrons. A classic Hyak phrase that is often repeated: "If a man has money in the pockets he has nothing in the pants. If he has something in the pants he has nothing in the pockets".

Now 85, requiring a cane for added mobility, Hayek is celebrating a mind-numbing 60 years in business. A long list of local luminaries and a loyal clientele of long-time regulars, whom she mostly knows by name or a derivation of their name, still frequent the restaurant. The Budapest attracts bus tours and plenty of patrons from the nearby hotels.

The Budapest Restaurant will delight Hungarian food fans who prefer the old-fashioned dishes. Even those food enthusiasts who are inclined to moan and dismiss the restaurant as an anachronism, might want to take a closer look at the Budapest Restaurant's unique charms before it becomes a thing of the past.

Budapest Dining Room & Tavern
348 Dundas Street.

(519) 439-3431

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Brief Overview of My Culinary Life in 1200 Words or Less

Making Pasta in Emilia- Romagna, Italy 1999


When I was a young teenager, our friends and family reacted like we were moving to Mars when we left Toronto to move to our cottage on Rice Lake. Our parents fulfilled a long-held dream when they purchased the cottage with a hilltop location and an acre of cedar forest backing on to the Ouse River. The site had previously been part of much larger farm acreage.

The cottage was a prefabricated shell with no amenities, in my unformed mind a zeitgeist in the back-to-the-earth spirit of the times, a handyman’s special that we idealized and had the potential to be transformed into our dream home.

At first, I thought we had landed in paradise, taking a cue from my parents who behaved like we had inherited heaven on earth. It was a convincing gambit that betrayed no hint of the hardships and sacrifices ahead. We briefly emulated the type of television family that enjoyed the solidarity of breaking bread together and took deep satisfaction from cooking meals over an open-fire in the moonlight.

Our parents purchased an old cast iron, wood-burning stove at a farm sale auction that had to be moved on a flat- bed pulled by a tractor. The stove was connected by a stove pipe to a temperamental flue that vented the smoke outside. The stove was both a heat source and cooker and would rarely burn unattended for more than a couple of hours. Gathering and chopping wood became a necessity that seemed to dominate our lives. If the embers were allowed to extinguish no amount of stoking, bellows work or fanning with a newspaper would resuscitate the fire.  It was on this volatile stove that I became a fledgling cook. I was most in my element in the kitchen or hunting and pecking on an ancient typewriter in my bedroom with a thesaurus by my side.

The experience of moving to our cottage was like going camping for an extended period of time. Like any make-believe, reality often crushes expectations. When the honeymoon was over, practicality took over, and after several months the “everything is awful” phase replaced our pioneering spirit. For a teenager accustomed to the independence of urban life and navigating a large city on transit the realization that we were isolated came as a culture shock, the effects delayed but inevitable.

At fourteen, I proved myself equal to stand a full days work. My first job was pumping gas and clerking at Heffernan’s, which was the only general store and one of few gas stations along a stretch of Highway 7 between Peterborough and the village of Norwood. Heffernan’s served a captive audience of hard-working farmers who purchased their weekly food stuffs and farming supplies as well as other passersby on route to small towns or the near north. 
It was here I perfected my distinctive hand writing style by using a ruler to keep the grocery receipts legible.  It was as a side-kick in the kitchen at the back of the store that I was indoctrinated into the art and science of baking and in retrospect this contributed to my life-long interest in cooking. 

My formative years were spent managing the kitchens of the Keg and the Corkscrew chains, learning the business side of the industry when salad bars and steak and lobster were the very definition of middlebrow cuisine. Despite the lack of innovation in these kitchens I became an avid reader of cookbooks, the recipes were precise and I attempted to follow them to the letter.

In my early twenties, I was fortunate to have several mentors with a dedicated interest in gastronomy and was given the opportunity to work with talented chefs and restaurateurs all with difficult temperaments and strong skill sets that helped me develop a culinary backbone. My real education and passion for the culinary arts began while working at a series of French restaurants in Toronto that were bastions of haute cuisine.  The way I saw it, French seemed to be the only serious way to dine. Initially, I was an ardent student of regional French cuisine but after trips to Italy, I had to acknowledge that I was more inspired by regional Italian cooking and eventually I moved beyond France as my primary focus of interest.

As far as I can remember, travels in Europe and my introduction to food writers MFK Fisher and Elizabeth David were how my passion for food writing was incubated. In any case, it was Italy where I first encountered giant turtles fated for soup pots, wild game, a variety of unusual feathered birds and truffle hunting dogs. I enjoyed scouting the open-air food markets in Pisa and Florence and the Rialto market on Venice’s Canal Grande. The Italian market was my nirvana, with its abundant varieties of fresh and saltwater fish and shellfish, the night markets piled high with seasonal produce, fresh fungi and obscure local cheeses.

I was cooking at at a dinner club in Chandler’s Ford in Hampshire, England, just as mad cow disease was evolving from a cryptic veterinary conundrum into an epidemic affecting 120,000 cattle. Speculation about mad cow’s relationship to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans had created a state of panic.  I realized that I had been naive to put my confidence in the perceived safety of our food chain. It was about this time that I became politicized about food security and began questioning our food and farming policies.

A decade later I was chosen as part of a contingent to partake in a culinary journey with seven Canadian chefs to the region of Emilia-Romagna in Italy. This was my first introduction to “Slow Food” and the movement to safeguard traditional regional specialties, time- honoured techniques and farm-to-table cuisine. It was on this trip that I had an epiphany about food boasting of regional authenticity and became a dedicated proponent of  the local food movement, culinary tourism and Ontario's homegrown terroir.

In retrospect, I have a rewarding career in the culinary arts and am gratified to be associated with establishing, owning or in partnership with many great restaurants that became a way of life but more importantly an ideology. My involvement with the Western Fair Farmers` and Artisans` Market gave me a platform to lead and support important initiatives in the community during a transformational time. I have always felt that my true calling has been as a communicator. It took me many years to find my authentic voice. As as food writer and editor I bring my years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, as a chef, restaurateur, mentor and consultant. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Thaifoon - London’s Premiere Upscale Go-To Thai Restaurant

Manisay Visouvath and Fouzan (Rafael) Beg are the proprietors of Thaifoon, downtown London’s upmarket Thai restaurant. The restaurant remains a family affair. Visouvath is the youngest sister of Eddy and Alex Phimprhrachanh’s mother, Arounvaty, who is the head chef at Thaifoon and the matriarch of a Thai food dynasty in the city. Several of Arounvaty’s sisters have opened successful Thai restaurants in the city after being mentored in the kitchen by her. 
 Visouvath was born in the Southeast Asian country and came to Canada with her parents in 1980. Rafael is from Hyderabad India. (Hyderabadi cuisine comprises a broad repertoire of rice, grains and meat dishes and the skilled use of various spices – Indian cuisine has a longer, slower burn, rather than the sharper, built-up spiciness of Thai cuisine.) 

Thaifoon’s with-it and tasteful take on the ancient Thai culture, with a décor that honours the past while embracing modernity, has earned both raves and admiration. The restaurant continues to set itself apart with bang-on exuberant flavours and an eye for detail and presentation.

The 38-seat restaurant is a tasteful and refined take on the ancient Siamese culture, with a soothing décor and a rich palette of browns and blacks with golden accents and pleasing Thai iconography. The minimalist room is sleek, with a sexy, Buddha Lounge style soundtrack, rich dark woods and ultra-soft leather banquettes with cushions. The kitchen’s oeuvre is a consistent showcase of Thailand’s regional flavours of hot, sweet, sour and salty, honouring tradition while embracing modernity. Thaifoon is careful to give you just the level of spicing you want. The restaurant is popular with vegetarian and gluten-free clients. 

Won-ton bundles are flawless — well-executed crispy and crunchy parcels of chili-infused minced chicken accompanied by a ginger and plum sauce. The Avo Moon Shine dumplings with fragrant minced chicken, tamarind and cashews are served with fresh sour cream and avocado dipping sauces. Savoury curries surpass expectations with richness and variations on spiciness that are tempered with velvety coconut milk and fragrant aromatics The pad Thai continues to be properly prepared with perfectly cooked noodles, firm tofu with a silky interior, egg, crisp bean sprouts, scallions, fragrant cilantro, minced peanuts, lime juice and the crucial sweet and sour tanginess.

The secret to their success is sticking to the basics of authentic Thai cooking and offering a mixture of spicy, sweet and salty but also rich coconut flavours mixed with fresh herbs like kaffir, lime leaves and lemongrass. Coconut milk is the foundation of the Thai curry. Rafael tells me that they use pure coconut milk and do not dilute their coconut milk like many other restaurants in the city. 

Arounvaty has kept her recipe grounded in how she was used to making and eating pad Thai back home — rice noodles cooked with fish sauce, sugar, tamarind, a few other spices and a touch of soy for the caramel colour. This summer they subtly tweaked signature dishes like their pad Thai and pad gra paw to offer more of a street style version of these dishes.
Thaifoon continues to receive raves and praise for their consistently well-prepared cuisine and responsive, knowledgeable service. Coconut and green tea ice creams are made in-house. 

This is London's premiere upscale go-to Thai restaurant. There is a top-shelf cocktail list, mangotinis, lycheetinis and Mai Thais, and an above average selection of imported beers and complementary wines. Singha beer, a pale lager, pairs nicely with the spicy flavours of Thai cuisine. There are plans for an exotic, secluded patio that will front on Carling Street. Thaifoon offers an extensive menu for dine-in, take-away and delivery. 

120 Dundas Street (East of Talbot)

Lunch:  Mon to Fri 11:30am – 2:00pm
Dinner: Sun to Thu 4:30pm – 9:00pm
Dinner: Fri to Sat 4:30pm – 10:00pm

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Where to Eat Chinese in London, Ontario: Dim Sum, Noodles, Dumplings, Duck and Congee

Yue Minjun (born 1962) is a contemporary Chinese artist based in Beijing, China. He is best known for oil paintings depicting himself in various settings, frozen in laughter. A couple of prints of his work hang in the dining room at Wing's Kitchen.


Brief Overview

Nov8 is a brand new, contemporary Chinese restaurant in the premises formerly occupied by Nov8 Sushi, located in the Costco plaza at Wonderland north of Oxford.  The owners of Nove8 are expanding the definition of Chinese food by skillfully combining traditional and contemporary sensibilities – in the décor, cooking and presentation. Try the stewed pork belly over onions with roasted garlic. Ask for the hot, salty and crispy chicken sparked with ginger, sesame oil and dried hot chilies. The combination works beautifully especially if you like heat. Crisp-tender baby bok choy with meaty, earthy shitake mushrooms glazed in oyster and soya is a great juxtaposition of flavours and textures. Caramelized Chinese yams (also called cinnamon-vine) are caramelized so well that it looks like a thread is coming out from the sugar syrup. Look for unexpected spins on region-specific dishes with an ever-changing paper menu printed in both Chinese and English.
701 Wonderland Rd. N.

Alex and Wing Ip

Wing`s Kitchen/ Đồng Khánh (Seafood Restaurant)
Located near Highbury and Cheapside, Wing’s Kitchen (aka Đồng Khánh Seafood Restaurant) is located in the same plaza as the 24 hr drive-thru Globally Local. The 15 month old Wing`s Kitchen offers a large selection of dim sum options as well as standard Cantonese dishes and a few Thai selections. Dim sum is a late morning and lunchtime food. This is one of a few restaurants with a fresh lobster tank offering fresh lobster at reasonable prices. The owners Alex and Wing Ip are long time London restaurateurs who previously owned Green Tea Japanese, Asia Gourmet and Green Tea Asian Cuisine. Wing was a seafood buyer in Hong Kong for over 30 years. There is a hybrid Canadian-Chinese menu available all day. Pecking duck is served in two courses. A whole duckling fried to crispy and carved tableside is served with finely shredded scallion and cucumber on steamed rice crepes. This is followed by crystal fold wok-fried minced duckling, vegetables, and fried noodles wrapped in lettuce leaves for $36. On our initial visits we stuck to the dim sum menu. This is dim sum without the carts. Our expectations were initially surpassed with the attention to detail, portion sizes and juxtaposition of flavours and textures. This is not the "factory" dim sum you'd find at the huge dim sum restaurants in urban centres. We are told that everything is prepared fresh from scratch. When ordering, the key is to ensure a mix of cold, hot, spicy, salty, sour and soothing dishes. The highly-regarded, elderly dim sum chef only works 4 days a week. I suggest visiting on the weekend when he is on hand and everything is super fresh and meticulously prepared and presented. Plump steamed har gow (shrimp) dumplings, seafood and taro dumplings and the braised eggplant stuffed with shrimp are sensational. I strongly suggest you save room for both the taro spring rolls and fragrant curry baby squid (cuttlefish). Also, don’t miss the steamed soft and fluffy barbecue pork buns that melt-in-your-mouth. Made in-house lotus mooncakes with salted duck egg yolk were out of this world. We also like the coconut mousse red bean cake. We received a 10% discount for paying cash
1141 Highbury Avenue. N.
519 659 8888

Daily Dim Sum 11 am to 3:30 pm
Monday 11am to 11 pm
Closed Tuesdays
Wednesday – Saturday 11am to 11 pm
Sunday – 11am to 9pm

 Wenbei Liang

Congee Chan

Congee Chan
 One of my favourite spots is Congee Chan on Wonderland Road. In ancient times, people named the thick congee, chan, the watery one chi or mi. The restaurant offers a large menu of Cantonese specialties prepared with fresh high-quality ingredients. A favorite, traditional congee is the thick, preserved egg congee with minced duck. The shrimp dishes are a notch above most Asian-inspired restaurants in London. This is traditional Chinese regional cooking combined with Canadian-Chinese cuisine with Americanized versions of modern Asian specialties like the deep-fried, sweet and piquant General Tao chicken. Congee Chan offers more than just congee and noodles, order the lobster with ginger and green onion chow mein, and the clams with black bean sauce. Congee Chan is comparable to the good congee/noodle/rice restaurants you'd find in Toronto. They serve set Chinese dinners for a reasonable price. The interior is contemporary, colourful, warmly lit and offers both booth seating and larger round tables. Congee Chan has servers who are knowledgeable, hospitable and efficient.
735 Wonderland Rd., North (Located in a strip mall behind Costco North across from Angelo’s).

Youjin Wang

SO INVITING Chinese Bakery

"Annie" Yu Wang.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Transvaal Farm & C'est Bon Goat Cheese : As Goat as it Gets

Kitchen Smidgen is a small bakery — a smidgen of a spot along the beautiful Thames in St. Marys operated by Cindy Taylor. Stop by for sweet and savoury treats; perhaps pick up some C’est bon cheese or Transvaal Farm preserves. Taylor’s cinnamon buns and scones have a bit of a cult following. 


To bond with the rural charm that defines Perth County, consider day-tripping by car and staying in farmhouses or farm guest houses. Agritourism, as it is defined most commonly, constitutes any agriculturally-based operation that brings visitors to a farm. Many agro-tourists have a strong interest in all things culinary. They want to meet the local farmers, artisans and processors and talk with them about what is involved in food production while getting an authentic taste of rural life.  

In Perth County, culinary entrepreneurs continue to develop fresh takes on the farm-to-table ethos while examining the roots of local cuisine and developing new region-specific specialties and products. They characterize the entrepreneurial spirit of the modernist vanguard by re-imagining the food chain, safeguarding the terroir and adding their unique contributions to the collective Ontario culinary identity.

On a beautiful mid-September day, at the invitation of Stratford Tourism and the Ontario Culinary Alliance, I visited Transvaal Farm and the small on-farm family run C’estbon cheese business as part of the itinerary of a carefully planned FAM tour. The tour was geared to familiarize the press with many of the epic culinary attractions in and around Stratford and St. Marys, Ontario.

Down a bucolic backroad on the verge of the historic stone town of St. Marys lies Transvaal Farm at the end of a tree-lined driveway. The pastoral 50-acre farm has been home to Cindy Taylor’s family for over three decades. Cindy and her raconteur husband Scott McLauchlan are our formidable hosts on this informative and entertaining agritourism experience. The main elements of this adventure are a guided tour by Scott of the storybook property and farm gardens, a tour and a lavish farm-to-table breakfast prepared by Cindy at the guest house, and a tour of the small-scale artisan goat cheese plant operated by Cindy’s brother, owner and cheesemaker, George Taylor.

Shortly after our arrival we walk over to the chicken coop to meet “the girls” a bevy of Rhode Island Reds, and collect some freshly laid eggs for breakfast. Although they are excellent free range foragers, McLauchlan tells us, “the girls” need some protection from the late-night wildlife interlopers that prowl the farm.
Despite the intense hot weather we’ve had, part of the farm garden is overflowing with the bright greenery of nasturtium leaves and their vibrant edible flowers. There are plenty of hardy vegetables still in the field, especially colourful varieties of ubiquitous peppers and tomatoes ripe for the picking.

Back at the Transvaal Farm guesthouse the refrigerator is stocked with samplings of fresh, milky and satisfyingly tart C’estbon goat cheese, made on the property from a neighbouring herd of goats. There is farm fresh goat milk on offer and a delicious creamy goat yogurt that is like crème fraiche – “Not without similarities to Iceland’s super-trendy Skyr,” says Ontario Culinary Alliance, Community Manager, Agatha Podgorski  –  the yogurt we are told is still in the beta stage and we are the first to enjoy a sampling. Technically, the yogurt is a cheese with full-fat content.

Cindy a graduate of the Baking Arts program at George Brown College has outdone herself by crafting a selection of high-quality baked goods made in small batches using traditional methods from Transvaal  Farm’s fresh ingredients. These are the products that Cindy takes to the St. Marys Farmers’ Market on Saturdays in season. We are the recipients of much culinary largesse that includes her baking and Transvaal Farms preserves.

George is welcoming and willing to share his story. What began as a retirement project sixteen years ago – which George hoped would be able to sustain its own costs – became a successful artisan goat cheese operation that soon showed both sustainability and profitability. George famously swapped a flock of sheep for a herd of Toggenburg and La Mancha goats, and began crafting farmstead, small-batch, cheese- by-hand, using only the milk from his own herd to create his proprietary C’estbon chèvre. 

In time, George eventually relocated his goats to a neighbouring farm. Today, once a week about 5,000 litres of goat milk is delivered from a local producer, Hewitt’s Dairy, and the process begins. Not a single item goes off the property without George’s thumbprint on it. Authentic artisan cheese can’t be mass-produced: it is limited in quantity and has specific characteristics deemed to be specialty in nature.    

A sense of community and an entrepreneurial culture are important economic drivers in rural areas. Upwards of 80 percent of Stratford’s upscale chefs and restaurateurs purchase C’estbon chevre.

One of the experiences Cindy offers to farm guests is the opportunity to participate in an on-site hands-on culinary workshop. She offers workshops on preserving, home-made bread or pastry, chocolate truffles, and even making your own goat cheese. You choose which culinary experience you would like to partake in and Cindy will arrange a convenient day to make it happen.

The culinary tour of Transvaal Farm and the C’estbon cheese operations was both inspiring and informative. It reminded us of the strong links of like-minded entrepreneurs by talking about the things we all have in common — enjoying the benefits that we receive from a healthy entrepreneurial, artisan and agriculture culture. On another level it reminds us to embrace unique products that are locally conceived, locally controlled and as rich in local content as the distinctive terroir and time-honoured ways of preparing them of any given era.
4675 Line 3, St. Marys, Ontario

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Five Fortune Culture Restaurant’s Authentic “Pure Chinese” Experience


Although the ethnic cuisines of Yunnan province may not be particularly well known in the West, they are touted as being among the best regional eating experiences in China. There are 25 ethnic groups in this southwestern Chinese province, all contributing within their cultural cuisine subgroups. Agrarian by nature, Yunnan is the birthplace of tea. Yunnan’s northwest corner is said to be the inspiration for Shangri-La, as described in James Hilton’s utopian classic, Lost Horizon.

A recent surge of interest in ethnic and regional Chinese cuisine is reflected in the growth and popularity of Yunnan restaurants in both Beijing and Shanghai. Encouraged by an explosion in cultural tourism the boom is a result of China’s modernization strategy which has put Yunnan on the gastronomical map.

In downtown London, Five Fortune Culture Restaurant proprietors Wenbei and Jie Liang Yin (Jeff) are part of the groundswell of restaurateurs offering an authentic "pure" Chinese dining experience. This is not the formulaic Chinese restaurant serving Anglo-genres conceived by old-style Taishanese and rural Cantonese immigrants who adapted traditional Chinese recipes to suit local tastes and available ingredients. The cuisine, as prepared by Jie Liang and interpreted by Wenbei is Yunnan with Sichuan and Guizhou influences.

Many Yunnan dishes are typified by bold flavours, particularly the pungency and spiciness resulting from liberal use of chili peppers and garlic of bordering Sichuan province. Southern Yunnan takes its influences from Vietnam, Laos and Burma and many dishes have a similarity to Thai cuisine. Meat commonly plays a supporting role as a mere seasoning to the vegetables.

Aromatic steamed pineapple rice is popular among Dai people and the perfect side dish to soothe the heat of spicy offerings. In Jie Liang’s hands the fragrant rice has a stunningly delicate balance of sour and sweetness. A ripe pineapple is scooped out and the flesh is cut in small cubes and mixed with the scented rice and other aromatics. It is served in the hollowed pineapple shell with the leaf crown acting as a lid to keep the rice hot.

Yunnan is the home to a vast range of fresh rice noodle soups and stir fries. Mixian or fresh rice noodles are gluten-free with a silky texture which absorbs flavours efficiently. Yunnan's best known dish, Crossing Bridge Noodles is a bowl of extremely hot broth served with a range of ingredients supplied raw to the table, including rice noodles, thinly sliced pork, poultry and fish, leaf vegetables, bean curd, aromatics and cilantro to balance out strong flavours, much like a hot pot. If you’re not familiar with these flavours, it’s an assertive dish. If you are, it’s simply enjoyably comforting.

A trio of fish are offered whole, with head and tail intact. The choices were salmon, tilapia and a deep- sea fish with an untranslatable name. I avoid farmed fish so we chose the untranslatable-named fish. Jie Liang’s grandmother provided the recipe which is a thirty-six hour process from start to finish. The fish is wrapped in foil and steamed on the grill which keeps the firm interior moist and intact, the outer skin of the fish was candy-sweet and caramelized with green onion, soya, ginger and garlic.

Spicy Tom Yum seafood pot has a sharp freshness and briny meatiness, deriving its pungency from lemongrass and pepper. Other specialities include thick, soft and chewy Udon noodles made from wheat. The green onion pie is flavoursome and reminds me of the Japanese savoury pancake, okonomiyaki. Try the jiggly iced congee and glutinous dia bao (steamed buns). You will never need Sriracha again, once you’ve tasted Wenbei’s homemade, hot and spicy, red pepper dipping oil. She jars it and sells it in the restaurant.

Chinoiserie and other decorative arts and imagery decorate the dining room, giving personal expression to Wenbei and Jie Liang’s former lives in China. The purpose of a “culture restaurant” is to be an emissary and to facilitate the exchange of Eastern and Western cultural values. On selected evenings there is traditional song and dancing on a small stage that flanks the dining room. Wenbei, a former fashion designer, has an excellent singing voice.

Wealth, health, longevity, love, and virtue are the five good fortunes. Five also happens to be the name of their former business portfolio in China which they wanted to extend to include this restaurant. The investment projects included Five Fortune Herbal Cuisine (herbal cuisine restaurant), Five Fortune Very Ethnic (traditional embroideries and clothing), Five Fortune Arts (Chinese art and paintings), and Five Fortune Clothing (clothing design and production of ramie cotton produced from the nettle plant).

Hoping to live a more peaceful life, the couple travelled nearly eight thousand miles to start a new life in a strange land. Wenbei, who comes from a lineage of doctors, cites Norman Bethune, who is enshrined as a national hero in China, as an influence on their decision to immigrate to Canada. Famously, Bethune’s accidental death from septicemia evoked Chairman Mao Zedong's essay "In Memory of Norman Bethune," which urged all Chinese to match his spirit of responsibility and humanitarianism and became required reading for the entire population.

Jie Liang, who studied to be an art designer belongs to "Dai" a Tai cultural group from Yunnan that traditionally adheres to Buddhist principles. At Five Fortune the servers are intelligent and hospitable students that understand her vision and speak English. Service is welcoming and helpful with the kinds of detail about the dishes that can be hard to find in some Chinese restaurants. The restaurant caters to International students and gets extremely busy. When the restaurant is full the wait time for food can be exceedingly long.

There is a saying in Yunnan, “We will eat anything with four legs except for a table,” says Wenbei. Jie Liang’s translation of Yunnan cooking both pays respectful homage to the culture and, in the hope of making it more accessible, takes the most minor liberties with it. An epigram on the menu states, "The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose..." 

Five Fortune Culture Restaurant
368 Richmond Street
Menu Changes Friday–Sunday 
Hours can vary. Phone ahead for times.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Tea Rituals & Michelle Pierce Hamilton and Yixing Tang's The Tea Lounge

Yixing Tang and Michelle Pierce Hamilton. Photo: Spencer Drake


Tea sommelier and nutritionist Michelle Pierce Hamilton and her business partner Yixing Tang opened The Tea Lounge in a small charming house on Piccadilly Street east of Richmond. They recently launched a menu of cold drinks, iced teas and vegan-friendly lattes. Matcha, London Fog and cinnamon-orange spiced tea lattes are available hot or iced. There is afternoon tea service one Sunday per month. Book a sitting at the monthly Tea Flight Nights to experience a comparative tasting. A small in-house scratch menu and baked goods and healthful snacks from Petit Paris Crêperie & Pâtisserie, Boombox Bakeshop and Bliss Specialty Foods add to the experience.

London may be part of the explosion of indie cafés serving small-batch coffee roasts, which are part grab-and-go café and part bakery, but we’re a community of dedicated tea enthusiasts too. And now, with the rise of the wellness tea market, we are seeing several innovative tea-inspired concepts. These indie hot spots are about tea craft and accessibility and offer us a well-curated selection of ethically-sourced single-origin teas, blends, tisanes and infusions.

The upswing in the popularity of tea translates to enhanced flavour profiles, and blends that add fruits, flowers and spices for a richer experience. Pairings of tea with herbs, spices and fruits for beverages, tea-infused jams, condiments, and desserts, cocktails, cold brews and ferments are all on-trend.

The Tea Lounge

Certified tea sommelier and nutritionist Michelle Pierce Hamilton and her business partner Yixing Tang opened The Tea Lounge in a small and charming house on Piccadilly Street east of Richmond Row last fall.

Millwork shelving showcases an interesting selection of unique and traditional teaware. The focal point is a 10-foot “Wall of Tea,” featuring over 100 hand-selected teas from around the world.

The café has many seating options, including a rustic conference table with over-sized hand-carved dining chairs for groups and classes. A long crimson sofa accents the Indo-Asian decorative features of the eclectic central lounge. There is additional seating on the front porch in the warm weather.

Tang and Pierce Hamilton offer a premium tea service experience, serving ethically-sourced single-origin teas and tisanes from around the world, as well as retailing striking teaware. The pair offers traditional Chinese, Japanese and English teas, each with its own teaware and serving style. Chinese “grandpa style” is another option on offer. Or you can simply get a quick cup to go. Guests can sip meticulously-sourced teas while experiencing their choice of traditional or contemporary style tea service in the laid-back lounge.

Whether you’re in the mood for a tasty treat, wholesome ingredients, or have food sensitivities, delicious baked good and healthful snacks from Petit Paris Crêperie & Pâtisserie, Boombox Bakeshop and Bliss Specialty Foods add to the tea experience. A menu of light and nourishing food offers a daily wholesome made-from-scratch soup prepared by the culinary team at The Spruce on Wellington just around the corner. Other items include organic Mason jar layered-salads with names like Plant Protein, Fruitoxidant, Kitchen Sink, Greek Out and Sexy Mexi.

There is an “All ’Bout Cheese Board” featuring a selection of local Ontario artisanal cheeses like Gunn’s Hill Cheese, served with condiments, nuts and other accompaniments that they switch up, to keep things interesting. For the plant-based crowd, the “Nuts for Cheese Board” features a selection of ­artisanal, handcrafted, and vegan cheeses made from cultured organic cashews.

What makes great tea? Pierce Hamilton believes, “It starts with excellent quality leaf, with permission to naturally unfurl and fully reveal its flavours and aromas. Not crushed or crammed into a little bag or a ball.” The tea lounge owners create blends that don’t diminish tea’s nutrients, antioxidants and essential oils. They do the legwork, sourcing and selecting teas and tisanes from around the globe. An informative and exciting schedule of classes and events is also part of The Tea Lounge experience.