Back for round two at Nick and Nat's Uptown 21…
I enjoyed a good chat with a few cooks last night at Waterloo’s Shawerma Plus as part of the new “Waterloo Region Cooks’ League” endeavour.
Mark Andrew Brown, executive chef of Del’s Enoteca in the Charcoal Steak House (if you didn’t know that) joined us, and he brought with him visiting Italian Chef Antonio Bedini.
It was Bedini’s first visit to Canada, and he in turn brought with him a whole whack of truffles, the luscious, heady Italian fungus which he used to prepare a special truffle tasting dinner at Del’s the night before.
Brown brought a single truffle sample, and we inhaled its heady, earthy, intoxicating aroma.
A few of the menu items Bedini and Brown created at Del’s were braised pork jowl with pine nuts and shallot, scallops and a pumpkin crema, and a tiramisu — of course, truffle featured grandly in all the dishes.
But sitting around Shawerma chatting was nearly as interesting as that menu: the gist of the conversation, over delicious snacks prepared by Jawad Ghabra and his family, focussed on the nature of the food and restaurant industry.
For Bedini, through a translator, it came down to a simple question of values as he nibbled black olives, spearing them with a forchetta.
Bedini, president of Associazione Professionale Cuochi Italiani (an association of professional Italian cooks), alludes to the fact that the decision has to be made if one is going to eat to live, or live to eat. Those weren’t his words exactly, but with that decision made, the passion of culinary can then be professionalized — something I don’t sense Bedini thinks has been done in a systemic perspective in North America. That much is really quite clear.
It may be getting better, yes, but it is still a long way from being the Italian (and French) way where chefs (and yes they work quite hard) are recognized for what they bring to the table (pun intended) and are paid accordingly for it, according to Bedini.
For his part, Brown alluded to a phenomenon that he has observed where our system here often sees cooks leaving jobs for a food outlet down the street that offers mere pennies more per hour but little value is added in the switch. That is problematic in and of itself.
It’s a tough call. Cooks work long, hard hours. Do they get the pay they deserve? Well, that’s up for debate too, but I doubt it. Does the majority of “diners” out there recognize the effort of this labour, the cost of good ingredients (whether local or otherwise), and the value a kitchen puts into good and properly prepared and cooked food? And is the general public willing to pay for that? That certainly seems in doubt. Will the market bear anything more? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t seem so.
It likely does come down to eating to live over against living to eat: that is so problematic and represents such a huge cultural shift for us.
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