From a relatively young age, Yvonne Kanchan had imagined herself…
For Conestoga College’s new chef-technologist Eric Neaves, a mid-May trip to the Big Apple was an energizing culinary excursion and inspiration.
Neaves, along with other cooks and a few members of Conestoga’s School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts team, headed to Manhattan to participate in Food Day Canada’s culinary event at the prestigious James Beard House.
Neaves’s menu, prepared while he was executive chef at Kitchener’s Fork and Cork, was selected as a Gold Winner in the annual University of Guelph Good Food Innovation Awards, a national competition that challenges chefs to prepare dishes with local Canadian ingredients, the award for which is opportunity to cook Canadian food at James Beard House.
He and area chefs Todd Clarmo of Kitchener’s Charcoal Group (who participated in the 2017 JBH event) and Shea Robinson of Miijidaa Cafe + Bistro in Guelph were part of a Canadian team whose Food Day Canada menus were judged for Canadian content and creativity. They then contributed to a multi-course meal for Beard House guests that showcased a truly Canadian dinner.
A humbling experience
“It was the experience of a lifetime working beside chefs like Jamie Kennedy and Rod Butters,” said Neaves. “They’ve accomplished a lot on their own, but they’ve also trained a lot of Canadian cooks. They’re part of the group of pioneers who developed Canadian culinary identity, and it was a humbling experience to be in the kitchen next to them. Watching Kennedy was just amazing. He’s a natural teacher and gently shaped the way everyone was executing.”
For Canadian food historian and activist Anita Stewart, who oversees Food Day Canada which is a partner of the UG’s Good Food Innovation awards, the NYC event allows Canadian cuisine to present itself on stage in one of the world’s major food centres.
“Although there’s a tremendous amount of work in the months leading up to the event, from my perspective this year went close to perfectly,” said Stewart who is also the University of Guelph’s “Food Laureate” and a Member of the Order of Canada.
James Beard was an American food writer, cookbook author and culinary teacher who helped redefine cookery in the U.S. and was in good part responsible for promoting and highlighting the idea of local ingredients and local cooking that is now, for the most part, the predominant culinary philosophy. Beard hosted the first food television show, and in 1955, he founded the James Beard Cooking School and left his Manhattan Brownstone in Chelsea to what became the James Beard Foundation — hence, the James Beard House.
Neaves’s course during the evening was Prairie Rhubarb Flapper Pie with compressed rhubarb, curd, buckwheat crust, and crisp meringue. “The dish I did held its own,” said Neaves. “I was proud of how I represented myself and the College.” Conestoga Hospitality and Culinary Arts chair Keith Muller travelled to New York for the event and was impressed with Neaves and the entire Canadian culinary team.
“It was a fantastic event showcasing Canadian products and chefs, with representation from across the country. Eric produced a flawlessly executed dessert that got many compliments from the diners in the JBH dining room,” Muller said.
Flawless execution in tight space
Stewart also points out that the VQA wines that were poured were spectacular. “We had them with Lake Ontario pickerel and Okanagan Valley wild boar,” Steward said. “Ontario craft beers accompanied the canapes in the garden and throughout the meal University of Guelph’s ingredients were showcased from Millennium asparagus and Rosito beans to UG’s fabulous honey and Yukon Gold potatoes. But one ingredient — Jamie Kennedy’s ramps — were confiscated.”
As Muller notes, it was indeed a case of compliments and flawless execution, notwithstanding the space: the kitchen at JBH is very small – not only the work surfaces, but the 1850s architecture of the west-side Brownstone. The six-foot-six-inch Neaves says he was working hunched over for about 12 hours. “It’s a low ceiling, that’s for sure.”
Given the infrastructure, the work-around process for any team of cooks at JBH is that much of the vegetable prep is done outside in the courtyard on folding tables. Meats are prepped in the kitchen. “It was the only way to get eight of us into that small space,” according to Neaves.
The JBH dining room holds about 65 guests, so the cooks could get their mise en place done with enough time to venture out into the city in small groups for a bit of a Manhattan visit. While the chefs each prepped their own courses, at dinner service the chef of the particular course oversaw plating and delegated responsibilities to others.
Symbiotic Canadian thinking
Neaves is veteran chef who has worked with some great cooks in some of the best kitchens in the province. He categorized what he got out of the experience as “take-aways” that re-affirmed some existing beliefs and gave him new and inspiring insights. He says, for instance, that he came to realize that Canadian cuisine is “a more identifiable” cuisine than he perhaps previously thought and, almost by the very fact of their shared Canadian experience, the cooks were on the same culinary page. “There was no real collaboration on the menu,” he said. “It was more or less assigned and we shared some ideas for the menu. But it had a natural progression.”
Serving to a group of American diners in a demanding food city like New York is no doubt daunting. “There was a lot of excitement for what we were doing,” Neaves said. “They were happy with the food we were putting up. You also have to remember that in spring we’re drawing on a relatively narrow range of ingredients compared to what we have to work with in the bumper months of August and September.” He adds that each dish was unique and spoke to who and what that chef was. For instance, for a hot-and-sour soup that needed an acid component, the chef used rhubarb juice rather than the non-Canadian lime or lemon juice. “It was brilliant,” Neaves said. “In spring, it’s one of those few things you have to work with, and it was applied to the menu in a savory direction.”
Regional and geographic differences across the country aside, there was a spontaneous unity, he said. “There was some symbiotic thinking because we’re all Canadian cooks. We’re all used to thinking about the natural flow of what a spring seasonal menu is going to look like.”
The inspiration the Canadian cooks got Neaves describes as a “call” to make yourself better. “You can’t do something like this without it giving you some new pride for the career you’ve chosen and some fresh energy. I think about what I want to tackle next personally as a chef in terms of my development,” he said of his own self-reflection.
“Frankly, you’re not going to do a dinner at Beard House and then go back to your job like everything’s normal the next day. There’s a change that happens.”
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