Monday, April 14, 2014

Autobiography of a food freak Part Deux: Teenage dreams


When I was 13, my Dad got me a job working in the kitchen of Tom Douley's country roadhouse. As my parents were just at the beginning stages of their impending divorce, he figured he'd still continue his Dad duties by getting me hired at a place where my age wouldn't be an issue. Yeah, not the greatest in parenting moments, but in hindsight, with some of the things I saw and did at that age, and in particularly during that rough time in my life, working at a roadhouse was a pretty tame idea.

Tom Douley's was exactly what you'd expect a bad country roadhouse to be. Dark, with the smell of stale beer wafting about, bad country music, questionable patrons and inedible food, but I loved it. I don't know what that says about me but what can I say? Each experience is a learning experience right? Right. My job was pretty simple, I washed dishes and cleaned the kitchen. It was my first real introduction to restaurant kitchen life. I'd fight with the "chef" - and I use quotes because he was an awful, awful cook and I'm insulting real chefs the world over who are truly masters of their game. Oh, I knew I bugged the hell out of him because we would always fight. I'd needle him about his cooking methods and ask him what he wasn't cooking well that resulted in half the food coming back on the plates. During one heated moment I even dragged the garbage bins over to him and said "You see what's taking me so long to give you clean plates? Scraping all that crap off the plates!" I was pretty mouthy but c'mon, it was shit food, we both knew it and I was only 13 with a crappy home life - I needed a release! Honestly, I'll repeat myself that I loved that job because it was the education more than anything else that made me appreciate what it means to work in a restaurant. I left the job after a year because the roadhouse moved to a new location, but no one ever forgets their first time. Ah Tom Douley's, forever in my food heart - well, maybe just my memory.

When we talk about our teenage years - and when I say 'we' I'm referring to us older folks, it's usually recollected with a mixture of memories that invoke shudders. I am of the camp who never wants to be 16 years old again. Once was enough. But at the time, I didn't think it was so bad. I was relatively popular, and trust me, as a gay (but so far in the closet at the time I had a bed AND a bathroom in it) black kid growing up in a small mostly white, conservative town, that's saying a LOT! A friend of mine in high school told me a local caterer was hiring and were looking for waitstaff. The owners were Al and Liz Lavia, a couple who had just moved to Barrie from Mississauga - a Toronto suburb, to start their own catering company, A&L Catering. I barely even remember applying, but I got the gig and pretty much started right away. I started out as a waiter, but also helped out in the kitchen with prep work (with yet another temperamental - but thankfully likeable Chef). Plus all the duties you would usually do when working in a catering hall. Great, great experience, incredibly long hours, it was tough, backbreaking work and so much fun.

What started out as a simple weekend gig became a full time, fifteen year job for me while juggling school at the same time. I moved from a server to become a manager. I made a lot of friends there, and we were all very close. We would complain about the hours and of course the bosses, but no one left. The people who started with me at 16 pretty much stayed as long as I did. We were crazily devoted. Even when I left to go to university, I would still came back to work in the summer. I recruited my friends and became an honourary member of the Lavia family.

See that's the thing about the world of food. It is not easy and you have to have a love for it. It is not for everyone, or everyone would do it. I knew this was something I could do because I loved it, I believed in it. Working from 6am until 1:30am the next day was not an issue. Ok, it was an issue, but not enough for me to say I quit. There were moments when I seriously did want to call it a day. One time in particular, we were catering a wedding at this hockey arena in the middle of nowhere, and we forgot to bring the cutlery. Now this was 1989, no personal cell phones or IPhones or any of that instant connection stuff. It would have been an hour trip back to the catering hall to retrieve the missing cutlery. I can see myself so clearly reacting to that moment. It was chaos, everyone was panicking, I was in charge trying to maintain control, but so deep in the weeds. I just remember stopping and crouching in the middle of the kitchen, head down between my legs, and almost losing it. Was about 5 seconds, felt like 5 hours. But then you get it together and start to think. There was a McDonalds close by, I got one of my staff to drive over and they gave us all their cutlery which believe me was incredibly generous. I went to talk to the bride and groom who were amazing about the whole thing (plus a promised discount helped cut the tension quite a bit too). I know, plastic cutlery at a wedding, but it wasn't the Royal wedding by any stretch so trust me, the guests were happy.

Moments like that, and the ability to handle it just cemented something I already knew from the minute I started at Tom Douley's: I was in a business that was going to be kind to me because I worked my ass off in it. The passion to be a part of this world was there - Douley's got me started, the A&L Catering years confirmed it. Plus one other thing - there is a camaraderie you have in the food world, particularly when you're working in the service industry that is second to none. It is something that binds you together. When you're working you're going nuts trying to do your work. Tempers flare, you feel like quitting, throwing in the towel, but the passion keeps you there. You make friends with the people you work with and they become a second family, particularly the ones who stay in it through the good and bad times.

It was heartbreaking having to leave that job at A&L Catering. Not only were Al and Liz as close as you could get without being actual family members, but I knew they were grooming me to take over the business. At the time I didn't want to do that because I was just too young. I really wanted to get out of Barrie and see the world. Plus, I was still not out of the closet during that time, and if I didn't leave small town life I would have exploded! So I moved to Toronto, and then to London UK. I slowly started to come out of the closet, got out of the cooking/culinary game completely and started to focus on writing and communications. For the next five years it was like a job wilderness, working various communication jobs but still secretly nursing a culinary itch that had yet to be scratched!

Coming next: The future of a food freak.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Just a spoonful of realism


As I've been writing this "semi-autobiographical" account of my passion for cooking, food and all the good stuff that comes with it, I realized that I was doing just that - focusing on the good stuff. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but looking back at the majority of the posts I've written for this blog, there is almost a relentless cheerfulness (I say 'almost' because when the serious posts do hit, they really hit - need I say more "ahem": the truth about dying??) that sometimes borders on the unrealistic. I mean everything written has actually happened, but I'm definitely omitting some of the challenges that occurred while it was happening. You could come away from some of the postings thinking "F*ck, does this guy have any issues, problems or what-not in his life?" The answer to that is HELL yeah - I'm just very choosy when and where I reveal them.

I love most of what I've written for this blog, but I know I could have provided much more of a two-sided account to the trip stories and the blog in general. My initial thoughts when I first started the blog up until now (three years later - talk about learning the long, hard way!) was why dwell or even think of the negative, when the truth is it's really not negativity, it's called BALANCE!

So with that little caveat in mind, I shall endeavour to become a bit more balanced when it comes to personal experiences, stories and opinions. I would hate to confuse the reader thinking they are reading the ongoing trials and tribulations of a black, gay male Mary Poppins and his spoonful of sugar stories he is forcing you to swallow.

Cool? Cool.
Now on to part two of food freak autobiography!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Autobiography of a food freak: Part 1



Me and my sister in front of our house in 1975! Man, look at my stomach - clearly hunger was not an issue!

I love food (he says shocking no one).

So why am I stating a fact that's fairly obvious based on the contents of this blog? Well lets just say that recent career events had me thinking a great deal about the choices you (I) make in life. How important it is to find the one thing that connects you to what drives you to succeed. To find and pursue what you're truly passionate about. It's no joke that passion drives you forward. For me, that passion is food and everything about it - from ground to table. That passion has not diminished as I've grown older, in fact I'd say it's become stronger.

Growing up people thought I was odd, and I was, but not because of my love for food. I think that love only made me much more aware of that oddness - until I started working in the business and would meet other people who were just as odd as me. And Ill add, they wore that badge proudly. I have to say that the one thing that makes the food industry so unique, are the people in it. The people who are truly dedicated food lovers come from all walks of life. You will never, ever meet such a wide variety of people like you'd find in the food industry. People who love talking about food, sharing details, news, events and getting excited every bit as much as you do. You'd also meet people who aren't as passionate, who may just be passing through on their way to something else, but it still draws such varied mix of personalities that they all become part of the story. I love that the most about the business.

So where and how did this passion start? Pretty early in life I'd say. As a baby I was told that nothing and I mean NOTHING got in the way of my mouth and the food shovelled into it. If you were to ask my Mother about me and my enjoyment of food as a child, she'll do a very good imitation of me moving my mouth trying to put food into it. Scary, but prophetic.

I learned a great deal about cooking from my Mum. She told me some pretty wild but true stories about how she and her family would prepare and cook their meals when she was a child growing up in Trinidad. Trust me, after hearing these stories I realize just how incredibly lucky we are to have the modern conveniences that make cooking much easier. Cooking in Trinidad was work! They'd kill their own chickens or pigs. They'd have to wash the butter because it was too salty. Everything that was made for the family was cooked fresh every day - no such thing as "leftovers". It sounded like work, and it was, but she'd say that there were lots of family members to help out which took the drudgery out of the chores. I think that's what's missing today. Time has become so precious no one really wants to spend it cooking together - at least that's what I think.

Grocery shopping was never, ever boring to me (my Mom would have something else to say about that I'm sure). I lived practically next door to farms, and we knew and were friends with a lot of farming families, so the farming life was and still is very close to my heart. Fresh produce, half a cow - or the whole one, depending on the size of your family, slaughtered, chopped and packaged for your freezer. Honey, eggs, strawberries in season, all there ready and waiting. We also had a HUGE garden in our backyard which as a chid I hated having to take care of, but appreciated what it provided for us. I may not have had my parents build me a miniature replication of Thomas Keller's French Laundry restaurant kitchen like 15 year old chef Flynn McGarry (which can I add Holy Mother of God wow?? Seriously, his parents built him his own kitchen at 13 - you have to read about him in this NYT article - stunning), but I was right there in the kitchen helping my Mum, asking her questions, baking or cooking something, anything with varying degrees of success at a very young age.

Interest in all things food didn't stop at my house, but was expanded to include my friends too - or at least their Mothers cooking. I'd rummage through kitchen pantries to see what they had - with permission of course..or sometimes not. I'd remember certain dishes that my friends mom's would make (Thank you Mrs. O'Reilly for the intro to shepherd's pie, and thank you Mrs. Reid for the tasty tuna pasta salad. Now before you comment, please remember this was the 70s, and this was Barrie - small town, pop. 30,000, so it was a big treat for me to have and eventually introduce these "new" dishes to a Trinidadian household!) What astonishes me the most as I look back is how I would remember what was in the dish, or at least get my mother to call the other Moms and find out the recipes!

Besides learning from my Mom and my friends Moms, my Aunts, and in particular, my Auntie Joan was another food maverick I attached myself too. Now usually when you go to someones house for dinner, you knew that dinner was being made or already made based on the cooking smells right? Well at Joan's house, when you arrived you'd smell nothing. Nothing was done. You'd be hungry but you'd think to yourself, "ok clearly we are not eating dinner here tonight." Then about 30 minutes later she'd have a table full of food, all prepared and ready to eat. I am NOT making this up. Rice and peas, chicken and gravy, fried plantain, roti, all sorts of Trinidadian dishes, and lots of it! Over time I'd ditch playing with my cousins and sneak into the kitchen to watch her and she was a marvel on two legs! Pots bubbling, cakes baking, meat cooking and then boom - dinner's ready! She was and still is an amazing cook and a big inspiration.

You would think, based on the reminiscing above (bit of a sidebar here: the word reminiscing reminded me how much I love the song "Reminiscing" by The Little River Band - listen to it here) that I was destined to head into a kitchen while I was in school. It didn't quite turn out that way. It was a different time period. Pursuing a career in cooking did not have the same reputation as it does today. Today it's crazy cool to want to become a chef - and for some becoming or at least dreaming of becoming a celebrity chef, but in the 70s & 80s? Not so much. Wanting to become a chef was not exactly encouraged and I fault no one for that, it was just the way it was. And in hindsight, that probably would have been the best time period to learn. The men who ran the kitchens back in the day may have been slightly crazy, a tad misogynistic and more than a touch homophobic, but they were true Master Chefs. I would have been the recipient of kitchen techniques and traditions that are sadly going the way of the dodo bird. Probably would have been the recipient of much abuse too, but that's no different than what can happen in today's kitchens! Live and learn.

Anyway I continued studying whatever it was kids studied back then to get to University, but food and the food industry was never far from my mind.

Part 2 - teenage dreams.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The 'miseducation' of food security



picture courtesy of foodsecurityalberta.ca

This post is all about food security, a pretty weighty and serious topic and not what you'd typically expect to read about on this blog. There is a lot of guilt, misunderstanding and a general lack of awareness surrounding this subject, and trust me when I say I am not taking a light-hearted approach to this as I usually would with some of my more traditional posts.

Whenever I've covered issues of food on this blog, its been about recipes, restaurants or just reviews of places I've been that happened to have some sort of food adventure in it. I chose this topic because despite the lightness of tone in the past with blog posts, I have always been very serious, and concerned about the state of our food industry and the true cost of what we put in our mouths.

I've only recently started to examine the issue of food security, but what is food security? What does it mean? Well, in basic terms, it's the ability to have access to safe, reliable food sources. You are food secure knowing that you have no fear of hunger or starvation, because there is a trusted food source close at hand. It cannot be overstated how much we take that access for granted in North America, and I am just as guilty of that as the rest of the population, so no preaching from me about that.

I've alway had a peripheral knowledge of where our food comes from, but I chose to ignore it because a recipe may have called for an ingredient and I had to get it, regardless of where it came from. You only need to go shopping at your local grocery store and choose to avert your eyes from the signs that read "whole garlic from China" or "strawberries from Mexico." But I'm aware of it, and I take a deep breath when I put said items into my shopping cart.

There are valid reasons why food is shipped in from other countries around the world, to a province and country where we are more than capable of producing locally grown food to feed our entire population. I understand the reasons as much as anyone else does, but I truly believe it comes down to a simple a case of economics: it's just cheaper to ship it than it is to grow it. Cheap food means cheaper groceries for the average Canadian. If we really took the time to understand how food is grown, the real impact our choices have on local farms, and the REAL cost of food believe me, obesity would probably disappear or at least be curtailed because our groceries would be astronomically expensive. It would bring the whole question of food security back in our faces, because the ability for our populations, particularly economically disadvantaged ones, to have fair access to reliable food sources would be thrown into disarray. Sound dramatic, doesn't it, but the possibility is there. Now do you see why this is a topic of interest to me?

My alma matter has a course/certification in food security. I just may look into it. Any opportunity I can to improve my knowledge and education about the food industry is never a bad thing. I definitely have a feeling it will chance my view points about the ongoing challenges of the entire food system. I may even look back on this post and smile...or cry, thinking boy, how little did he know.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The return of Mad Men and the end of an era


I've written about Mad Men before here and here, so this should come as no shock that I'm babbling about it again. Yup, the countdown begins for the return of Donald Draper/Dick Whitman. Mad Men, season 7..the final season is almost here!

And look! Check out the awesome promo poster (I absolutely love it!):


picture courtesy of AMC

Trippy, groovy, whatever they would say back in 1968-69 when something was cool, this poster is all of that! Well, at least I think it's pretty cool.

I do admit to some feelings of sadness as I know the upcoming season signals the end of this incredible show. The first episode, entitled " The Beginning" airs April 13th. Can't come soon enough!


picture courtesy of AMC

Trailer: Season 7:

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Short ribs and long stories



(me and the lovely Tracy T. preparing dinner)

Sometimes a hungry man prefers not to travel and instead, opts for the comfort of eating at home - or at least somewhere in his hometown. He may decide to take a chance with a new recipe, see how it turns out and decide whether it's worth sharing with friends or hiding it for his own pleasure. But if there's an opportunity to share, ok, show-off his culinary skills with friends and family, he'll jump at the chance. This was the case this past weekend when I joined a group of friends for a night of great food and LOTS of wine.

Now I've previously mentioned in this blog about a cookbook called The Flavour Principle, co-written by esteemed culinary writer Lucy Waverman, and wine and spirits expert Beppi Crosariol. I'm telling you it is so worth the $25.00 investment. There are some incredibly flavourful and quite easy to prepare recipes created by Lucy in that book. There is also the added bonus of Beppi providing some amazing pairings that comfortably match every meal featured, plus tips and suggestions on building your own bar.

So my friend Tracy and I attempted the Argentinian slow-cooked short ribs recipe from the book, along with a parmesan polenta and steamed green beans. The main course was paired with an Argentinian Malbec, and this was the result!

(Thank you Heidi for taking all the pics!)
Looks tasty eh? It was. Very. I'll add that should you decide to make the recipe, you can of course change it as recipes mostly serve as a guide. I think in this case though, I'm recommending that you leave it as is. The only thing I did differently was add some finely shredded orange rind on top of the meat for that extra bit of flavour.

You may or may not know this, but when you combine drinking and cooking you start to talk about what you're doing. You let your guests in on what you're putting together, why you're doing what you're doing, what ingredients are being used, just letting them become involved in the process. Yes, you may potentially bore them as they sit waiting for you to shut-up so they can eat, but that's the chance you take when Prosecco and Malbec take over your system. Well, I at least I like to talk about it. Tracy? Not so much, but she's a trooper. Here's a quick shot of Tracy and I attempting to explain what we're creating for dinner:



Hmmm no sound - is that a sign telling me maybe it's not meant to be heard? Ha, well I'll have to revisit this again to see if I can find a working copy.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Canada Pride!



picture courtesy of www.firstroboticscanada.org.

It was time to show my Canadian pride. This truly was an incredible Olympics for Canada, and this post goes out to all the hard working women and men - not just in Sochi, but also right here in Canada who made everyone on the team a winner! Very, very proud to be Canadian!!

Oh, and this is a special note to all those dedicated fans - particularly the guys, who stood in line at 6 am to get into a sports bar to watch the final hockey game between Sweden and Canada.
Yeah, hope you realized you've pretty much destroyed any and all excuses you could ever make - other than death, that prevents you from getting up to do (insert job, chore, work, volunteer etc. etc) because it's too early for you. Nicely done :)

Go Canada, Go!!!!