Meet Mary Berg, who is helping bring actual cooking back to cooking shows as the enthusiastic host of Mary’s Kitchen Crush (Sunday nights on CTV).
There hasn’t been much actual cooking happening on television cooking shows in recent years; more often than not, food preparation is a more entertaining than educational race against the clock with an unlikely combination of ingredients.
Enter Berg, the spirited self-taught home cook who won season three of MasterChef Canada. Mary cheerfully walks us through an entire event-inspired menu in each episode, covering the hows and whys of everything from beer-braised short ribs to pimento cheese-stuffed zucchini blossoms.
Her first book, Kitchen Party: Effortless Recipes for Every Occasion, arrives just in time to prepare ourselves for the coming holiday party season.
In Kitchen Party, you aim to banish anxiety about preparing food for the people you love. As we get close to the entertaining season, what’s your advice for people intimidated by the idea of cooking for others?
When it comes to entertaining, I live by one rule: An organized host is a relaxed host, and a relaxed host makes a party. Read through recipes, pick ones that are easy to prep or even fully complete beforehand, try to never bite off more than you can chew (your guests really won’t mind if you take store-bought shortcuts!), make reminder notes, and, if you’re anything like me after a glass of wine, a probe thermometer with a temperature alarm is your best friend.
Do you have any suggestions for different kinds of menus and gatherings besides the traditional dinner party, which can be scary to pull off?
People sometimes get stuck on the idea that, when inviting people over, you’re somehow expected to pull off this Beauty and the Beast-style feast and that is so not the case! One of my favourite things to do when having people over is shirk the whole seated dinner vibe and just plunk all of the food down on my coffee table for guests to nosh on throughout the evening. This style of cocktail party with substantial snacks is by far the best for indecisive hosts and they often are the easiest to fully prepare ahead.
I even sometimes throw a delicious wrench in the whole mix and either have people over for brunch (no long restaurant wait-list lines for eggs benny in my life!) or whip up breakfast for dinner. When it comes to entertaining, there really are no set rules.
Are we seeing a move back toward actual cooking on TV cooking shows?
I definitely see the cooking show pendulum swinging back toward a more instructional approach and I, for one, am thrilled. For all of her strengths, my mom is not much of a cook, so my education in the kitchen came from cookbooks and dump-and-stir cooking shows. I feel like culinary TV has found a happy medium with competition shows, travel shows and classic instructional cooking shows all finding dedicated audiences.
As a first-time cookbook author, what makes a good recipe?
To me, a good recipe should be encouraging and written as simply as possible, but should never lack details that the author might know from experience. While I might know that room temperature egg whites whip better than cold ones, a reader might not. Providing those extra few words to indicate and explain not only helps with a specific recipe, but also hopefully stays with the reader even after their pavlova comes out of the oven. It’s like that old adage about fish: A good recipe should teach its reader to fish.
So far, how has the process of hosting a cooking show and publishing a cookbook been different from what you expected?
Before I got into these two very unfamiliar industries, I was worried that I might become secluded and miss the hubbub of office life, but everything from recipe testing for both television and books to the writing, editing and final product has been the most collaborative work I’ve ever had the pleasure of being a part of.
Which are the most used cookbooks on your shelf?
By far, my most used cookbooks would have to be by Ina Garten and Anna Olson, specifically Garten’s Cooking for Jeffrey (total adorable couple goals!) and Olson’s Sugar: Simple Sweets and Decadent Desserts (my first-edition autographed copy is spattered with butter, cocoa and cake batter). Both make the most beautiful books with clear, straightforward and spectacular recipes. Ina is my go-to for savoury and the Canadian queen of confections will always be my go-to for sweet.
How has social media and the internet changed how people cook?
They’ve helped expose people to so many foods and preparation techniques they never would have seen otherwise. They really are such a fantastic tools, but I’m always wary of anything that’s uber trendy. I mean, remember when everything had to be “unicorn”?! [Starbucks’s internet infamous Unicorn Frappuccinos kicked off a food trend in which everything was purple, sparkly and Instagrammable.] That was just silly. But then there are things like those beautiful fluffy Japanese cheesecakes that are just a thing to behold! Like most things, you have to learn to take the good with the less-than-good.
What ingredients will you always find in your fridge?
I always have lemons, unsalted butter and at least three different kinds of cheese in my fridge. With those few refrigerated staples plus a few pantry items, I know I can whip up dinner in a pinch.
What books are you currently reading (or, if you’re like me, planning to read)?
I just read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and absolutely loved it! During the summer, I try to keep my reading light and breezy, but usually dip back into my favourite novel Geek Love by Katherine Dunn as the weather starts to turn toward fall.
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