Chefs are at the top of the food chain when it comes to culinary innovation. Some of the fads they cook up are fleeting (hello, cronuts) while others morph into full-fledged cultural shifts (see: 100-mile diet). But something that never goes out of style is a truly great recipe. To that end, Globe Style’s new weekly column, Kitchen Cabinet – featuring Haan Palcu-Chang in Toronto, Sean MacDonald in Calgary, Lina Caschetto, who has recently moved to Paris, and Tara O’Brady in St. Catharines, Ont. – will showcase these Canadian chefs’ ambitious-but-approachable recipes and explore their insights on the latest food trends and ingredients. As a taste of what you can look forward to, the foursome collaborated on an autumn meal that highlights their diverse approaches to cooking, and spoke with Amy Rosen about entertaining inspiration
Where do you find inspiration in the kitchen?
“Deliciousness. That is my number one source of inspiration,” says Haan Palcu-Chang. “When somebody eats my food, the goal is for that food to resonate with them in a way that makes them think about it, crave it and want to eat it again.” Beautiful produce, constant learning, creativity and the people around him also motivate Palcu-Chang, but he says every new dish begins with the same question: “What’s going to taste delicious?” For Sean MacDonald, inspiration comes from local and seasonal ingredients. “It’s inspiring to use perfectly ripe ingredients in a dish during the peak of their season,” he says, “but it’s also very interesting to use unripe or overripe ingredients by fermenting, pickling or salting them to enhance flavours.” Tara O’Brady finds inspiration in the day-to-day: “My work comes out of my home kitchen, with all of its time constraints and moods,” she says. “I’m always looking at what I legitimately want to eat next, and how I can make the most satisfying version of that dish.” She pulls from influences such as travel and tradition, “but I’m led mostly by my appetite,” she admits. And the raw beauty of seasonal ingredients at their peak excites Lina Caschetto. “I salivate at the thought of holding that fresh bounty in my hands,” she says. “From there I’m into taking classic combinations and re-working them to find new ways of bringing each layer of flavour together on the plate.”
As a Canadian chef, what do you love and loathe about cooking today?
O’Brady, who is a talented home cook but not a trained chef, appreciates the curious nature of food enthusiasts who research the history of recipes, how ingredients are grown and how dishes are created. “I love the open-mindedness of our evolving food culture, and how we’re drawing inspiration from all over the place,” she says, pointing towards meaningful exchanges happening online and in print media. What she’s not a fan of, however, are overly complicated dishes, seemingly “created for the sake of being fancy.” Meanwhile, Caschetto loves that she can travel with her work and explore other parts of the world. “As cooks we have access to so many places and jobs. That’s how I made my way to Paris!” The flip side to all of this, she explains, is that the pace of progress at home can be frustratingly slow. “I felt like I needed to leave Canada in order to get a broader perspective on the industry.” MacDonald also enjoys today’s accessibility of information. “There are many ways to learn and better oneself in the culinary world; from reading cookbooks and using the Internet, to doing stages and working internationally,” he says. “Something I don’t like is that early in your career, finding a balanced lifestyle is difficult. You’re driven to work as hard and as much as possible, so it’s difficult to relax and find time to spend with family and friends. But when you want something great, you have to make sacrifices.”
And Palcu-Chang appreciates the honesty that’s required by being in a kitchen. “Because of the long hours, the stress, the fatigue, the physical exertion and the close proximity to your co-workers, there’s no hiding your true self behind the hot line,” he says. “I love that about [cooking].”
What are some dining trends to watch for into 2017?
“A chef cooking in unexpected locations for a select number of attendees makes for a fun and intimate experience,” says MacDonald. He’s talking about pop-ups, where chefs can prove their mettle while foregoing the overhead attached to a bricks-and-mortar restaurant space. Meanwhile, O’Brady finds there’s a continuing movement towards doing one seemingly simple thing exceptionally well. “You’re seeing toast on menus where its finest points have been considered, from the type of bread to the butter, the temperature of each, what type of salt to use on the butter – and that’s not even getting to the toppings,” she says. Natural wine bars are huge in France, says Caschetto, especially when paired with great chefs serving seasonal small plates full of “hyper farm-driven food, being done in an affordable way,” she says. As for Palcu-Chang, he describes himself as the least trendy person of all time. “I read military history and am into fantasy and don’t even have an old-timey tattoo,” he says. “I cook food that means something to me, and hope that it makes people happy. That’s all.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LIAM MOGAN | FOOD STYLING ANDREW BULLIS | PLACE SETTINGS COURTESY OF CRATE & BARREL