If you're dining at Toronto's Black Hoof and you notice a guy with heavy black glasses and a flipped-up cap staring at you from the kitchen, that's Jesse Grasso. "I stand there and watch people," says the 32-year-old chef, who oversees the kitchens at the Hoof and sister restaurant Rhum Corner. "You look at them and you think, 'What did they eat to make them make that face?' " While working in western Canada, the Bowmanville, Ont., native picked up a variety of culinary influences (including Spanish, Mexican and Italian) that have helped him make the menu at the Hoof his own. "I've always been a fan of learning new food cultures," Grasso says. But figuring out Haitian-themed Rhum Corner called for an entirely different process, including cooking lessons from co-owner Roland Jean's sister. "Then we took a trip to Haiti and I learned from home cooks. It's probably the most fun I've ever had working," he says. On his nights off, Grasso invites his work pals to his apartment across the street for homemade Chinese food. "I learned so much from [Vancouver restaurants] The Flying Tiger and Bao Bei at a formative time in my life," he says. "This is my comfort food. It's what I always want to come back to."
Ready time: 30 minutes (plus 30 minutes to 2 hours for marinating)
2 lb ground pork (a mix of shoulder and belly in 70:30 ratio, if possible)
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp red curry paste
1 clove garlic, minced
3 shallots, 1 minced, 2 sliced
2 tbsp white sugar
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 lb gai lan, roughly chopped*
3 tbsp chili-oil-marinated bamboo shoots*
2 tbsp toban djan*
2 tbsp soy sauce
4 large eggs
Cooked white rice such as Thai sticky rice
1/4 cup prepared crispy shallots*
1/4 cup chopped peanuts
Mix pork, fish sauce, red curry paste, garlic, minced shallots and sugar together in a bowl, making sure the seasonings are well incorporated into the pork. Let marinate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours in the refrigerator.
Heat a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat and add 1 tablespoon of oil. Add ground-pork mixture, using a wooden spoon to break up the meat. Stir-fry until pork is cooked through and nicely coloured. Remove from pan and drain any excess fat. Add another tablespoon of vegetable oil and sliced shallots to the pan. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes before adding gai lan and bamboo shoots. Stir-fry until gai lan wilts (3 to 4 minutes) then add the toban djan, soy sauce and ground pork back to the pan and cook until flavours are incorporated (about 5 minutes).
Meanwhile, add remaining oil to a medium non-stick skillet and heat over medium-high.
Cook eggs one at a time, sunny-side up, until the whites have solidified and bottoms are slightly crisp. Arrange cooked rice in 4 bowls, topping each with the pork mixture and a fried egg. Garnish with crispy shallots and chopped peanuts.
*Gai lan (Chinese broccoli), toban djan (chili-bean paste), chili-oil-marinated bamboo shoots and prepared crispy shallots are all available at Asian grocery stores.