Preaching to the Choir

He was in town for all of 18 hours, just long enough to whip up dinner for 100 at the University of Toronto’s beautiful, neo-gothic Hart House. Food Network’s Chef Michael Smith, along with an eager gaggle of high school kids from Stratford and Niagara, Ontario, and their mentor, Chef Paul Finkelstein, demonstrated just what’s possible when kids are exposed to good, real, food, and offered a little guidance. Their enthusiasm was shamelessly palpable. Geez, don’t kids worry about being cool any more? Unless…unless…food is the new cool?


The school, Northwestern Secondary School, is home to a groundbreaking experiment pitting the school’s junky deep-fried, pre-packaged everything cafeteria against Fink’s and his young cooks Screaming Avocado Café. In Chef Smith, Fink and his kids could find no greater cheerleader; “In Stratford, there’s high schoolers cooking braised rabbit with figs and olives for lunch and selling it to eighth graders, folks. And selling out every day!” The room goes crazy. It’s the battle cry of slow- and real-foodist; get to the kids, teach them to cook, to eat real food, to stop killing themselves by eating garbage. Then the super-tall chef–he’s 6’7″ and just as gentle and sweet as they come–launched an attack on trigonometry. Here, here!!! I hated math. Still do. “Are we not suppose to be getting our kids ready for life? What are they going to do when they grow up, open a trigonometry shop?” Right on brother! But let’s not go crazy, kids need some math and science of course, but where did home ec go? I can remember baking my first apple pie in home ec. And writing my first food story. It was about the cuisine of China, which in those days, and according to the Foreign Fare chapter of my mother’s Five Roses Cookbook and massive Time Life Illustrated cookbook, consisted of creamy braised onions, sautéed asparagus, egg foo yoong, and almond cookies. And MSG, lots of MSG in every recipe. I wrote my essay and cooked up a feast. I remember being so very proud of what I had done, and then so horribly dashed by the poor mark the teacher gave me. Oh well, she’s most likely pushing up the daisies by now, and I’m a chef and food writer, so there! (Oh, I am so going straight to hell.) The point is, food is life, cooking is love and a vital life skill. If we don’t teach kids to feed themselves–and we’re not talking pressing the defrost button on the microwave–well, let’s just say there is going to be more obesity, more diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses, and more dependence. What happened to independence and self-reliance? It does make me crazy. I learned to cook as soon as I was able to reach the stove. It’s empowering.

Black cod with marinated cabbage and sprout salad with caraway vinaigrette. Fantastic!

He then assured us that cooking is really a very simple thing. Which caused me to chuckle inwardly; I mean, does anyone remember The Inn Chef? Yikes! Back in the bad old days, the now very well put together chef wore terrible checkered pantaloons–was there a cod piece in there? I mean, really!!! Was I the only one who noticed?–and had his long hair all slicked back, a la small time dope dealer. And his food verged on, well, from over-the-top to tacky, with 10,000 elements on every plate: fruit leather, 3 sauces, tall things sticking out the top, you name it. So I was thinking all that in my head, when the dude said, “And I should know, I’ve been there myself.” Ah, beautiful! The man does not take himself too seriously to have a wee chuckle about where he’s been in his career, because what matters is where he is now. And speaking of now, after the dinner of charcuterie, black cod, pork and quince, and rosemary scented panna cotta was served, and devoured, I should add, he was off to BC. Leaving his team of Fink’s kids in Ontario, he’s off to head up another team of cooks. These ones filling the bellies and fueling the muscles of the Canadian Olympic team. Go team go!

The smoked brisket–part of the charcuterie plate–was so tender, and the smokiness not overpowering. Beautiful.

So, what did he say about food and cooking being simple? He said, “There are three simple steps to creating good food. One. Use ingredients that are respectful of nature, and be respectful of the people who grow and raise them. Two. Treat those ingredients as simply as we possibly can. And three. Share the results. Cooking is; impeccable ingredients treated as simply as possible and shared with others.” Hallelujah!

Chef Smith passing the torch of cooking and eating with passion and integrity to the next generation.

But you see, here’s the problem. And it’s always the same problem at any of the food events I attend, where everyone wants to change the world, save the kids, the land, the farmers. We’re always preaching to the choir. And this night was no different. I only hope there were a few school board types in the room, but I doubt it. They were probably grabbing a burger and fries at the drive-through.

And on a side note, at the last minute, it was decided to donate half of the ticket sales from the event to Haitian relief.