Thursday, February 27, 2014

Brunch - the most important meal of the day


When I first thought about opening a restaurant, I always knew there would have to be brunch. Not just any brunch, but a destination brunch. As it is, we are three weeks in with our Sunday brunch and we have managed to produce our own cured and smoked bacon, we grind and stuff our own sausages, we bake our own granola (secret recipe from our B.C. born chef) and our Hollandaise sauce is exquisite. We even took a shot at our own version of that British classic, HP Sauce, or as my English friends call it 'brown sauce'. I believe our 'HB' sauce is actually a little better - it is not as cloyingly sweet and it packs a bit more heat - perfect with a rich full English breakfast.  Our black pudding is sourced from Sanagan's Meat Locker in Kensington market (an excellent product), but you better believe that as soon as Chef and I have a few moments to rub together we're going to be making our own black pudding too.

If the deep freeze ever releases it's wicked grip on our city, I am looking forward to throwing the windows open and enjoying a sunny, warm morning brunch. Until then, bundle up, save yourself a sink full of dishes and join us Sunday between 11am and 3pm.



Monday, December 23, 2013

The Tempest


photo courtesy of CBC


I have to say, in only the five or so short weeks that we have been open, there is enough tasty fodder to write a memoir. 

I can only wonder what five months will bring. 

Take for example, this past weekend. On my walk home after Saturday service the much-anticipated freezing rain had been falling for a few hours. I was initially seduced with wonder by the curious coating of ice glistening on the tree branches and the power lines. The neighborhood sparkled like a child-hood dream, making me think of something that my daughter might conjure up at the art table with her glitter gun. The beauty was quickly tempered by a growing sense of unease as I noticed the branches swaying ominously overhead, startling me with gunshot-like reports as the 100 year old wood started to snap. I stopped momentarily to watch as a tree on my street, bowed over under the weight of the ice, reached a black, arthritic branch toward a power line, drawing blue sparks and creating a sound that was cartoonishly electrical; like something one might hear in a Boris Karloff movie. I picked up my pace as best I could given my lack of winter boots and quickly made it home only to find a dark and quickly cooling house. I checked on the kids (thankfully sleeping under layers of blankets, oblivious to the weather outside) and then I crawled into bed next to my shivering wife and spent an uneasy night listening to the crashing, avalanching din of massive tree limbs coming down. It was only a matter of time before I heard the sound of crunching metal and our car alarm going off.  To call it surreal would be an understatement. 

The next morning, our street looked like a disaster zone. A power line literally lay on the street a mere 50 yards from my front door. The venerable maple tree in my backyard was petrified and broken.  Strangely beautiful in a pathetic way, this tree's leafy boughs had been providing shade for my barbecue a mere four months previously; it was reduced to a slick and limbless Venus de Milo. After my grim window side assessment of the neighborhood, our kids jumped in bed with us and spent the morning keeping warm under the covers. Neighbours outside tried in vain to clear some of the heavier tree casualties off the road.

The Beech Tree was set to open that night for our final Sunday Roast before a break for the holidays. One look at my street and I was convinced that the whole city was a wreck. We couldn't open. I decided to take stroll over to Kingston road to check out how the shop did through the night. I was gobsmacked to find businesses open, people out and about and an unexpected, but not at all misplaced sense of community spirit. It appeared that our main strip held on to the last bits of tenuous electrical power while the better part of the homes were cold and dark. I decided I was going to open, if anything, just to give folks a place to get warm. I packed the kids off to Grandma's warm, fully powered house in an unaffected neighborhood and started planning for dinner.  Only trouble was, a good portion of our staff were stuck in other parts of the city. Chef managed to make it in, and I heard that our bartender could get in as well. With me in the mix, that was three people; not a lot of manpower to prep for a dinner service, run the kitchen, front of house and all the other things in between. I enlisted a neighbor who like the rest of us, had been sitting in a dark house; he jumped at a chance to be in a warm, cheery place, even if it meant a hard slog in busy kitchen. Suppliers failed to show up and we were low on a lot of ingredients, so chef and I sat down and banged out a quickie ice storm menu based on what we had and what we could out there. The phone was ringing off the hook and there were rumblings that the pub down the street had been packed for lunch. I knew the crowds would come, I just hoped we could manage the volume. 

Thankfully, our community is forgiving, understanding and quite happy to wait an extra five minutes knowing that we were understaffed and that our kitchen, mere hours previously, had touch-and-go power. 

When the people did arrive (and there were plenty), they simply seemed happy to be warm and dry and have a drink. Whole families showed up and soon our sleepy little neighborhood restaurant had every seat filled with noisy, spirited diners. I worked the line with chef, something I don't often do, but it was certainly an adrenaline rush that kept the blood warm. Despite power surges frying our credit card machine and the new menu not fully programmed into our system, our bartender, bless her, managed the whole, full-to-capacity room single-handedly by doing what she does best: improvise.  We offered every free and available electrical outlet to power up cell phones so folks could go home and keep in touch with family and check updates on the weather. It was a memorable night. We even got a shout-out from our city counselor for the effort: a good feeling. 

Eventually the people drifted reluctantly back to their less-then-welcome cold homes and likely whiled the night away under heavy quilts - that is certainly what I did when I eventually got home (although it did cross my mind to sleep on one of the church pews in the Beech Tree - not as good as a proper mattress, but it would have been warmer). I chalked the night up as another significant event in the soon to be collected annals of the Beech Tree - an unlikely, yet growing collection of stories.

Post Script:

As I write this, I am still without power or heat in my home. The same can be said for many people in our community. I am sitting in the closed up Beech Tree using the only power I have available to bang out this blog entry. Soon I will close up our little eatery for the holidays and join my kids at Grandma's house to have a strange and slightly upside-down Christmas. Yet, I just can't wipe the smile off my face; for every bad hand that the Beech Tree gets thrown, there always seems to be one, well-placed Ace lurking in the next draw. What looked like a bust of a night turned in to a top seller. Who knew?  

We shall see what 2014 brings.

Happy Holidays

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Dinner Service on Kingston Road


We are now open for regular business Tuesday to Sunday, 5pm to 11pm. The dining room is filling up quickly on the weekends, so reservations are recommended. 

The Beech Tree Menu for November


Monday, November 11, 2013

So far so good


Our four-day, sneak preview dinner service proved to be an excellent way to ease into the neighborhood. An unceremonious removal of our window paper and an unlock of the door. That was it, with no idea what would happen.

We're happy to report that the locals quickly took notice and joined us for some fine fare and wine, along with our local brews (Amsterdam Blonde, KLB Raspberry Wheat, Left Field's Eephus and Beau's All Natural).

We're now going to take two days to finish up beautifying our little space and will re-open on Wednesday, November 13th with a slightly more robust drink selection and a few more surprises on the menu. We look forward to seeing you all then. 

In the mean time, cheers!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Open for Business!

The Beech Tree is open for business for a four-night sneak preview. 

Our storefront is slightly ambiguous given it has no proper signage nor side walk chalkboard to speak of. It can be best described as a quiet opening. We've been opening our doors in and around 5:30pm that last few nights for a dinner service accompanied by a small selection of wines and beers. This will grow as we grow. A sign will likely be mounted eventually. And yet, a sign is not necessary for cooking great food and pouring a pint.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Nearing the end of a journey

The horrifically draining task of sampling wine

I used to read a lot of books about wilderness survival. 

I found a real allure to the idea of raw human need; the building of shelters, distilling of water, the search for food or even companionship. These compelling dramas, stories derived from life and death situations depicting frail human bodies caught in the maw of an unsympathetic nature...these yarns (if anything really deserves to be called a 'yarn' it is stories like these) provide really solid subject matter for book-reading when one is cozy in their bed under a reassuringly weighty quilt, or perhaps sitting in a wing-back chair before a roaring fireplace. This juxtaposition of dire, horrific exposure to the elements with the uber-warmth of a home and hearth can best be described as my 'happy place'. Everybody's got one; that is mine.  I've had to take refuge there quite a bit lately. 

I suppose it's a strange item to begin a blog with, but perhaps there is a telling analogy to be drawn here. Or maybe not. I recall a line from a book I read about a mountain climbing incident that left some climbers stranded on the side of a mountain. The author, when considering the attraction of mountain climbing, described it thusly: "mountain climbing is like hitting your self in the head with a hammer; it only feels good when you stop." Words that I can relate with.  

I'm actually rambling at this point, merely because I feel I have been worn down to a nub, not unlike that last bit of eraser at the end of your pencil. You remember it...when in grade three, you attempt to erase your crappy drawing of a robot and find that your eraser has eroded below the critical level of its metal tube casing and the paper inevitably tears when you attempt to eliminate a poorly drawn futuristic weapon-like appendage. Wow. Talk about digression.

So yes, I feel like a raw, rubbed down pencil eraser in a life-or-death struggle against nature. This is the feeling when you've reached the bottom of your finances and you are in the final climactic count-down to opening the doors of your tiny, do-it-yourself restaurant to the large and unforgiving public.

And yet, despite this rather grave and slightly surreal preamble regarding my position, I actually feel a little bit...good...I think. Maybe better than good. Maybe, I'm actually feeling a little bit CAPITAL. 

Today I sampled some wine and tasted some cooking that was all quite good. Better than good: delicious...exceptional. I looked around a space that started out so grey and sad and worn down and now I see vibrancy and coziness and even, just maybe, old world charm. I can say, truthfully, that I hung that wallpaper with my own fair hand. I landed every staple in the reupholstering job of our chairs. I worked with a talented chef to develop recipes that meant something to me. I pleaded, begged and argued on the phone for more money, faster delivery and better prices. I cut in and painted out all that wainscoting. And other than my talented carpenter cousin and a few other very appreciated helping hands (you know who you are), I can say I did it myself with a tiny budget and a really big vision. I bet the whole farm and in the end, I did it, damn it. 

I did it. 

Now I just have to dot a few 'i's and cross a few 't's and then maybe, just maybe, I'll be ready to open my doors and offer my neighborhood a bit of myself. For that is what this is about: inviting as many people as possible to my dinner party. 

In the end, that really was the point. I'm dying to see how it all turns out.

Friday, October 11, 2013

It's not me, it's the food


As of late, there have been more and more sleepless nights, more panic attacks and more deep reflection about what exactly it is that I've gotten myself in to. Here is a synopsis of opening your own business: everything costs more than you think it will (especially if you're cursed with that personality disorder of 'doing it right'). Everything will take longer than you think it will, and despite a deep belief to the contrary, no matter how much you think you can do something, it is always best to find an expert - and experts cost a lot of money. 

When I first stepped into my restaurant space, I thought, 'piece of cake', some paint, a little cleaning and we're off to the races. However, under the very thin veneer of this supposedly functioning eating establishment, I easily found a thousand deficiencies of the highest order. Beer running through a soda line, natural gas infractions, a fire suppression system that is no longer up to code, a roof that leaks along with non-commercial grade toilets and a treacherously steep staircase to the washrooms that practically screams 'injury litigation'. Around every corner I found a problem that required solving; countless Rubik's cube scattered around like malignant Easter eggs. I awake in the night with the sudden thought that the dishwasher doesn't properly line up with the sink and that there doesn't appear to be a proper place for dirty dishes to be parked before being washed. What about the front door? Should I paint it? Or kitchen lights - does it provide ample luminosity to see meat searing on the grill under the extraction fan canopy? This goes on. And on.

So, the other night, after a couple of much needed stiff drinks, I started cruising Youtube for my usual illicitly digitized U.K cooking shows from Channel 4. English cooking shows are simply superior to anything we have over here. 

There, I said it. 

Anyway, I found some old episodes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage from the late nineties. If there was such a thing as a video version of comfort food, this is it for me. Hugh and his merry band of 'Dorset-Downsizers' epitomize the kind of cooking that I love. A combination of local foraging, straight-faced use of offal, and a refreshing lack of over garnishing plates. There is a British sensibility to the program that is both alien and endearing. Their pork chops are always thick with a ribbon of fatty rind, instead of the gentile term 'squab', they unapologetically cook pigeon and there is a liberal use of such rarefied ingredients as gooseberries, elder-flowers, land cress, stinging nettles and razor clams. Everything is lovingly cooked in a butter-yellow AGA stove with no temperature settings beyond hot, medium and low. 

I freaking love it.

Anyway, despite the neck ache from watching this program on a little youtube window, it brought me a proper sense of food zen. I quickly forgot about all the problems and puzzles of opening a restaurant and became reacquainted with the reason why I got into this mess in the first place: the food. I should add at this point that I have a chef now - a right proper chap who is chomping at the bit to get into my kitchen. Unfortunately my salamander (a kind of broiler) is back ordered. My arrangement with the appliance company is such that my kitchen equipment won't be delivered until they are all assembled together. Add in an insufficient gas line and the result is a kitchen with no cooking equipment; it looks like my chef will be helping me paint the bathrooms.

In a few short weeks the proper order of things will return - an immersion in food, cooking and feeding people. My chef and I are already assembling a stellar cookery book library for our kitchen and just talking about some of our recipe ideas is enough to get me stoked for the next phase. 

Man, I'm so done with drywall dust and primer. Bring on the salamander.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The top of the hill


Yesterday was my twelfth wedding anniversary. Unlike the first through fifth, and the big boozy party for the tenth, this anniversary was celebrated quietly with the kids. My daughters have reached an age for which diaper bags, strollers, high chairs, and dare I say, even children's menus in restaurants are becoming obsolete. We don't have to worry about scheduling our travels around naps anymore. Recently seeing friends who are still in the baby stages, I was reminded that our older children provide an ease of movement that is ideal for grownups who have itchy feet (like us). 

There was a nice synchronicity to the weather.  It was the same kind of cool, cloudless day with fresh blue skies that we had enjoyed on our wedding day all those years ago. We celebrated at a local Japanese restaurant and it was not without a little pride that I watched my seven year old daughter happily (albeit clumsily) work her way through a pile of raw salmon with her elastic-band rigged chop sticks. I honestly don't think I had my first taste of sushi until at least the age of 28. It's a different world for kids these days.

After dinner, we took an evening stroll down to the boardwalk. I snapped the picture at the top of this blog post whilst sitting on a park bench and enjoying the first whiff of smokey and tannin-rich autumnal air. As is fairly obvious, the image captures that sort-of famous lifeguard station of the Toronto Beach(es). Likely photographed a million times from every conceivable angle, this small and squat structure has become the official logo of the 'hood' and appears on endless postcards and t-shirts. Many years ago, on a freezing New Year's eve, I got drunk on cheap plonk leaning against the wooden foundation of that very same lifeguard station and spent the remainder of the night vomiting in the toilet at Scratch Daniels, a long ago closed-down bar on Queen street (I think it's a frozen yogurt joint now) - but that's a story for another day. 

This small but well-documented beach house is a brisk sixteen minute walk from my front door - a fact that makes my heart skip with joy. For I am one of those lucky sods that can proudly proclaim that they love their neighborhood. The funny thing about this neighborhood is that I can actually pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with it.  

I grew up in the hydro-field dotted northern wastes of 1980's Scarborough. It is also where I went to school. When I was eighteen years old, I dated a girl from my school who at the time, happened to live on Blantyre avenue, a stone's throw from my current home in the Beaches. I'm not clear on why she commuted so deep into North-East Scarborough to go to a school in my neighborhood - perhaps a point lost to history, but really irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Anyway, her telephone exchange contained that now familiar six and nine of the Beaches, but back then, being a North Scarborough boy, I had only ever known exchanges that began with fours and twos. I suppose a discussion of telephone exchange numbers rather adequately dates me; I'm certain that anyone under 30 would have no clue what I'm talking about. Nevertheless, this strange, high-numbered telephone exchange seemed like it must come from downtown. I learned soon enough, that she did not live downtown but ironically was just this side of Scarborough, but at the extreme south and west. I had never visited the Beaches before, so this neighborhood was new to me. It started with a walk down the relatively steep grade of Blantyre avenue towards the lake. For decades, bulldozers had cleared the way for north east Scarborough's familiar tract housing and subdivisions, this blunted out most of the geography, so even this steep hill was alien to me. The trees lining the street, massive by suburban standards, reached across the expanse, their boughs mingling high above the centre line; like a vaulted ceiling in a Gothic cathedral. At the foot of the hill I could see the Harris Filtration Plant, otherwise known as the waterworks to locals: a mammoth art-deco masterpiece of depression-era ingenuity perched on a grassy plain, silently keeping sentinel over the population's water supply. I had recently finished reading Michael Ondaatje's "In the Skin of a Lion" which beautifully narrates the history of this structure. Overseen by the Commissioner of Public Works, R.C. Harris, the waterworks was constructed by desperate workers under horrific conditions. A mile long tunnel was bored from the land out under the cold dark depths of the lake. Here he describes a city photographer documenting these workers in their unpleasant working conditions:

"In the tunnel under Lake Ontario two men shake hands on an incline of mud. Beside them a pickaxe and a lamp, their dirt-streaked faces pivoting to look towards the camera. For a moment, while the film receives the image, everything is still, the other tunnel workers silent. Then Arthur Goss, the city photographer, packs up his tripod and glass plates, unhooks the cord of lights that creates a vista of open tunnel behind the two men, walks with his equipment the fifty yards to the ladder, and climbs out into sunlight.  
                                 - Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion
  
A literary landmark, just sitting there, unassuming at the foot of someone's street? I had stepped from the land of Wonderbread, chain restaurants and mini-malls into a place that was older, a place that seemed to have an ancient spirit lurking somewhere between its wonky cement staircases and the 100 year old cobblestone sewers below my feet. 

With all this to absorb, strangely, the thing that really piqued my interest was the recycling bins. The 'blue box' program had been recently introduced to Toronto in the early 1990's. At the end of each narrow drive way was a small plastic 'blue box'. Unlike the two-litre coke bottles, Campbell soup cans and empty laundry detergent containers I was used to in my neck of the woods, these blue boxes were filled with empty wine bottles. Wine with dinner? I thought that was something one only saw in France. This is not to somehow pass a snobby judgement on the lifestyle (and lower wine consumption) of my suburban childhood neighborhood, but simply to say it opened my horizons to other parts of the city. 

This neighborhood had sleepily existed my whole life a scant ten kilometers from my suburban childhood home and I had never known. In the end, it didn't work out with the girl, but at that particular moment I decided I would live and grow old in the Beaches. 

Fast forward two decades into the future and it's now been seven or so years in my shoebox of a house in the Beaches with our family, happily crammed in like so many sardines. Well, sort of. I actually live at the top of the hill near Kingston Road, the second tier to the first tier that is Queen street. I can't quite see the lake from where I am, and I suppose by cold and scientific political boundaries, I do not really live in the Beaches proper, but live in what many call the 'Upper Beaches' and more recently, re-named as Kingston Road Village. After many years here, I have to say I actually prefer this part of the Beaches: it is not flooded with tourists like our friends at the bottom of the hill, it's a little easier to park on the street and it is certainly more quiet.  Us folks at the 'top of the hill' enjoy a community that is tight, friendly and has everything anyone could want within walking distance. The businesses here do not enjoy the free ride from masses of summer tourists from Woodbridge, Pickering and Markham infiltrating the neighborhood with their easy spending and short memories.  As a soon-to-be-opened business owner up here at the top of the hill, we have to stay on our toes because the locals represent our customers. They have good memories and as much as they may like the convenience of being fifty paces to our business door, they also are discerning enough to know that a quick jaunt in their car can bring them to any other neighborhood in the city. I will take this to heart when I have my grand opening. 

So our twelfth wedding anniversary came to a close with our long trudge up the hill from the boardwalk. Passing under the cavernous reach of those grand old elms and oaks, I was reminded of the day when I first discovered this magical neighborhood. My daughters will likely take this all for granted, so I have to regularly remind them how good they have it. The grass is always greener they say, because the kids regularly ask if we can buy a house closer to Queen street so they don't have to climb that steep hill on the way home from the beach. Yes, perhaps one day we may outgrow our little house, but I don't think we'll ever outgrow our neighborhood. We're happy perched at the top of the hill, smug in our self-satisfaction...and enjoying plenty of street parking.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A lot of moving parts




Here's a strange irony of opening your own restaurant: I have not had a moment to even contemplate cooking. 

I have eaten more crappy fast food in the past two weeks than the past two years and I certainly feel the worse for it. The thought of coming home, firing up my modestly priced residential gas oven and cooking something creative is such a distant and unpleasant concept that I sometimes wonder if I've lost myself in this process. I think the term 'process' is telling. Andrew Richmond, restauranteur, chef and owner of La Carnita and now Home of the Brave once gave me a piece of advice many moons ago when I was first contemplating this venture. He said that a restaurant is a complicated machine with lots of moving parts. At the time this simply did not have the resonance that it does now. Indeed, there are so many of these moving parts that if you can't keep a tight and updated to-do list, you enter an upside down, alarm-blaring uncontrolled spinning descent. Sometimes I feel that I am moments away from a critical malfunction, like a washing machine that has broken free from it's moorings and wildly oscillates until it inevitably self-destructs into a million wet chunks of scrap metal.

Here's an example of the mania that can overcome someone who is in this 'process': the other night, I was in bed, I took off my glasses, marked my spot in the book and snapped off the light. I started to drift off to sleep when I was suddenly and violently jolted awake. A vision of disaster smacked me square between the eyes. 

A little background: I had been mopping the floor in the restaurant kitchen earlier that day, preparing it for new subflooring. At the end of the day I opened the faucets, and ran the water in the stainless steel kitchen basin to rinse out the mop bucket. It suddenly occurred to me, all those hours hours later whilst lying in bed, that maybe I had forgotten to shut the water off. I vividly envisioned an overflowing and untended sink left for hours, water flooding the room, rushing down the stairs towards the basement like a horrible but strangely beautiful miniature of Victoria Falls, blowing electrical junction boxes along the way, causing fire-igniting short circuits, collapsing the basement ceiling and generally FUBARing the whole joint. 

With this desperate and dare I say, incredibly creative disaster scenario firmly ensconced into my forethought, my adrenal gland immediately started pumping a potent mix of chemicals into my blood not unlike a biological synthesis of Tabasco sauce. My heart started hammering and the profuse sweating started. It was 11:30pm. Of course I shut the water off. Honestly, who leaves a faucet running? As it is, whenever I close up the place at the end of the day, I have a choking OCD fit and I triple check that the door has been locked properly, sometimes even walking back after getting half way home because I'm convinced that locking the door was some kind of false memory. With that kind of care with the door lock, how could I eff up a running faucet? This kind of logical thinking was of no use. The adrenaline kept coming hot and fast like a seltzer siphon spewing methamphetamine directly onto my aorta. What else could I do? I got up and got dressed. My wife drowsily inquired about my actions. I told her the situation and she was actually very sympathetic. I grabbed the keys to the restaurant and started the long dark walk to make sure that I had indeed shut off the faucet. The air was cool and given the time of night and the sleepy nature of my neighborhood, things were generally quiet. A few stragglers at the Green Dragon Pub were out on the sidewalk sucking back the last cigarette of the night. A 24 hour bus with its spectral blue lights noisily thundered by. I soldiered on to the papered over front door of my dream. (And I should really add here how incredibly convenient it is that I can walk to the restaurant.) A turn of the high-security key brought me into a silent and unremarkable darkness. I immediately noted that there was no obvious sound of running water. Further inspection proved that the restaurant sat quiet, safe and as perfectly sound as I had left it. I locked up. Triple checked that it was locked. Then unlocked the door, re-entered to make sure that the water being turned off was not a false memory, locked back up again, and walked home. I slept soundly. 

To try and make sense of all this, is perhaps to draw a rather crude parallel with parenthood. When my first daughter was born, she came early and unexpectedly. I had not yet assembled her bassinet, and it lay, useless in its cardboard box by the front door. With little choice, we settled her into the hastily assembled, jury-rigged sleeping arrangement: a dresser drawer. During those early days, I recall how my wife and I would constantly check that the little bundle in the drawer was breathing. Sometimes, we would poke the poor thing and rouse her from a deep slumber just to hear the reassuring sound of her fussing. In the dead of the night, as a new parent, that squeaky sound of newborn vocal chords can be the sweetest song. 

Now, I don't want to compare the joy and beauty of my children to a structure made of brick and mortar, but I have never loved a non-living thing as much as this restaurant. It is an utter blessing to experience the fulfillment of a dream. And yet in some ways it is is a burden. A sublime, life-changing burden with a literal shit-load of moving parts.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Rash decisions that feel really good (and only have minor repercussions)


I sometimes contemplate the mechanics of decision making. 

For example, say you find yourself hungry, a bit tired, and you're scanning a menu in a restaurant and...okay, let me refrain from using the third person and jump right over to the first. This actually happened to me, and it was wonderful. I was on a business trip to Montreal in my former life. Our small team of 'analysts', were in a restaurant celebrating the end of a long grueling strategy meeting or corporate planning meeting or some other horrible thing for which I certainly ...totally ...absolutely ...do not miss. It had been a long day and I had knocked back a few 'primer' cocktails to try and decompress from being trapped in a conference room all day, constantly fighting that strange, listless half-sleep state induced by the droning sighs of the office ventilation system. So anyway, slightly drunk, tired and a little bit giddy, I just couldn't make sense of the French-language menu. I can read French, but not well on the best of days, and certainly lacking after two double G and T's. Our lead analyst, a quintessential French-Canadian bon vivant who likely had a 1982 Bordeaux hiding in his 'sous sol' and whose shirts were always well pressed, offered to order the whole meal for the table. I instantly felt a huge crushing weight on my shoulders shrivel up into a blissful airy nothing. I sat back and smiled like a Cheshire cat. He perched his bifocals on the end of his nose and proceeded to arrange for my dinner. I was thrilled, for in that magic moment I was not burdened with the exhausting task of making a decision. The meal was delicious, and perhaps even better than delicious given that I had no idea what dishes were coming to the table or what wine I was too drink. 

So this leads me back to the contrary situations in which we have to make a decision. Perhaps more accurately, I am thinking about times in which one wants to make that decision. Like my 4 year old daughter in the morning choosing her underwear. There is a seriousness to this deliberation that I just don't get. Perhaps if I was more perceptive in the morning, I might notice that my wife does the same and I am simply not aware of this particular feminine proclivity. 

But I digress. 

There are decisions which we want to make, and in the past few months I have made many, rather important decisions. Such as the purchase of a restaurant for which I have intimated several times already in this blog. This is a decision that keeps me up at night. Then there are the other decision that might be considered rash, and yet their footprint is small; as delicious as the decision was, there is little to cause insomnia. In fact, such micro-scale recklessness, the small, rare moments when you just say 'fuck it' feels oh, so very good. 

The picture above alludes to such a decision. Many weeks, maybe even months before I stepped into what will become my restaurant, I bought several hundred cotton napkins. A rash decision given that I had no guarantee of anything, but I believe it was a correct decision. 

Likewise, today in the construction site that I call a restaurant, I was waiting for the gas technician to tally up the number of infractions I was facing when I really took a hard look at the wainscoting. It has been painted about seventeen times. There is literally ten millimeters of high gloss paint on there. As per my original plan, I was just going to add the eighteenth coat of paint so that I could save a few pennies to buy an adjustable-speed convection oven. 

I continued looking at that lousy wainscoting with its thick coat of paint that rendered the architecture of the space into soft butter, blunting every potential crisp edge and smothering my neat-as-a-pin vision. I couldn't take it. As soon as that gas technician left, I grabbed a crow bar, dug it into the wall and pried out a rather large panel of that wainscoting, half expecting the better part of the plaster wall to come off with it. However, it popped off cleanly only to reveal a precise little frame work of shims behind it. This meant that I could replace all that dull old millwork with something new and fresh. A decision made and a commitment that followed. Now that is an executive decision. Damn, I love this. This SO beats a corporate planning meeting.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Whole Beast


The photo above captures a suspected Boletus species mushrooms, otherwise known as porchini or cepes. This is the species of mushrooms that my Polish mother-in-law, along with her family, once harvested as a child in the state-controlled forests of communist Poland in the 1950's. It is also the mushroom that Polish relatives of my wife will dry and stash in any secretive location they can to smuggle into Canada. I am glad for their clandestine importation given how delicious these strange and beautiful life forms are.  Now I use the the term 'suspected' because even with the help of a text message discussion with a pretty solid forager, I'm not taking my life in my hands for something tasty. I discovered these along with an absolute riot of other colourful mushrooms and fungi during some contemplative morning walks through the forests near Port Carling.

As it is, I just got back from a week in Muskoka, a last sort of vacation before the big haul of self-employment. Whilst away I learned that Kafka-esque machinations are afoot and necessary paper work and legal considerations have yet again put my bricks-and-mortar endevours on hold. How long? I can't even answer that question. Do I own a restaurant at this moment? Well, sort of, in a strange twilight between having some signatures and not others. It's the Schrodinger's Cat paradox of paper work.

So, in the mean time, I sit here considering food, restaurants and the notion of risk. For example, those mushrooms, if verified as edible Boletus species would have likely yielded the freshest, most sublime mushroom experience to me beyond finding a black truffle under an oak tree, but also could have resulted in a painful, lingering death. I think there are some risks that are better than others.

Another interesting footnote to my trip up north is that I actually caught an eating-size fish - something that I have frankly never been able to do. This fish, a two pound bass, was a minor revelation to me. I have never personally dispatched any animal larger or more biologically sophisticated than shellfish (I believe the oysters are still alive when they're sliding down my throat). This bass represented a very important gastronomic graduation for me. Perhaps to seasoned chefs (and anglers), this may sound a bit silly, but there are plenty of chefs that have never done the dirty work, so I certainly feel validated in discussing the issue. When I pulled that fish out of the water, I knew that I was going to have to kill it, clean it and eat every possible part of that I could. 

My youngest daughter wanted to watch. This made me happy. I took the fish down to the shoreline to sort it out. Lake fish have a mineral spring water smell to them with something else, almost like an organic, sandy aroma; it sticks to your hands. The first whiff and I was instantly washed over with an overwhelming memory of fishing with my dad as a kid. I rendered the fish senseless with a decisive bonk to the head with an empty wine bottle. This settled it's desperate flopping. I made a long incision into the belly and rather messily gutted it, then off with the fins, and a bad attempt at scaling. Half way through I realized my blade just wasn't sharp enough. And why did I gut it if I wasn't roasting it whole? My approach made no sense.  I was angry at myself, sweating and a little bit embarrassed at my lack of experience. I started to rethink the whole thing and wished I had just kept it whole and grilled it - allowing for a better yield of meat. On the other hand, I really wanted to hone my filleting skills which were obviously not up to standard. Anyway,  I managed to hack off two reasonable-sized fillets. After a moment of thought, I gave my fillet knife a serious realignment on my steele, and proceeded to gingerly carved off every other edible looking morsel from the bones along with the cheeks. I did not want to waste a thing on this fish. I killed it. I had to eat it. Eat all of it. The mortal remains of my fish were dusted in flour (even the wee little bits that I carved from the rib cage), I added a tiny bit of smoked paprika, salt and pepper. It was briefly seared in some butter in a skillet (just like when I was a kid) and accompanied some grilled steaks: a sort of lake country 'surf and turf'. I have to say, it was delicious. I felt a little bit proud of this accomplishment.

It all made me think about a blog entry at Toronto Life Magazine by chef Teo Paul, owner of Union restaurant. His restaurant opening was a slow and painful process that he describe in a semi-regularly writing gig for the magazine five or so years back. He would host dinner parties to test recipes during the time the restaurant space was being renovated. One of these dinners, cooked whilst hung over from too many gin and tonics the night before involved live lobster, he writes:

"The next day, I felt bad—gin bad—and thought I would never be the same again. I had these two lobsters I had to cook for a big dinner the next night. Just looking at those poor bastards sink into the boiling water with their claws clutching the sides of the pot, I told myself that I was going to use every bit of them. I was making a lobster carrot galangal risotto. I took every bit of meat out of them, including the green stuff close to the head that tastes like the sea. I made a stock with the shells and ground it up just a bit at the end to get every bit of flavour out of them. I cooked the rice in the stock with a bit of shallot and galangal, then finished it with some juiced carrots and the lobster from the claws. At the very last moment, I squeezed in the green stuff from the head. I topped it off with a piece of the tail poached in butter.I was so spurned by my pain that day that I put everything I had into it. It was the best damn risotto I ever made."

One would hope that there is a deep compassion that emerges in a chef who has to take a life for food; a respect that borders on reverence. In his writing, I get this sense from Chef Paul. It touched on my own emotions.  I was not unmoved by the thought that despite being several orders removed from my own species, this bass had a beating heart. And yet I knew its fate as it flopped ungracefully on the grassy bank pumping its gills in vain. I ate a small amount raw. Its flesh was not cold like a store-bought fish. It was ever so slightly warm and had the most definite spark of vitality. A strange experience.

There is also the painful realization, after reading about the year long struggles of this great chef and his restaurant, Union on the Ossington strip, that maybe I have no business opening a restaurant. Teo Paul is a bona fide chef. He was not only involved in launching a restaurant in Paris, he was one of the cooks. For crying out loud, he has personally seared fois gras for the most scrutinizing Parisians. He has shopped in the world-renowned food markets of France. He has decapitated a poulet de bresse and cooked it for some of the most discerning palettes. I am a data analyst. What the hell am I doing? If it was such a slog opening a restaurant for a seasoned, well-traveled chef like Teo Paul, what fresh nightmare awaits me?

When I got home from the cottage, with all these thoughts banging around in my head, I had to turn back to the Momofuku cook book and re-read the harrowing experience of the first few months of New York's Noodle Bar. David Chang and his partner, Quino, had spent the last night before opening their restaurant in a Japanese-owned peeler bar in Midtown. They figured if they could just convince hot Japanese strippers to eat in Noodle bar the next day, it would draw in the crowds. They practically blew their last $800 that night. This is what he had to say about it:

"Opening a restaurant is the worst feeling in the world....and we were there (in the strip club) despite not having a properly outfitted kitchen--we'd bought everything from K-mart, borrowed Quino's girlfriend's stand mixer, convinced ourselves we didn't need more than we had. We knew what we wanted, even if we didn't know how to operate a cash register or anything about taxes or how to payroll, or how to get anybody to work with us. 

You couldn't find two individuals who had less business opening a restaurant than us."

On the day of opening, three gorgeous Japanese women came in the Noodle Bar, ate ramen and left without paying. They never came back. No other customers came in with them that day. 

That was in 2004. In 2013 David Chang is an award winning chef and owner of a rather dynamic and amazing restaurant empire that spans two continents. I think I'll be reading that chapter a few more times over the next two weeks. 

I suppose things could be worse. I could have eaten one of those mushrooms.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Where it all begins

Some Merry Looking Toronto Victorian Row Houses

I suppose this is another one of those blog entries that is just a self-serving form of automatic writing. I'm not really offering you, the reader, any instruction, information or entertainment. Instead, I'm just thinking out loud...then converting these 'out loud thoughts' into type face. Feel free to click away. If not, allow me to proceed.

A few months ago in a second-hand shop, I stumbled across a Victorian-era cookbook. Published in the 1870's, this thin and unobtrusive book with the rather long-winded title, "The Canadian Home Cook Book, compiled by the Ladies of Toronto and chief cities and towns in Canada" largely consists of recipes written by local women. Each recipe is credited to the woman who wrote it, for example 'Tea Cakes, submitted by Mrs. J.W. Patton'. I couldn't help but smile whilst perusing through this utterly quaint and delightful book. How different our world is today! The recipes in this book also surprised me. There are many recipes for Indian curries, which all but disappear from Canada's culinary lexicon for decades thereafter. Yet, a century later in the 1970's, large waves of immigrants from South East Asia 're-introduced' us to this delicious and spicy style of cooking.  Also fascinating was the fact that although the vast majority of the dishes are British-inspired, the book is liberally peppered with American recipes, often from the deep south. This book was written in 1877, so this would have been only  a short time removed from the fabled underground railroad. Perhaps the escaped American slaves brought their influences with them. I found recipes for Succotash, 'Southern' boiled rice, fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, white gravy and gumbo - in Toronto no less! It's interesting to note that local foodies appear to have just discovered southern American cuisine.

Perhaps a lesson can be drawn from this. It is important to know our culinary roots. Especially in Canada, for which there are very few things to pin down as our own. The dishes from this old cookbook represent a modest representation of my region. They are not necessarily good dishes, but they are a good starting point. 

I suppose this train of thought has largely to do with the fact that from now on, food will no longer be just what's for dinner, but will represent my livelihood. I have not finished the paper work, nor have I quite yet received the key to the front door, but I am well on my way. Because of this, I have been putting more thought than usual into the process of creating recipes, writing menus and contemplating my clientele.

The transcendental nitty gritty of converting raw ingredients into delicious food is a wondrous harmony of art, science and the human senses.  And just like any artistic pursuit, one will find that there are traditions within which to work, or at the very least, traditions from which to draw upon. No act of creativity exists in a vacuum, and likewise, no recipe arises from nothing. 

With this in mind, I am presently in the process of developing a food concept and a menu for which I hope the public may find some delight. I am trying to grasp the common lineage that will weave through the tapestry of my recipes (to use a rather worn cliche).

I draw from many different gastronomic traditions, notably the French, who were the first to codify the techniques of cooking. Simply put, there is no modern cooking without some influence from the French, even in places as far flung as Vietnam and Northern Africa. Their influence is global. 

There is also the deep and fruitful influence of the Italians for whom the quality of the ingredient is what guides the preparation. Notably, the cuisine of northern Italy which calls to my love of hearty, cold weather cooking. Piney herbs, buttery cheeses, heart-warming braises and wood-fired cooking really gladdens my soul. I love how the Italians treat good ingredients with reverence; their dishes are simple and never over-wrought. They can take the bare minimum of raw materials like flour, eggs and butter and produce velvety pasta, or make decadent gnocchi from a handful of humble spuds. Who needs a fancy sauce when some quality melted butter and crispy fried sage will do? Bless the Italians.

However,  the tradition that speaks to me with the most gravity, perhaps, the one that touches my heart like no other, comes from the land of my heritage: the British Isles. Some would agree, it is a most unlikely culinary Mecca. 

The collection of islands that we know of as the United Kingdom exist in a sometimes harsh, certainly cold and damp, corner of the North Atlantic. From climatological standpoint, these windswept cliffs, dreary shingle beaches and damp moors don't appear to offer much in the way of gastronomic delights. However, Britain is simply where it's at for me. 

First of all, it is where my family hails from. There is a familiarity here that allows for ease of movement. 

There is a secondary reason that this cuisine fits the bill - Canada, like me, has strong ties to the U.K. through our history, our lineage, our government and even our currency. Unlike the colourful and culturally dynamic city that Toronto is today, in our past, this fair metropolis was a rather dour, protestant, Queen-fearing outpost of a much larger empire. The food that was eaten in this city, right up until the second world war was British food. Like the recipes in the 1877 cookbook, the root of our regional cuisine comes from the United Kingdom. Our local agricultural practices, animal husbandry and wild ingredients suit themselves very well to the unfussy, farm-to-fork approach to cooking that was common in rural Britain for centuries (ironically, the wealthy in Britain's past mostly ate French food with expensive, imported wine, eschewing the humble local recipes). 

There is also another element of British cooking that cannot be denied: it's ability to adapt. Britain's cooking is a dynamic fusion of ingredients and techniques acquired through several centuries of Empire. Canada was (and technically remains), part of this now modern, smaller and more humble commonwealth. As much as I love the Italians cooking and food, this is the one thing that the Brits have over them - an adventurous palate. There is very little that a British diner will not eat (or at least try), but in Italy, tradition is king, sometimes the difference in recipes between neighboring villages is enough to cause insult. I like the wiggle room the British-inspired food provides.

Now, I don't have any intention of cooking a bunch of Lancashire Hotpots and Treacle puddings. I am simply drawing from a tradition of cooking that speaks to me. Mix in some French technique and some sassy interpretations of Italian peasant dishes (think April Bloomfield's Gnudi for example) and we might be on to something. 

I suppose this is just a meandering stream of consciousness for which there really is no beginning and end. I also probably take it for granted that not many people are as deeply interested in such things as I, however, the catharsis of a blog post is therapy well-needed for someone who is risking it all. There will probably be many more riffs on the same subject as the day comes closer to opening the doors to my eating establishment approaches. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

From the Ground Up




Besides a week or so of sweltering humidity that was reminiscent of a Finnish sauna, the better part of the summer of 2013 has thus far been fair, fresh and terribly agreeable. 

Seemingly every morning, I wake to corn blossom blue skies dotted with benign and creamy summer clouds. I dodged the worst of the flooding that our downtown suffered a few weeks back; instead, our quiet east-end neighborhood has seen just enough gentle rain to produce lawns like an Irish meadow and gardens that are succulent and fecund.

Speaking of which, this July has confirmed for the first time that I can indeed grow the occasional kitchen-friendly flora in my modest city garden. Lemon verbena, specifically, is a wonderful herbal discovery that has been perfuming my garden with the playful scent of lemon drops (and is part of my biological warfare strategy - its strong smelling oils apparently drive away insect pests.)

Interestingly, a wayward seed from a rotten jack-o-lantern left last year by the curb has resulted in an amazingly tenacious (and unplanned) pumpkin patch that has been creeping about my front yard, providing me with gourmet edible blossoms and the promise of a wheel-barrel full of bright orange gourds. 

So, in a way, I see the pumpkin interloper in the front yard as a lovely little metaphor and perhaps a harbinger of good fortune (a soothsaying pumpkin patch, if you will). Here I see a strong, robust and beautiful plant thriving in a place for which no seeds were willfully sown, no fertilizer was laid and very little care taken. This plant provides flowers that can be eaten (delicious stuffed with ricotta and deep fried) along with rather corpulent fruit which represent the very epitome of the coming harvest. In the shadow of all my failed attempts at growing tomatoes and other veg over the years, it was ultimately my trash that produced the prettiest thing. Perhaps I'm digging around too deeply for some kind of meaning here, but it's just been one of those summers.

Oh, and there is also the fact that I just bought a restaurant.  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Riff on Deviled Eggs & the Terrible Torture of Waiting


The act of waiting for something, something important...critical even, can be torture. 

That's where I find myself. 

I have laid low these past few weeks. Or has it been months? (I'm not even sure any more.) To be perfectly candid---at least for the two or three people who might find themselves reading this blog---I have been working very hard to acquire a true bricks and mortar dream for the Beech Tree. I have been turning over in my mind the image of a small establishment, not far from my home, where I can do some creative cooking, offer a wine list that can fire up a bit of imagination and celebrate the Ontario terroir...all at relatively affordable prices. 

Serendipitously, I found just such a place this Spring. I have spent the last several months working hard with a partner to secure it. Between financing, legal pitfalls, bureaucratic quagmires and good old fashioned delayed decision making, it has crawled along at a pace reminiscent of slow oozing molasses. And yet, despite the tortoise-like dynamic of my business venture, I remain optimistic. I have three menus designed and semi-developed that are based around local seasonal ingredients. I have ordered the ultra-cool rustic 100% cotton napkins for crying out loud. I just need the keys to the front door and I'm ready to go. So, that's where I am; a cyclical, limbo-like restaurant purgatory. Because of this, I've felt little enthusiasm in writing the blog. I'm too busy building up for the next step. 

But then I made this little lunch, and I just had to share it. I suppose for some context, I have been utterly lost in the meandering prose of David Chang's Momofuku cook book. 

Dare I call it a cook book? 

It is a treatise on how to open a restaurant and also how not to open a restaurant. It is as philosophical as it is informational. I have not been this inspired about food in a long time. And yet, how does pan-Asian cuisine inspire someone who wants to open, for lack of a better a term, a 'gastropub'? A solid question I suppose. David Chang has a pretty simple take on cooking; make food that tastes good, comes from quality ingredients and doesn't cost too much. That's it. Nothing fussy. Just good food. So when these boiled eggs emerged from their shells with that perfect marbled texture of soft yolk mingled with set yolk, revealing a slightly cracked surface like not-quite-hardened golden cement, I knew I had a photograph on my hand. Frankly, I don't like deviled eggs. And yet the combination of fresh, properly boiled eggs with a creamy mayonnaise and something spicy makes perfect senses. So here's what I did:

I boiled the eggs, then shocked them with cold water and shelled them. You want the yolk to be set but just slightly soft in the dead centre. Then I took about eight jalapeno peppers, de-seeded them, cut out the ribs and the stems and then blitzed them in a food processor with a clove of peeled garlic, a really good bunch of parsley, a few basil leaves, some Maldon salt and a squeeze of lemon. I bashed this up for a while in the food processor and then started drizzling in some lovely, unfiltered new season olive oil (the stuff that is really cloudy and has a fresh-cut grass taste to it). Once emulsified, I got this spicy elixir in a mason jar to set up in the fridge for a bit. To assemble the dish, I halved the egg, put a dot of home made mayonaise on each half, followed by some very coarsely ground pepper and a bit of feathery dill fronds. I dropped a generous dollop of the hot, yet beautifully fresh jalapeno pesto on the side and added a few quartered cherry tomatoes. Lastly, a greedy drizzle of that spicy and pungent young olive oil all over everything. A lunch for the ages. 

What about the restaurant? I still wait. So close, yet seemingly out of reach. If anyone chomped at the bit till bleeding it is me. I hope to turn that key within the next fortnight. In the mean time, I'll keep churning out little culinary epiphanies like this. It may very well be the only thing keeping me sane.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Home-cured & Smoked Ham Chops ('home' being the categorical descriptor)



As my last blog post suggested, I have been busy working at home on a rather involved television research project (a most fortuitous situation for me, and by extension, my bill collectors). This has kept me from writing anything of note in this little blog. Don't get me wrong; I have been doing some pretty mean cooking, but I simply have not had the wherewithal at the end of the day to try and stage things in the natural light and photograph them. These days, I just want to eat the damn grub and have a beer, not try to 'style' it. I am also less than pleased to have nothing new to report on my seemingly snail's-paced ascension to dream job and food purveyor (I am most definitely working on it - but all good things take time. Hopefully I will have an announcement some time in the next two to three weeks). 

I have not gotten on a streetcar and commuted downtown to the 'office' for several months now. Nor will I ever, as I no longer work for the 'crown'...or at least, I'm not on her payroll anymore (I may be  billing her occasionally). Instead, I earn my bread and butter as a freelancer, pounding out reports and analysis at my rather rickety, albeit charming, oak dining table. This arrangement brings with it many advantages, including but not limited to, working in my pajamas, listening to my choice of music at a volume level that is not always sensible, and perhaps most importantly, I have spent more time with my lovely wife these past three months than I have in the past seven years. There are a few drawbacks, notably, getting the kid's breakfast slopped on to my files - a small price. To be honest, I initially dreaded the idea of working at home. I was concerned that I would fall out of the routine of joining the world of 'workers' who shower every morning, kiss their children goodbye, cram themselves, sardine-like, into the aluminum coffin we call a subway, eat crappy shawarma or pho for lunch, but largely enjoy the grownup environment where one doesn't have to stoop to speak and you don't have to repeat yourself seventeen times before being aknowledged.

However, this has not been the case. Save for a bit of an adjustment period, and the occasional too-loud episode of Dora the Explorer interrupting a conference call, this, ladies and gentlemen, has been pure bliss. I love being at home. Like some kind of major cultural shift, I find that I sleep better, I am more attentive with my family, I am more patient. Bless you nine to five drones. I was one of you for many years, and I recall that pain - getting home with just enough time to slap a dinner together before the kids fall apart before bedtime, getting a single hour with your spouse, exhausted, vegetating in front of the television set instead of cuddling like we used to and, well, let's just say that being at home is quite wonderful. I have now seen the other side, and I quite like it. Is this permanent? Not likely, but if there's anything I have learned as I have gotten older, it is to live in the moment and enjoy the present for what it is. Now granted, I figured being at home would lead to a lot more blog postings and lovely photographs, but as I said before - this latest gig has kept me pretty busy. An eventual lull in the work load will likely lead to some increased activity in this little space.

Another thing I like about this arrangement is that I have a complete handle on all the cooking going on this house. That last minute, urgent, guilt-inducing call to the pizza delivery happens rarely now, when once it was routine. Whatever you might think of its quality (and I don't think much), fast food delivered right to the door, hot and ready to go, is like a visit from an angel (with a debit machine)---a godsend for long commutes, burnt out parents and late hours. There were many years that the wife and I both worked. We had separate daycare pickups on opposing ends of our community. In my case, I had to pick up the kids via public transit - envision a stroller in a packed bus. Ugh. Everything was a scramble - if there was a traffic jam, it wasn't just inconvenient - it meant a kid was waiting at a daycare after all the other kids have gone home, while minute-by-minute, the late fee went up. After all that madness, the reward is coming home at 6:30 pm to a sink full of smelly breakfast dishes with two miserable and hungry kids in tow. And in the end, the daycare gets three-quarters of your pay cheque. Gah.

To those who do this - I salute you. 

As it stands, I now have a rather well-developed sense of megalomania over all meals prepared in my house. I rub my hands together like a cartoon villain when I think of the possibilities. I can start my mise en place at 3pm. I can braise on Wednesday. In fact, the reassuring bubble of something cooking all day on the stove top whilst I work away on my laptop at the dining table is sweet. Really. I can now cure and smoke things at my discretion and not hurriedly, almost secretly, on a Sunday morning. Way back when, the first time I tried to make homemade pasta happened to be 6:15 pm on Wednesday night after a long day at work. My wife, wisely pointed out, 'why on earth would I do that?'. Indeed. I was too busy on the Sunday trying to cure a ham I suppose. Now dear reader, I can now come out of the shadows and cook properly. Hallelujah.

With this in mind, I attempted a recipe that is largely inspired by the famous hay-smoked ham chops of the Publican gastropub in Chicago. The original recipe uses some pretty extensive restaurant kit like a sous vide circulator and a vacuum packer, so I've created a home version. I also don't have hay, but I smoked with applewood. Apple and pork - a great combo.

Apple Wood Smoked Ham Chops

These chops are only 'lightly' cured which means that they are not terribly salty and although there are curing salts in the brine, the level of nitrates this represents is tiny (less than what naturally occurs in a bunch of celery). Of course, the curing salt is completely optional - it will not affect the taste, only the colour of the chop. You'll need a few days to pull this one together.

For the brine:

2 litres water
120 g of kosher salt
120 g of brown sugar
1 tbsp. of curing salt (sometimes called 'pink' salt)
2 bay leaves
6 peppercorns
3 cloves
a branch or two of fresh thyme

For the chops:

2 double thickness, bone in, centre cut pork chops, Frenched (preferably organic or naturally raised)
Apple wood chips

Put all the ingredients for the brine into a large enough pot to hold 2 litres and bring it to a boil on the stove top until all the ingredients have dissolved. Allow to cool completely. Get your chops into a non-reactive dish and cover with the now-cool brine. Get it into the fridge and let it cure for 48 hours. After it has cured, take them out, rinse them off, pat them dry and then get them onto a drying or cooling rack and into the fridge to dry out a bit for at least two hours, preferably four to five hours. Now get your wood chips and soak a few cups worth in some water for about fifteen minutes. Take them out and if you have a box smoker, get them in there, if not, create a foil sachet and fill with the wet wood chips. Punch holes in the sachet and get it into your gas grill on a low heat on one side and leave the other side completely off. Once it starts to smoke, get your chops in there on the extreme far side from the heat source. Using an oven thermometer make sure the temperature within the closed barbecue doesn't get any higher than about 250F or so. Let this smoke for about two hours. Make fresh wood chip sachets as you need them. Once you've smoked for about two hours, get the chops out and let them rest for at least twenty minutes. Then crank your grill up to full whack and sear the smoked chops on both sides just to get some lovely colour and grill marks.  Allow to rest once more for at lest ten minutes before carving.

The original recipe form the Publican has the chops served on white cheddar grits. As an alternative, perhaps that is more suited to my style, I served these chops with creamy polenta, sautéed kale and some hot chilies. Well-worth the three days of work.