Every month, Toronto’s The Stop Community Food Centre hosts a themed multi-course dinner in its greenhouse located at Wychwood Barns. You can come to the dinner as a guest, sit down at a flower and candle bedecked table in the greenhouse (a lovely setting) and sip on wine paired with each course…or you could do what I did and take the kitchen option.
I showed up around 2pm to the prep kitchen - that’s 4 ½ hours before the first guests even took a nibble of their h’or dourves. After introducing myself to the two chefs, Chris Brown and Bertrand Alèpèe, I hung out in the kitchen with them, chatting and observing what they were doing: Chris was prepping the octopus for the 2nd course carpaccio and Bert was tying up his smoked paprika scented haddock sausages for the 4th course cassoulet. But I didn’t come here to just hang out: I was handed an apron and told about my first task – making the beignet dough for the night’s dessert.
I followed the recipe instructions to the letter and skeptically showed the results to Chris. It didn’t look the way it should have – it was dense, tough and a bit lumpy instead of smooth and supple. Chris didn’t look too hopeful and I anxiously assured myself I didn’t mess it up since I followed the instructions exactly. We put it aside with marginal hopes that the rest will help turn the dough around.
I was given a couple more tasks that I was confident I wouldn't screw up and while prepping ingredients for the appetizers, I chatted with Chris and Bert about what they were working on. Chris was slicing a tray of squid ink polenta into batons that was going to be served with the octopus carpaccio. Bert was wrapping swordfish in nori, a play on a sushi roll, and getting ready to dredge them in panko breadcrumbs for deep frying. Chris handed me the squid ink polenta to try and my response was that I don’t like squid ink. I don’t know if it was the look on his face or me realizing that I sounded like I was five years old but I realized that I should probably be more open to tasting food If I’m going to be hanging out in the kitchen with these two chefs. I changed my answer pretty quickly and gave it a try. And to my surprise I liked it.
Closer to the start of dinner time, Chris asked me to try again with the beignet dough. I added warm water to the yeast and we waited for something to happen. The mixture should have become bubbly, Chris said, but nothing was happening. Was that the problem? We dumped it out and tried a third time. This time the yeast took. I pushed through the rest of the recipe, using a bit less flour this time (trusting my instincts and not necessarily the recipe to the letter) and the dough was perfectly soft and tender.
Guests began to arrive, the pace picked up in the kitchen and the courses started to come together. During the dinner rush, I helped with whisking this and plating that, asked questions and received thorough, patient answers and the best part, felt like I belonged there hanging out with Chris and Bert.
What was for dinner?
1st course: Pumpkin and Mussel Bisque
Pumpkin was pureed with mussels and a seafood stock to make the soup. Toasted pumpkin seeds, trout roe, and watercress added nutty, salty and bright green flavours to the richly flavoured bisque.
2nd course: Octopus Carpaccio
The octopus was sliced and arranged with raw fennel slivers, smoked red and yellow cherry tomatoes, and batons of fried squid ink polenta.
3rd course: Swordfish ‘Sushi-roll’
The swordfish, wrapped in nori and coated with panko breadcrumbs were then flash fried so that the outside was crispy but the swordfish was left raw. The sushi-roll was served a wasabi buerre blanc and with these amazing petite gnocchi that were deep fried (instead of boiled). The gnocchi were puffy and golden, tossed with green onion, salt and herbs and completely addictive. I’m definitely going to try this dish at home.
4th course: Seafood Cassoulet
This dish was Bert’s take on a cassoulet, with seafood instead of the traditional meats. The haddock sausages he made earlier that day were partnered with clams and squid and served with intensively savoury white beans. This dish was beautiful.
5th course: Dessert
The last course was dessert and it featured my beignets! The dough was rolled out and cut into perfect squares (not rectangles as Chris corrected me) and then fried. Once they puffed out and were golden brown they were pulled out of the oil and then dusted with powdered sugar. I pulled it off! Oh and Chris and Bert also made some stuff for dessert. The beignets were served with a seabuckthorn berry puree, a salted caramel mousseline and a nutella mousse.
How was my day and night spent in the kitchen? I loved it. I learned a lot (I can’t wait to try out some new skills at home), tried new foods, had good fun, and thoroughly enjoyed hanging out with Chris and Bert. Even though I started out a bit anxious, especially after the dough debacle, I soon came around to feel confident and comfortable in the kitchen with these two guys. And how was the food? Delicious.
The next Food for Change themed dinner is a Global Holiday Party scheduled for December 20th! Not only are the events yummy fun but they also support The Stop’s programs that fight hunger and help build the community. You can find out more info here.
Ania Krysa is a digital project manager at Shaw Media. When she’s not taking care of business at Shaw, she loves to share the inspiration behind what she cooks at home on her blog, Food Anthology.
by Ania Krysa