Whether you’re cooking by yourself in the kitchen, dining at a restaurant or listening to music around a campfire; where there’s food, there’s (usually) music! Which is why we’re so excited to see great Canadian food showcased alongside great Canadian music as part of this year’s JUNO Awards celebrations, taking place on Sunday, April 3, 2016.
Hosted in Calgary, Alta., . this is the first time that a celebrity chef has been brought in to curate the gala dinner, held the night before the awards show. Roger Mooking, a JUNO Award-winning artist himself in 1990s R&B group Bass is Base, has created a delicious multi-course meal that is set to be enjoyed by 1,500 award nominees and industry friends.
We caught up with Mooking to chat about the challenges of cooking for hundreds of people and the Alberta ingredients he’s excited to showcase.
You’re cooking the JUNO Awards gala dinner on April 2. How did that come to be?
I had made a joke to [JUNO Awards president] Allan Reid as he was going through Toronto Pearson [Airport]. I ran into him at my restaurant, Twist, and I made a joke that, you know, maybe I should cook at the JUNOS, and we laughed about it and then he got on his plane. Later, he was thinking about it and said, “Wow, this is actually a good idea, so let’s do it!”
This is the first time in the history of The JUNO Awards they’ve had a celebrity chef create the dinner menu. Are you feeling any pressure?
Well, I’ve been cooking and serving people for 20 years, but the pressure that is somewhat unique [with this gala dinner] is that a lot of my friends are in this crowd. Industry people, artists, producers . . . people I know are present at this dinner en masse. So that’s unique, for sure!
You’ve incorporated a lot of Alberta-made products into your menu. Bison, local artisan bread, Phil and Sebastian coffee . . . . how did you discover them?
I did grow up in Alberta, so I grew up eating bison and moose, boar and all of that stuff. I knew bison was a very available commodity there, so I wanted to make sure that I could use that. I also wanted to stay away from the beef, chicken and fish that all of these major events always do.
I discovered Phil and Sebastian and Sidewalk Citizen Bakery through Connie Desousa of Charcut and Charbar. I knew I wanted some bread and I knew I wanted some coffee in the dessert, so I went to those guys.
Cooking for over 1,000 people is a lot different than cooking for 10. What are some of the hurdles?
Every step, I really wanted to make sure that [the kitchen] did a lot of hand preparation. So we’re tearing basil, tearing butter lettuce, picking thyme fresh from the stalks; and for 1,500 people, it becomes a major thing. Although there are a lot of hand preparations, the menu is designed in a way so that we can scale.
The way that we do the salad, for instance, is that we aren’t dressing the salad beforehand, or else it will wilt. The dressing is on the plate and mixes when you burst open the slow-roasted tomatoes, so it becomes an interactive experience. All of my menu choices were driven by cold, creative inspiration, as well as the capacity to execute.
How do you want the guests to feel when they walk away from your dinner?
I want them to walk away saying that they had amazing flavour. Just bold, dynamic flavour. I wanted to feature Calgary ingredients because I think that’s a big part of the story, but also to show the diversity of what I believe the Calgary of today is. The Calgary of today is not the Calgary of 20 years ago when I was growing up in Alberta!
This is a major awards event. Did you consider portion sizes or using pungent ingredients like garlic, so people wouldn’t have bad breath talking with their fellow nominees?
Yeah, it is a factor to some degree! For example, that’s why I roasted the garlic in the Nuh Gana dressing [for the tomato salad]. It cuts the edge off of it, but I still get the robust flavour that I’m looking for. I was mindful of that kind of stuff.
How does music fit in to your at-home cooking?
Well, right next to my kitchen I have a speaker, so I plug in an iPod that goes on shuffle and music is playing while we’re cooking. It’s a wild, crazy, busy household!
Images courtesy of Nikolai Cuthill.