Q and A with known chef Rob!
Tell us about your latest book.
Where do we start? It’s the fourth one and out of the four of them, it’s probably the most casual one I’ve done. It’s really a combination of a few things. First of all, it’s kind of where I am with food today — the casual aspect of fine dining. It’s kind of a reflection of me at home; I have a lot of pictures of my kids and my family. But obviously, with what I do at Cactus Club [Café] right now, I’ve been there for five years. With doing casual fine dining, it’s kind of set in my blood now. I kind of always felt that it’s the future of where things were going. For me, the thing I like about this book — having done four [books] — is that one of the most important things that you want is for people to use it; to be a part of their weekly or monthly go-tos, if you wanted to. That’s why it’s paperback and it’s the kind of book that I want people to get dirty with, like if they go to the pizza section, I would love for them to have sticky pages with flour and dough (laughs), you know what I mean? That’s the kind of book I want it to be. I collect books and I’ve collected books for years. I have books that are sentimental to me, I’ve got everything; but at the same time, I have books as well that are kind of my go-to books at home. I kind of want this to be the same for Canadians, to use the same way.
How did you find the transition to a more casual approach with this book, compared to your previous books?
You know, it’s funny. I think it’s just the transition of not just me but you look at a lot of the young, up and coming chefs and a lot of the restaurants that are opening, they are kind of more toned down and more casual. It’s not an approach that I’ve taken or the route that I’m going but I think, in general, it suits kind of where Canada is at right now, because we’re really growing in the country, in terms of product, and I have always believed that the most important thing in cooking is obviously the love you have for it, but the product is the main thing. Across this country, there’s great product. If you just focus on that and keep it simple, that’s more of the approach I’ve always had towards food. So even in the very first book, even though it was a little more complicated in the second one, and finally going to the Feenie’s book and now this one, for me it was just kind of a transition in terms of where I think people are more headed towards food, so that’s why for me it was more important than anything else just to have something that is really who I am now. And don’t get me wrong, I grew up in an environment with caviar, foie gras and truffles, and things like that, so that’s still in my blood, but I think at the same time, where I’m at, in terms of what I like — because what I like about this book is that this is food that you can eat every day. I think that’s what I believe in. I work for a company right now — Cactus Club — where it’s a restaurant that you can go four, five, six days a week, if you will. So when I put this together, I really wanted it to be the same way. I wanted it to be something that people can use on a regular basis. For me, it meant a lot to put something together where, a lot of these recipes come from home; this is stuff I do with my kids, so you really get a basis of who I am, in this book.
Speaking of family, you decided to incorporate yours a lot more in this book compared to your previous book. Why is that?
Family for me is always first, so I think that’s part of it. I think including them in the book is a very important part of why, I believe, food should be at home more. I think all of us lead really busy lives, it doesn’t matter where we are. If you look at Vancouver, when I drive in and out of the traffic everyday, sometimes we forget that one of the best places to really sit down and relax and enjoy one another’s company is around the kitchen table or dining room table. This is something for me where, by including my family, I want people to realize that this is a very important part of our culture. It’s something I was raised with… Sundays were a very important time for us to be around the kitchen table or dining room table. I think including my family in this book, this is really who I am now. I cook just as much at home as I do at work.
My kids are very in tune with food; both organic product, non-organic product. They understand where a lot of the stuff we eat comes from. I think that, for me, is so important because they are going to carry a lot of this on and I think with the way we are all becoming more interested in sustainability, it’s important for me to pass it on to the kids. It’s a combination of everything; it’s just something really important for me to involve my family and my food.
Mark McEwan wrote the book’s foreword. What has that meant to you?
It means a lot. I have known Mark for quite some time. When I first got on board with the Food Network, towards the end of the ‘90s, I knew Mark was a real icon in the Toronto food scene. We have become very good friends over the years and we have done a few events together. With Charlie Trotter doing my foreword of my first one and Danielle to do the foreword of my second one, it was like hang on a minute — there are some great chefs in this country; not that I wasn’t thinking of them before but Mark was my first choice, just because I have always loved his food, for one, and I really believe Mark is a true Canadian at heart, in terms of how he cooks. That was the easiest choice I had. I remember when I phoned him and it was like “Hey.” He was kind of like, “You want me to do the foreword?” And I said, “I would love you to.” And he was like, “I’d be honoured.” So it was like one of those cool moments in my career. He’s a little bit older than I am but we both have been around a while, so to have that connection for me was very important… I have always built everything I do on relationships with food, and having that relationship with Mark for the years I’ve had, it was quite fitting for him to do this one. He’s a family-oriented man himself, so it meant a lot to have him do it.
How did you decide on the recipes to include in the book?
I have collected all of these recipes for years; some of them are new, some of them are old. There was really no thought process in it, we were just like, let’s come up with some appetizers, salads, soups, and just stuff in terms of the casual aspect of how I eat at home. Some of this stuff, like the chicken soup that’s in there, that soup in particular I make at home all the time for my kids, so it was easy for me to put it in the book. The broccoli that’s in there, it’s a side with pecorino cheese and cheddar, olive oil and lemon juice, that’s something my kids eat once a week. My mom’s apple pie I had to put in there… that hasn’t been in the last three books. A lot of the pastas are pastas I cook for my kids on a regular basis. The crostinis are in there because my kids grew up on them. We used to make little bruschettas for the kids, but we used to take a baguette and just rub it with olive oil and garlic, and that’s what they used to chew on. From there, we started making all these different toppings for them, so that’s where those came from. So there’s a story behind everything in the book, and for me it’s important to have a story because, like the quinoa salad that’s on the cover, that’s there for a lot of reasons. One is, quinoa has been around for eons and it’s becoming one of these grains where people know it’s a superfood, so putting that on the cover made sense because that’s a grain that my wife and I eat a lot of. Putting that on the book and with the name, Casual Classics, it’s a very simple salad in terms of green beans, tomatoes, pecans and quinoa, but it’s a great combination of flavours. The chocolate brownies that are in the back [of the book], those are brownies I make for my kids. Those things, when they come out of the oven, we cut them and put ice cream on them right away. These are all little things for me that are simple, straightforward recipes.
What are some of your favourite recipes that you have included?
I know this sounds crazy but the soup that I told you about, it’s a broth you put with cream and thicken it with the rue and just straight chicken that you’ve poached. That’s one of my favourites because it was one of the very first things that I learned as an apprentice. It’s been a part of everything I’ve done ever since.
There’s a crostini in there that’s made with Italian sausage and mascarpone cheese. It’s the simplest thing to make but it’s so good. I make those for my kids and they go crazy.
The Asian Sloppy Joe recipe, that was something I almost made a mistake in a way. I was making some ground pork, I tried sautéing it and I threw in some ginger and whatever, then I said, “How do I make this thing taste better?” I took some hoisin sauce and put the hoisin sauce in it and I was like wow, this tastes pretty good. I had some large hamburger buns so I basically, for dinner, put the buns down, gave it to my kids, made some vegetables and put the sloppy joe mix on. There’s certain [recipes] that I look at and are kind of fun. I put another version of short-rib recipe in there that kind of means a lot, so I put that one in there. There’s a game hen recipe in there that’s from my Moroccan, Cairo days, way back when; there’s an apple and dried apricot mix I put in with game hen, which is really, really good, and really unusual for me to do something like that, so I threw that in there. There’s a steelhead salmon recipe and scallop recipe, where I make a similar garnishes for both; I make a corn ragu — essentially it’s corn right off the cob, peppers, onion, bacon, cilantro, soy and lime juice. I cooked that probably twice a week at home. I look at things like that because they are very simple and understated, and that’s the kind of person I am now, in terms of how I cook.
Since becoming the first Canadian to win Iron Chef America, how has that helped to evolve you as a chef?
I look back at it now and when I got the call for Iron Chef America and it was 2005 and at that time, I was engulfed in Lumiere and Feenie’s… I was focused on that. When I got the call, I knew it was big. Of course, you do the show and it’s taped four months out. When I won, I couldn’t tell anybody of course. It came out and I had no idea at the time that all of this other stuff I’ve done, that I accomplished, that winning this one show would change my life forever… It’s one of those things I look back on now. Morimoto, I have talked to him several times since I’ve done it. Mario Batali and I became good friends after the fact and Bobby Flay I’ve talked to a few times in the past. At the time, I didn’t realize the impact but after it came out, it changed my life forever. When I judged three years ago on Top Chef, I remember telling these guys that were in the final five at the time, I remember telling them when I left the set that whatever happened — when this comes out, it’s going to change your life forever. That’s kind of how I felt that Iron Chef America did to me. It opened a lot of doorways for me in a different ways.