All By Myself
Professor Ferguson warned the students of Food Writing I: “It’s a lonely profession, being a freelance writer.” She wasn’t kidding.
Ever been driving on the highway, doing 120 then all of a sudden, there’s your exit? You peel off and hit the street and for a second or two you forget the new speed limit, and as you fly though the neighbourhood you feel disoriented, disconnected. You slam on the anchors, and try to fit into the new 50 kph groove. But you miss the highway, and the speed. That’s what it was like to go from cooking five nights a week in a busy restaurant kitchen to writing full-time, at home...alone. One day I was pumped full of adrenaline, dancing the cook's hop and tong-tap in front of a stove, to sitting—just sitting—in front of a computer.
I left professional cooking because I wanted to fall in love with food again. The grind of night after night cooking for the coked-up, Botoxed, preening, fabulous in Yorkville was sucking the life out of me. One night, as I was setting up my kitchen, the lone bartender who was preparing front of house came back to the kitchen: “Do you know what this is?” She was a small town Ontario beauty, still completely innocent. She held out her hand, and there, pinched between thumb and forefinger was a rather large white pill. “I was cleaning the bar, and found this. I figured you guys would know.”
“We guys” being the kitchen. Fair enough. Cooks have a well-deserved reputation as serious partiers. You’d be hard-pressed to find a kitchen in this or any other city for that matter, where drugs—the ones that keep you going and the ones that settle you back down again—don’t play a major role.
Young, skinny, adrenaline-soaked, my sous and I sending out snacks for the fabulously spoiled.
“I’ll take that,” I said, “and let you know.” Sweet thing, she looked horrified. What I meant was, I’d take it home, and look up its DIN on the Internet. Turns out, it was a heavy-duty prescription appetite suppressant. Lovely. Here, in this place, where I pour my guts out in a hot, little, subterranean kitchen, the already dangerously skinny "diners" consider a diet pill an amuse-bouche.
As a cook, and someone who loves food and eating, I found this soul destroying. I’d been cooking in a nightclub for about a year and a half, and had already seen just about everything, from residual coke left on my plates in the kitchen, to tiny Miss Hilton wannabe’s running to the washroom every 15 minutes to purge. But somehow, this one dose of speed sitting on the bar said it all. I wasn’t shocked. I’d stopped being shocked long ago.
I think the last time I was truly gob-smacked was one summer night, when the infuriated owner flitted past my kitchen on his way to the doorman, screeching at the top of his lungs, “Who let that fat, ugly lady onto my patio?! You have ruined my entire evening!” A moment later, the doorman, with a look of remorse and resignation on his face—an executioner, only no mask—trudged past on his way up to the patio. A few minutes after that, a teary eyed—and yes, fat—lady was escorted past the kitchen, expelled from the realm of the thin and beautiful, and onto the mean, unforgiving streets of Yorkville. My heart broke for that lady, and even a little for the doorman, and I decided then and there, that my boss had no soul. That this business had no soul. That Yorkville had no soul. And that I was just about done with this life.
Still, it wasn't all bad. There were the endless cocktails while working, the never-ending freakshow put on by the rich, famous and poorly behaved, and one night, I was treated to a history lesson, when an elegant and friendly middle-aged couple wandered down the stairs and into the white cave where I cooked.
No, they weren’t here for dinner or drinks, it was the 40th anniversary of their first date, and they had spent it here, when here was El Patio. That was back in the ‘60’s when Yorkville was a happening hippie hangout, and a real breeding ground for the budding Canadian music scene. “They were all here” she said scanning the room as if seeing ghosts, “Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young. Although Neil played at The Riverboat more. Just down the road.”
All I could think was, if Joni or Gordon or Neil were dead, they would be rolling in their graves for what this place has become. After some investigation, I learned that The Riverboat, made famous in Young’s Ambulance Blues was at 134 Yorkville, so I took a walk, and there, instead of a quaint old Victorian full of history and spirit, stood the massive cold concrete foundations of yet another condo, with, at it’s base, another restaurant by Mark McEwan.
Yep, soulless. When I left that kitchen for good I promised myself that it would be a very, very long time before I set foot in this too precious neighborhood. One thing I never want to see again, is a bleached, siliconed toots walking a Yorkie in a mink. The Yorkie was in the mink. True story.
So I ran. I ran away from that and retreated to my home and got to work rekindling my love affair with food, and I've never been happier. Though, truth be told, I do sometimes miss the adrenaline of service, the camaraderie, and the immediate gratification of sending out a beautiful plate and seeing it come back licked clean. Writing is more removed, isolating. But that's what book signings and blogs are for!
Here's one of dishes I most loved making for diners. I made it on my very last night in the kitchen...before I snapped.
The night was off to a slow start, when the first chit came in with a few items on it; for some unknown reason, I can only remember the shrimp dish. I made it, and the other stuff too, sent it out when in came another chit...for some Yorkville bimbo's dog.
As the waiter jammed the chit in the rail, he informed me that the previous order had been for none other than James Chatto! I was excited and terrified and started going over every last detail of what I'd just sent out. But just as quickly as my heart was filled with joy over Chatto, it was crushed with the news of the doggie dish.
The waiter left, and I stood there, stunned. I looked over at my sous, who was crouching in front of the reach-in, half-hidden by the stainless door. All I could see were her shoulders heaving up and down with suppressed laughter. I knew exactly what she was in stitches about; "Hilarious," I said, "laugh it up. One minute I'm cooking for the top restaurant critic in Canada, the next, a dog." I had to laugh too. But then the laughter turned to tears. "I'm done." I told my sous. I untied my apron, gathered my purse and jacket, and walked away...right through the dining room. Over and out. Gone for good. And later when I picked up a copy of Toronto Life, I read James Chatto's glowing review, and that's a pretty high note to go out on.
Mediterranean Shrimp and Feta on Crispy Polenta
This simple dish has it all going on: crispy and creamy, salty and garlicky – totally lip-smacking. The only aspect of it that’s even a little bit challenging is the timing; you want the polenta hot and crispy and you don’t want to over-cook the shrimp by even 30 seconds, so there’s a bit of pan-watching and choreography involved. The fried rounds of polenta will stay crisp in a low oven for a good while. Now, if you’re a purist, or your Nonna is watching, go ahead and make a batch of polenta earlier in the day, let it cool and set, then cut it into matchsticks. If not, do like I do and buy a log of the prepared stuff.
1 ½ cups (375 mL) firm or set polenta, cut into matchsticks, divided
3 Tbsp (45 mL) olive oil, divided
½ cup (125 mL) finely chopped red onion, about half an onion
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
10 shrimp, wild, not the Asian farmed kind; de-veined, tail-on, fresh or frozen
Heaping ½ cup (125 mL) feta crumbles, drained and broken into large chunks
¼ cup (60 mL) chopped or torn fresh basil
2 Tbsp (30 mL) finely chopped fresh oregano or 1 tsp (5 mL) dry
½ tsp (2 mL) black pepper, divided
¼ cup (60 mL) dry white wine or stock if avoiding alcohol
Set oven on its lowest temperature or warm setting.
Prepare the shrimp – thaw and peel if need be – and set aside in the fridge. I like to leave the shell on shrimp because I think they look better, taste better, and cook better that way. However, it does mean getting fingers involved in the eating…which is messy and delicious. If leaving the shells on, provide finger bowls or damp napkins, though lusty finger licking is encouraged!
Into a large, non-stick skillet, over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of the oil. When the oil is hot, add the polenta sticks in two flattened round piles about saucer size; sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon of the pepper. You can also do this in two smaller pans. When the first side is golden brown, flip and fry the second side until golden and crispy. Transfer the polenta discs to two serving plates in a preheated oven to keep warm.
Into another skillet over medium heat, add the remaining oil and onion; fry, stirring until onion softens and develops some nice colour – about 3 minutes.
Add the garlic, shrimp, feta, herbs, and the remaining pepper; stirring constantly, fry for about 3 minutes or until the shrimp just turn pink, begin to curl and the feta is softening.
Add the wine or stock, stir to combine and cook for about 1 minute more; remove from heat.
Immediately divide the shrimp, feta and sauce between the two plates of fried polenta and serve. Garnish with more fresh herbs if desired. If you like it hot, a good pinch of crushed chili flakes is a nice addition.
[[photo of El Patio sign with thanks from: NJ Liner Notes]]