“Simple is best,” is the food philosophy of Shirley Johnson, chef and manager of the Garden Cafe at the Royal Botanical Gardens.
“What I mean by that,” she explains, “is that I believe in using a carrot in a form that is a carrot — I would never cut carrots into stars.”
And, while she does love to mix different cultures in her recipes and menus — Italian and Asian, for instance — she maintains, “Just don’t mess with things too much!”
Johnson’s clearly thought-out ideological stance is a result of many years spent in the food business. Her resumé is lengthy and impressive: Starting out in her 20’s, right after a degree in Hospitality and Tourism, she apprenticed in kitchens for several years, eventually managing a series of restaurants including the Crock ‘n’ Block, Michelle’s Baguette and Kelsey’s. In the late 80’s, she, her husband Kalin and business partner Craig Kowalchuk, successfully developed Burlington’s Water Street Cooker and Emma’s Back Porch. She moved on to the Royal Botanical Gardens (<http://www.rbg.ca/dine>) a few years ago, although she does still own her own catering business in Oakville (called Catered Fare<http://www.cateredfare.ca/>). At the RBG, she cooks along with six or seven chefs, and manages three restaurants with sixty or seventy employees (The restaurant in the RBG’s Rock Garden is currently “on hold” while a new $14 million dollar facility is being re-developed this spring.) She also gives cooking demonstrations at the RBG and has written a cookbook for recipes created to showcase the vegetables grown in the RBG’s own vegetable garden. She loves working along with the gardeners and the marketing department, doing projects that celebrate biodiversity and ecology.
Her most recent initiative is a menu designed to go with the RBG’s dinosaur exhibition (<http://www.rbg.ca/dinos>). Dubbed “The Battle of the Titans” the show runs until April 7th and invites visitors to enjoy the prehistoric world of dinosaurs through videos, hands-on arts and crafts projects, exhibitions, interpreters and distinguished lecturers. On the Cafe menu will be items such as Korean short ribs, braised baby back ribs, a T. Rex burger with fries, Dino buddies and fries for children and, for non-carnivores, Herbivore Heaven, a vegetable stir fry. The desserts alone call out for a special visit — a chocolate lava cake with jelly beans and the Tar Pit, a sticky toffee pudding. Our Go Cooking visitors enjoyed a preview of several of these items at Johnson’s recent Go Cooking event.
As a woman working in what still is a man’s world, Johnson has had to learn strong management skills. She says, however, “It’s not like it was 20 years ago when I was starting out. Then, you could have a chef throwing a pot at you if you didn’t obey quickly enough. You had to use your brain to develop strategies to survive.”
Since the development of training programmes at places such as George Brown College, she notes, there now are many more women in the kitchens and things have improved.
Teamwork in the kitchen is her mantra.
“It’s important to me for my team to work together. I don’t have to be right all the time and I am open to trying things in a different way if there are problems. My team is the absolute best.”
Here is a recipe for German Potato Salad, created by Shirley for our last Go Cooking session.
5 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes (peeled and cut into 1″ cubes)
1 red onion (thinly sliced)
1/2 lb. bacon (cut into strips)
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tsp. sea salt
2 tablespoons minced dill
4 ounces 35% cream (whipped)
1) Cook potatoes in boiling water until tender.
2) Cook bacon and onion in a sauté pan.
3) Season bacon mixture with balsamic vinegar.
4) Toss in cooked potatoes.
5) Whip cream until stiff.
6) Stir in salt and dill.
7) Plate arugula.
8) Top arugula with potato and bacon mixture.
9) Top with dollops of seasoned whipped cream.
I cut this recipe in half and it was just fine. I’m wondering if sour cream would work as well as the whipped cream — might try that next time. This is a very hearty dish — the arugula adds a nice “zing” to it.