What elevates a so-so meal into a memorable repast can often be found in the details. Homemade crispy croutons, for instance. Having the patience to braise the short ribs for 3 to 4 hours and then carefully skimming the fat off the surface of the sauce. Realizing that an already sweet dessert does not need extra sugar in the whipped cream. These are all decisions made by Chef Carl Dahl who put together a dinner for our Go Cooking session on Tuesday night that made it a night to remember.
Dahl is, of course, an inspired cook and a consummate professional. Executive Chef at two very popular Oakville restaurants — Julia’s Ristorante and Ritorno — the swiftly upward trajectory of Dahl’s career path sounds so smooth as to have been manufactured: Growing up in Burlington and getting a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant as a teenager. A significant home economics class in high school that led to the career decision. Then, George Brown College, for the basics. A stint at Stoneboats, in Oakville, then sous chef at the Old Power House and back to Oakville where he opened Julia’s with Julia Hanna ten years ago. Five years later, Ritorno. But if you’re wondering why it all sounds so natural and easy, you need to meet the Chef. This kind of success requires lots of hard work and a little bit of luck. But character comes into it too. And to watch the Chef in action is to immediately notice — oh, he’s really organized; oh — he’s smart; and, oh — he’s creative. And, just as an aside, he also has a great sense of humour and returns phone calls.
Dahl also is versatile, a quality that can be attested to by anyone who has visited both Julia’s and Ritorno. The two restaurants are similar only in their basic Italian-ness and in their insistence upon good food. Julia’s, on Lakeshore Road, is all sophisticated grace and elegance, with paintings by local artists on the walls. The menu is Italian combined with Nuevo Latino, so you may find chorizo sausage and dishes such as feijoada served alongside the pastas.
Ritorno’s, in north Oakville, started out as a very traditional Italian trattoria with dishes such as veal Parmesano and meat balls, all made from scratch. Dahl soon realized, however, that he had to expand on the basics and offer something more unique in order to keep his regular customers coming back; so, with that in mind, he has added some more modern Italian dishes. The roots of Ritorno remain, however, as a hommage to family dining, in the Italian way. The prominence of the “nonna wall” as an element of the decor says it all; the wall is decorated with photographs of “nonnas” from any and all ethnic backgrounds. Customers are encouraged to bring in their own photos of grandmothers — or just women who have inspired them in the kitchen — for immortalization on the wall.
Home cooks need to build confidence, Dahl suggests, and offers a few tips:
Don’t only follow recipes. If you find one that you like, take it and work with it. Try substituting one thing — arugula for spinach, for example. Or, add a spice. Just remember that chefs have disasters as well.
“The difference,” he says, laughing, ” is that if we try something that doesn’t work, we have lots of other stuff to choose from. If you have a terrible idea, you end up having to order pizza!”
Dahl has done a fair bit of teaching. At Go Cooking, of course, and at Longo’s, at the LCBO and Whole Foods Markets and at Stir Kitchen, a kitchenware store in Burlington. He also takes part in the “Kids Culinary Community”, a charitable organization in Oakville created by Julia Hanna. Dahl, along with 3 or 4 other chefs, acts as a facilitating chef for the organization which works with children from 6 – 16, offering cooking classes, classes in food ethics, shopping, exercise and nutrition.
An old bio’ on the Internet lists him as singing Beatles songs in a local band. Alas, no longer, he tells me. There is no time for hobbies — although he does go to the gym.
“I have children, ” he says, “and any spare time I have is spent taxi-ing them around.”
If you missed our Go Cooking session, don’t despair. You could visit one of the restaurants and we’re hoping to have him back just as soon as possible. In the meantime, you might like to try this recipe for Caramel Budino from a previous Go Cooking session.
from Chef Carl Dahl, Ritorno Ristorante
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 1/2 cups 35% cream
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp. cornstarch
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 oz prepared coffee
1 tbsp. Sailor Jerry rum
1 tbsp. Kahlua
Oreo cookie crumbs
3/4 cup 2% milk
1. Stir together sugar, water and salt and place in a sauce pot over high heat.
2. Stir until the sugar begins to caramelize, turning a beige colour (approximately 340 degrees).
3. Whisk in the cream, allow to reduce slightly, then set aside.
4. Whisk together the egg yolks, whole egg and cornstarch.
5. Temper the egg mixture with the caramel sauce by whisking the caramel into the egg in a slow steady stream until completely incorporated.
6. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh strainer back into a sauce pan, then place back on stove over medium heat, heat mixture gently, whisking constantly until mixture thickens to a pudding-like consistency. (approximately 5 minutes)
7. Turn off heat.
8. Whisk in the butter, rum, Kahlua and salt.
9. Place some cookie crumbs in the bottom of a specialty coffee mug, then top with the budino, a thin layer of more cookie crumbs, then whipped cream.
10. Finish off with a dust of cinnamon.
Budino is a traditional Italian custard. This can be served in a glass so that you can see the layers, or in a mug. Be creative, as the chef advises, try some chocolate shavings or sprinkles on top.