“Cooking can be unpredictable and all sorts of crazy things can happen, ” acknowledges Chef Lindsay Renée Vandekamp. “What’s important is to make it look like it’s not a mistake, but something that was planned all along.”
It’s a statement that illustrates the confidence, flexibility and determination to shine that characterize this young woman who has tailored a passion for cooking into a very independent career as a personal chef.
A personal chef, Lindsay explains, usually works very closely with families. She goes into the home and consults with the family to develop menus according to the family’s desires. Usually she will be planning menus for a week at a time. She shops for the food and cooks it, often showing her clients how to plate and serve. She tries to introduce them to something new. There are, of course, limitations within which she must work — low fat diets, low carb’ meals or even celiac menus. And each kitchen is different, so the first thing the chef must do is a quick inventory of what is available to work with. Vandekamp finds the work “so satisfying.” It’s unlike corporate work because you get to meet many different kinds of people and get to know them very well.
In fact, Vandekamp sees food and cooking as a sort of bridge to build relationships. Her happiest times in the kitchen have been when she was involved in programs such as “Breaking Bread, Breaking Boundaries”, an alliance that brings together youth and police. She is proud of her efforts to set up programs for the homeless. She’s excited by her work for the Junior League, teaching young children how to cook healthy meals.
“I think the most rewarding thing to do, is to use food and cooking to make life better. Food is a way to get people’s guard down. In the kitchen, everyone comes together — young, old, middle class, homeless. Just think of the warm, wonderful early experiences of children making cookies with grandma in the kitchen.”
She has been a lifelong cook. (A family album displays a photograph of her at the age of four making breakfast — scrambled eggs and toast with an inch of butter on top.) She also recalls forcing her little brother to sit and watch while she did a mean Julia Child imitation in the kitchen. By the time she had reached her twenties, she had toiled in the food industry for enough hours of apprenticeship to qualify for her chef’s diploma and she decided to go to culinary school. She laughs when I ask her if there was a defining moment — a moment when she realized that she was going to be a chef.
“Well, yes,” she says. “I was at a wedding. It was a beautiful wedding but the food was truly horrible. I watched everyone eating grey, dry, overdone roast beef and saying how good it was. I thought, do you really think that’s good? And I realized that I could have done it so much better.”
So, mentored by Chef Bill Sharpe and College owner Murline Mallette, she zipped through the courses at Liaison College, in the meantime picking up a bronze medal in a Canada-wide Skills Ontario culinary contest and a gold medal for the Ontario competition. After earning her chef’s diploma, she stayed on as a teacher at the College for several years, before going out on her own.
Vandekamp is idealistic but not naive. She tells young people who want to be chefs that they must be prepared for a rigorous, painstaking career. They must be willing to start at the very bottom and will be washing lots of dishes. And she reminds them that they are only as good as their last dish; if chefs start slacking off, the industry very quickly moves on to someone new.
Despite being trained in classical French cuisine at the College, Chef Lindsay says that her personal choices veer toward the sweet and savoury flavours of Asian food. She is eclectic in her tastes, however. If she could choose her favorite “last supper”, she would opt for an unpretentious but delicious, rare steak with mushrooms and onions, horseradish mashed potatoes and green beans from her garden. Bread and cheese, for dessert, please.
Her Quebecois menu for our up-coming Go Cooking session was inspired by a desire to prepare a really good French onion soup. She promises that she will show us some shortcuts to making this warming, rich and pungent, classic dish so that it is not intimidating for the novice cook to serve. And a special guest will be Mark Cox, a staff sergeant from the Hamilton Police, who is an excellent baker and who will prepare what sounds like a wonderful dessert.
This is a recipe for a dessert that Chef Lindsay created for an earlier Go Cooking session.
Date Rolls on an Orange Salad
from Chef Lindsay Renée Vandekamp
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 2/3 cups walnuts, crushed
8 pastry sheets
1 egg yolk
4 navel oranges
1/4 cup sugar
cloves, mint leaves for garnish
1) Remove pits from dates.
2) Squeeze juice from lemon. Set aside.
3) Cook dates for 5 minutes with 3/8 cup of sugar, the cloves and ground cinnamon and cinnamon stick. Add lemon juice.
4) Crush the walnuts and add the date mixture.
5) For the garnish, prepare a white syrup by boiling sugar with the cloves in 2 cups of water.
6) Melt the butter, brush on to two sheets of phyllo, place the date mixture on the phyllo and roll to make a cigar shape. Stick down the ends with the egg yolk.
7) Brush “cigar” rolls with butter, sprinkle with sugar and bake for 2 – 4 minutes at 350 degrees F.
8) Peel oranges, cut into small pieces.
9) Serve drizzled with syrup with wraps in the middle surrounded by cut up oranges.
Makes 4 date cigars. This would be a great winter dessert when the oranges are so delicious. I wonder what would happen if you added a bit of Grand Marnier to the syrup?