I’ve now had the pleasure of watching a lot of chefs in action and I can’t get over the notion that cooking and the arts have a very close alliance. It’s easy to spot the resemblances between creating a meal and performance art. And who hasn’t noticed how a chef will sculpt a vegetable or “paint” an hors d’oeuvres plate? But I’ve come to the conclusion that the closest art to cooking lies in the area of making music.
Some chefs, for instance, work in a cool, precise, carefully structured manner very much like the first violin of a classical string quartet. Others are grace defined — a singer of a bel canto aria, perhaps, with a silky melody dedicated to a medley of perfect fruits. While watching the energy of Chef Ken Lefebour (Nellie James, Gourmet to Go) the other night, my musical musings wandered wide afield: A rapper, maybe, backed by the frenzied rhythms and determined professionalism of the Modern Jazz Quartet?
Lefebour had devised an incredibly complicated menu for the evening. (Probably he didn’t think it was complicated, but for a non-professional cook, it definitely was.) There was the appetizer — a salad, yes — but a salad that required washing, slicing, and cooking pears, along with toasting walnuts and crumbling chilled goat cheese; for the entrée, a roast shoulder of lamb from Jepson’s meats, beautifully seasoned, along with homemade mint chutney and served alongside a sweet potato galette; and for dessert, a chocolate tart adorned with crushed pink peppercorns and embellished with an arty dash of merlot syrup!
All this was cooked “a la minute”, to a running commentary, as Lefebour chopped, sliced, sprinkled, stirred, demonstrated, explained and instructed, answered questions and provided the guests with a witty history of the high (and low) moments of his professional and personal background. (At one point, I counted six pots and pans sitting on the stove with various components in them boiling, steaming, scalding, braising and sautéeing at the same time.) It was a virtuoso performance incorporating inventiveness, improvisation and syncopation, and was marked by a sharp ability to think on one’s feet.
Lefebour’s energy, spontaneity and willingness to experiment has shaped a career that branches out into many different directions at once: There is the business, of course, Nellie James, Gourmet to Go, situated in downtown Dundas. This is a gourmet catering service with an emphasis on local and seasonal foods. There are weekly specials, a prix fixe dinner that can be ordered for two people and catering for up to 100. There was also the experiment with “Pop-up” dining, the first in Hamilton, an event in which the chef sets up a sort of instant restaurant for an evening. Lefebour served a four course dinner with wine in a warehouse near Pier 8. There are the immensely popular cooking sessions for Go Cooking. (He now has quite a following and we hope he never gets too busy for us!) And there are the charitable events: Upcoming, on June 7th, “A Happening” taking place in the Spectator auditorium. This promises to be an evening of food, music, art and dance and all proceeds will benefit Interval House and the Hamilton Spectator’s Summer Camp program. (If you are old enough to remember “happenings”, those performance art extravaganzas of the ’60’s, it sounds something like that — but with better food.) More to come later, check out our blog, call the Spectator or http://nelliejames.com for tickets.
Anyway, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding and the “pudding” for our cooking session was this incredibly rich and delicious chocolate tart. This is a great recipe for dessert when you are having guests for dinner because it can be made ahead and refrigerated, thus leaving you free to pick out the background music, to chat with your guests as you cook the main course and to sample the evening’s wine.
And, speaking of wine, I just want to mention the perfect and surprising choice of beverage that Peter Kline, our sommelier (Bacchus Sommelier Services), made to accompany the pear salad. It was an Irish cider called Magner’s Pear Cider (LCBO# 2796460), served very chilled, something I would never have thought of. Besides pear dishes, Peter suggested the cider as an accompaniment to pulled pork sandwiches or mild cream cheeses.
And here’s the dessert:
Chocolate Pink Peppercorn Tart
from Chef Ken Lefebour, Nellie James Gourmet to Go
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 to 1/2 cup melted butter (unsalted)
1/4 cup brown sugar
1) Combine crumbs, sugar and enough butter to form a stiff solid dough when squeezed.
2) Grease a spring form pan.
3) Pat douh into a 1/3 to 1/2 inch thick crust in the pan (medium firm).
4) Bake in a 340 degree oven for 10 to 20 minutes until lightly browned.
Place a cookie sheet under the spring form pan in case the butter drips.
1 cup 35 percent cream
1 and 1/8 cup 70% dark, semi-sweet chocolate (in 1″ pieces)
2 oz. butter
1 tsp pink peppercorns, crushed
1) Bring cream to a boil and remove from heat.
2 Add chocolate and butter and let stand for a minimum of 10 minutes.
3) Whisk until smooth and pour into a tart shell to 1/2 inch thickness
4) Top liberally with peppercorns.
5) Let set in fridge for 4 hours.
Merlot Syrup Ingredients:
2 cups merlot
1 and 1/4 cups sugar
1 vanilla bean (split)
1″ piece of ginger
2 star anise (optional)
1) Bring merlot and sugar to a boil.
2) Reduce heat to a simmer.
3) Add remaining ingredients and reduce by 1/3.
4) Let cool. Drizzle alongside a slice of the tart.
Just for the sake of clarity: pink peppercorns are not really peppercorns, but are dried fruit — a sort of small berry that resembles a peppercorn. (As you can see, they are a really bright colour.) For the filling, the chef used a combination of the best Callebaut Belgian chocolate and chocolate chips. And, obviously, this doesn’t need four hours in the fridge to set — it was only about an hour and a half in our freezer and had set perfectly.