Fearless in the kitchen

One of Canada's most celebrated chefs stressed simplicity in the kitchen

Christine Cushing—host of a self-titled show on the Food Network, author of Fearless in the Kitchen and Dish it Out! , and spokesperson of Cook for the Cure a breast cancer donation program—teaches viewers to be fearless in the kitchen. It was her own fearlessness that earned her a career in cooking, as well as a plum spot as host on Dish it out in 1998. Now, she is one of Canada’s most celebrated chefs, stressing simplicity in the art of cooking.

KB: It seems you’ve been a tenacious cook since you were quite young. What drew you to express yourself through food?
CC: Ever since I could walk, I was drawn to the kitchen. My father had the same predisposition. He didn’t follow a career in food, although he did work in a kitchen in Switzerland when he was quite young. And he was an incredible home cook. He was always very committed.

KB: What is your father’s cooking style?
CC: He’s erratic and reckless. He can’t bake to save his life because he’s just not accurate—nothing is measured—he works by feeling. He was always experimental. He was raised in Cairo and lived in Paris and all over the world, so his food experience is European broad-based. He makes the best moussaka (eggplant, layered with béchamel on top and pastitsio) I’ve ever had in my life. He sort of experimented with it and took it to a whole other level. Now, whenever we have a family gathering, my father can’t not make it because we all freak out.

KB: I like the message you impart on your show and in your books: that food can be exciting and relatively simple to make. What do you consider when you approach the creation of a recipe?
CC: Simplicity has certainly has become a mainstay in everything I do. If a recipe becomes too complex, it’s just not going to work. I start with a process. Maybe I’d like to pan sear or roast something; then I decide what part of the world I want to take it to. For example, mussels: I love to make mussels. Last week I went to the store and got some mussels. I got home and thought, ‘Hmmm what am I in the mood for? I feel like Thai.’ So I created them in an interesting way: a little bit of white wine, some lemongrass; I added some chili paste, some coconut milk. Literally, in about 20 minutes, I had these beautiful steamed mussels.

Of course, there are times when I want to do something very impressive. For instance, once I wanted to re-create Babette’s feast. But that’s just on New Year’s Eve or something very special. Other than that, I love simplicity. I also love to be excited about cooking.

KB: Do you have a family in Toronto, and do you test your recipes out on them?
CC: Always, always, always. Testing the recipe is a really big part of it. My family has become the focus groups, the audience or the eventual home cook who’s going to try to replicate the recipe. I try to always remember that, because I realize that I’m not the average person. In a sense I have to put two hats on—I have to think like the chef preparing things, but then also about the ease of preparation and how someone else will interpret it.

I’m really big on interpretation—when I give somebody a recipe, I want it to be a guideline. Speaking again about the mussels, I’ve used lemon coconut and ginger; but if you want to use lime leaves, a little less ginger, and add some chilies, it’s not going to be the end of the world. It gives people a little more ownership of what they are doing. You’re not just replicating the same thing over and over—you’re understanding what the ingredients do.

KB: I guess this is dependant largely on the individual’s personality.
CC: It’s amazing how people completely differ in terms of their cooking personality—and it’s a hard thing to change. So I try to give them tips: stick with basics. I understand that—especially if people don’t have a sense of how good they are in the kitchen—they don’t want to take as many chances. I think with some people it’s in their personality—everything must be measured precisely.

KB: Do your friends and family like to cook for you, or do they feel intimidated?
CC: They definitely feel a bit intimidated, but friends who know me know that I’m not a critical person, especially on the home front. I just love the fact that somebody would like to cook for me. I think a lot of chefs are like that.

At least once or twice a week, I go to my parents’ place so that we can cook and eat together. My mom will ask me, “What would you like to eat?” She’ll prepare it and I’ll make a salad or help in some way. The meal is always very simple. My mother puts a lot of love into what she does. She’s very inspired.

KB: Does she use your cookbook?
CC: She doesn’t. She’s more into techniques. But she listens to things and says, “Okay, what do you think I should do here?” She’s improved her cooking hugely.

KB: Are there ever times when you don’t feel like cooking?
CC: Without a doubt. When I’m doing the show it’s pretty daunting, because every day I’m either buying food, testing a recipe, or cooking a dish on the show. It become difficult to maintain that kind of zeal. I always love the cooking and the food, but it can be exhausting after a while.

KB: How do you maintain your inspiration?
CC: If I feel that I’m getting to that burnt-out stage, I try to step away from it for a bit. I don’t write any recipes, analyze what’s going on, or watch the show…And then, with a bit of distance, I become re-energized. Travelling also allows me to look at what’s happening in other parts of the country or the world. And I’m always reminded that Toronto is such an amazing city, and how lucky I feel to be apart of the culinary scene here. There’s so much diversity. There are so many ingredients at your fingertips. In my neighborhood, I can get ten different ethnicities within two miles. Not only that, I can go to the Iranian store and get this beautiful flatbread that comes right out of the wood burning oven, fresh pitas, and yogurt that they’ve just pressed—it’s very inspiring.

KB: What’s your favourite travel destination?
CC: It’s a tie between Australia and France. I’ve had some of the most amazing food of my life in both places. Also, France—because I went to culinary school in Paris—it is very dear to my heart.

KB: What’s your favourite way to unwind?
CC: Definitely watching hockey, walking or riding my bike and watching movies.

KB: Do you have a favourite food-related film?
CC: Without a doubt, Babette’s Feast! My second choice would be The Big Night.

KB: What’s your favourite comfort food?
CC: Anything brazed—I love lamb shanks, veal Osso buco. There is another thing that I love that reminds me of being a child—that’s ouzo. In Greece ouzo is a mainstay, we use it in so many different ways. I always have some stock in my freezer and ouzo in my cupboard. I cook it like I would risotto, like pilaf: I put the broth in with some seasoning, some fresh herbs, maybe some shallots and garlic and olive oil, and bring it to a boil; then I put the ouzo in and let the moisture evaporate. And I actually don’t strain it—so you get this beautiful, creamy, risotto-like texture.

KB: I love the title of your latest book: Fearless in the Kitchen. It speaks about the types of cooking personalities people have. For someone who is not fearless, what would you suggest?
CC: I definitely suggest making small steps. Small steps can lead to huge leaps and bounds in the end. I tell people to try the recipe in the book, and once they become comfortable with it, read the chapters that outline what different ingredients do. It’s easy for me to say, “Do what comes naturally,” but I’m a chef. So I try to provide as much information as possible, so that they can take the right steps—little things that will change the complexion of a dish immensely, but not change the technique.