The Creative Possibility

Last week I explored my own relationship with food, focusing specifically on the emotional aspects of eating and dining, and since then have found myself frequently returning to these themes and thinking about what food means to me. Perhaps it’s this focus that motivated me to finally sit down and watch the Netflix series Chef’s Table on Sunday afternoon after I had finished my chores and discovered it was too hot to take the dogs out.

Each episode in the six part series profiles a different world-renowned and well respected chef, and is designed to highlight the innovation and dedication required in this line of work. The episodes follow a similar format featuring interviews with the subject and members of their inner circle, allowing viewers an opportunity to learn more about the chef’s origin stories and motivation. The camera work is slick and everything is lavishly presented, making it easily consumable. Admittedly I could have watched the entire series in one sitting, however, at 50 minutes a piece, I restricted myself to watching three episodes since laying on the sofa for any more time seemed excessive, even by my standards. While some may argue that the series falls into the trappings of an elitist foodie culture or contributes to the myth-making tendencies that propel chefs to superhero status, I thought it was insightful, although I might not agree with everything that was said. What I found to be fascinating in the three episodes I watched was the recurrence of certain themes: the constant fear of failure in creative endeavours, food’s ability to evoke memory and emotion, and learning to adapt to make the best of what you have – and it is the last point to which I would like to speak.

Adaptation and creativity is built into the series’ narrative and each of the chefs profiled discuss, to a certain extent, the importance of working with what you have. When boundaries are set and restrictions made, it is within those confines that creativity begins to emerge. This means different things to different people but here are a selection of the more memorable examples: for Massimo Bottura it meant developing a risotto recipe in the wake of a destructive 2012 earthquake; for Dan Barber it’s seeking the best seasonal ingredients for his farm to table restaurants; and to Francis Mallmann that means remaining true to the spirit that guides him, which is a fairly broad term. For the lay person and home cooks we may not be guided by these dramatic scenarios but I think the principle of creativity emerging from within set parameters holds true. These boundaries may take the form of time restrictions (preparing meals after a full day’s work), finances, or even more simply, the availability of certain ingredients but learning to be adaptive is an important virtue, especially when eating well.

When I say “eat well,” I’m not suggesting that we should all whip five-course gourmet meals using artisanal, local and organic ingredients at the drop of a hat; there are so many expectations that we need to live up to, if only for ourselves, we don’t need anymore added stress. Also, I get it, at the end of a long day, sometimes you don’t feel like cooking (and this is coming from someone that doesn’t even have kids) – there are days when ordering a pizza is the easier option, if only for your sanity – but when we can, we should strive to make healthy choices.

A lot of being able to create meals at home comes from preparation and what you choose to stock your pantry with depends on your diet looks like – there’s no point in having a huge selection of extra virgin olive oil, even with all its health benefits, if you’re never going to use it – and these choices are going to differ from one household to the next. D and I have been living together for awhile but even now we’re finding that our pantry is changing and adapting to our lifestyle.

Another component of eating well is using the best of what you can get and I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to do this is by purchasing fruits and vegetables that are in season. While I’m certain this isn’t groundbreaking news for anyone, by adhering to a largely seasonal diet – understanding that not everything is available all the time – I’ve found that not only does the food taste better but it also encourages me to try new things, which was confirmed to me through a half pint of raspberries.

Two weeks ago when I went on the Hamilton Farm Crawl it became apparent how little I knew about agriculture, which is why I had such a great time talking to people who DID know. On the last stop of our tour at Lotsa Hostas/Jerry’s Berries, we had the pleasure of bumping into the owner after we had picked our half pints of berries and in talking to him, we learned that the crawl was perfectly timed this year. The raspberry vines were fruiting so quickly that they could barely keep up and the berries needed to be picked quickly because they were coming very close to their peak. The flavour of the berries was intense and a nice balance between sweet and tart, proving to be exceptionally delicious to the point that my husband and our friend ended up eating their pickings even before we got home. For me, I was able to resist for a little while and for the next few days I had the privilege of enjoying these perfect ruby red gems as part of my breakfast, incorporated into salads, as well as with my yogurt and on top of ice cream.

Since then, in an attempt to continue with this practice of eating seasonally I’ve begun to refer to this – the Ontario availability guide which is an easy to use resource. Of course, even without the guide it’s fairly simple to discover what is or is not in season but having the guide does help, especially with produce I’m not all that familiar with like artichoke and eggplant, which are both coming into season. Since I rarely prepare either of those vegetables, I’m challenging myself to use both next month since they should be fairly available and at their prime, so if you have any favourite recipes involving either, I’d love to hear! I’m sure there will be a lot of researching and disasters in the future but I’m also hoping for creative opportunities and delicious discoveries.

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