What can I say that hasn’t already been covered, talked about or asked? So much is happening, the landscape literally changes by the hour; as do the rules of engagement for businesses allowed to stay open. We are living in unprecedented times and the already heavily flawed restaurant industry as we know it is at risk of extinction.
Where does a part-time local food columnist begin? How could I possibly add to the incredible amount of content being created and consumed daily by a society under lockdown? I’ll start by doing what I always do: telling you my story of working from quarantine, elaborating on the fear of operating a business in a time of crisis.
You may or may not know, but in addition to being a mediocre writer, I also operate a small restaurant group. Four restaurants, one event space, three stalls at the beautiful St. Jacobs Farmers Market, one bakery, a commercial salads division, a butcher shop and what was a thriving catering division.
A mom-and-pop shop started 12-years-ago, grown to employ as many as 230 hardworking industry professionals. In as few as 14 days, that number has been reduced to less than 25.
I was in Hawaii on March 12, the day the NHL suspended the season, not to be too cliche but for me, that’s the day burned in my memory, the day everything shit all over itself. NBA was the day before, Disney World would follow, then Disneyland, schools and parks. From the 12th on, trying to stay on top of the cancellations and shutdowns was like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose.
There I was, several days into our first trip in six years. Departing Canada, it felt like everything was relatively ok, and just a few days later it was obvious we should not have left. I was 7,308 km away from the job and in a matter of days a business born out of sketches in a notepad 20-years-ago was a mere fragment of what we’d left behind.
Before the first week of our vacation was over the news was bleak. Even on the island the reality was sinking in, and the coming days would see our Prime Minister urging us to come home. Before we could react, our flights were cancelled and from the edge of the world in a sleepy town in Hawaii, we found ourselves scrambling to find the next available flight home. Cutting a bucket list trip short and launching us back into reality — like vomit into an airplane bag.
It feels really weird to have left home with life rolling along as normal only to come back to an all-new set of rules.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that this would be our reality in such a short span of time. I mean, I always assumed we could lose it all — I think every honest entrepreneur does — but this nightmare quickly unfolding before our eyes was not something I could have ever predicted.
I feel a sense of helplessness and a sense of guilt, as many of my counterparts likely do as well.
Helplessness is not within my comfort zone.
I was drawn to being a chef and restaurateur because I love leading. I love being at the helm during moments of crisis. Don’t get me wrong, I would never ask for a crisis, but every leader loves to be present when quick thinking and solid leadership can save the day.
Now I’m at home under self-quarantine while the business Nat and I started is teetering on the brink of oblivion.
I am a professional chef as are thousands of talented and hardworking 519’ers. All we have ever wanted was a hungry audience to feed and share our passion with and maybe earn a little money as we go. All that is in jeopardy for the foreseeable future, but I am in love with what my peers are doing to survive. I have so much excitement to watch and join the innovators among us!
Coming Home to the Family Table
For me, a chef and a stress eater, a big part of feeling ok are the rituals of eating and breaking bread with family. Resetting the table is an analogy for resetting your mental state. One such ritual that has become such a staple in our family life at home is a simple spaghetti.
Natalie, my wife, partner in everything I’ve done and loving mother to our children, is the rock in our family garden. She, without fail, will make her famous ‘coming home’ spaghetti upon returning from any family trip away longer than a weekend. It’s a family tradition and favourite among the four of us.
It’s not the best recipe from her repertoire since she is an amazing cook, but it’s damn good and Mar. 23, was the best it ever ever tasted. Her simple, delicious food triggered a sense of safety and calm while filling our bellies.
A thousand 5 star reviews wouldn’t satisfy the jealousy I have for her ability to deliver that feeling in a bowl — that’s the true magic of the ritual.
Food heals. It distracts and nourishes and I’m looking forward to continuing to explore that concept during these strange new times.
Nat’s Simple Spaghetti
Nat’s simple dish of spaghetti, tomato sauce, boiled eggs and garlic toast is often accompanied by ‘Parker Pickles,’ a side dish of cucumbers my own mother made anytime we needed a quick healthy snack. This is exactly what we ate the night we got back from Hawaii and it couldn’t have been a more soul satisfying moment to have us all in the safety of our home. After a long day of travelling, you could feel the stress melting away in all of us, our kids especially.
Whole canned tomatoes
The key to this meal is it can be whipped up in the time it takes to unpack the car and get the laundry started.
Start off with putting a couple pots on the stove, one for the pasta and one for the sauce. Heavily salt the water and add a splash of oil and then get to the sauce.
In a heavy-bottomed sauce pot start with olive oil, bay leaf, onion and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and begin to sweat the ingredients. If you are adding bacon, now is the time and work it into the onions but hold back some olive oil.
Once the onions have turned translucent, you are ready to add the tomatoes. We always use whole canned and puree them ourselves — whole canned are always a better tomato than diced or pureed, so I recommend this small step for a better sauce.
A you add the tomatoes it’s basically just simmer and season and it’s pretty much ready to serve.
To serve, toss the cooked pasta in some olive oil and set aside. Slice two boiled eggs and season with olive oil, salt, pepper and parsley. Now let everyone build their own plate, topping the pasta with sauce and then eggs, chili flakes. Parmesan cheese should be nearby, as well as additional olive oil.
Parker Pickles Recipe
These are from my childhood. My mom is also an amazing cook, and while she has dozens of more brag-worthy recipes and dishes, this one may be one of the family favourites. It’s dead simple and gets the kids eating veggies before dinner hits the table.
The secret to using the pickles is having them on the counter as dinner is being made — that way all the snacky snackers will nibble on them filling up a bit before carb overload! My mom always did this when I was a kid, and we’d often scarf the bowl back before dinner was served.
White vinegar (don’t try and chef this up with better vinegar you need the harshness of high acid white vinegar)
So, complicated stuff here. Wash, peel (if you’re into that) and slice the cucumbers into coin shapes. Toss with salt and almost swim them in white vinegar. So recap, cucumber, salt, vinegar. Go get em iron chef!
Nick Benninger is a local chef and restaurant owner.