Chef Minds: Bryan Lavery
Bryan Lavery shared with Forest City Cookbook some insights of what it means to be in the culinary world and what is it that keeps the flame and passion alive!
What is your idea of a perfect restaurant?
We are living through a gastronomic renaissance and more than ever my work puts me in front of the orthodoxy of local food sourcing, business incubators, and food entrepreneurs advancing innovation and regionalism in our food culture. I can’t help but be enthralled by restaurateurs and chefs that support farmers and food artisans and pay close attention to the provenance and quality of their ingredients. When I go out to eat, I am more attracted to restaurants that genuinely champion farmers, small-scale producers and food artisans, by procuring products and featuring local ingredients that are responsibly sourced and presented innovatively. A perfect restaurant comprises these attributes and treats their staff with dignity and integrity. Restaurateurs and chefs opening new restos often have little money to spend on comfy chairs and spacious tables and good cutlery and glassware. It is important to remember that these types of material comforts contribute to our well-being and are important to many diners' perception of a perfect restaurant. I know from my experience as a restaurateur, perfection in the restaurant business is elusive, if not non-existent.
What is your biggest fear at work?
As a food writer, culinary ambassador and advocate my biggest concern is whether or not I am bringing enough appreciation and sensibility to the table. As I have said in the past, food media are necessary members of the culinary community. Like any thoughtful patron, I hope that I continually bring thoughtfulness and connoisseurship to the culinary narrative without too much hyperbole. But the food media’s mission goes beyond that. We must pass our unbiased impressions on to the readers while alerting the dining public to the diversity of choice on the culinary scene. Good reporting furnishes you with enough information and insight to enable you to make informed decisions, while helping to arbitrate the standards of dining out. If you don’t have a good, strong food media with an educated palate, whether you love them or despise them—you don’t have the same degree of interest, enthusiasm and accountability in the local food culture. I fear a lack of accountability by so-called food critics. Inadvertently insulting customs and cuisine that you don't understand is offensive. Even a novice should meet certain journalistic standards when reviewing a restaurant. The credible restaurant reviewer can't simply be a euphoric advocate either, someone whose adulation for a restaurant or a chef is reduced to innocuous platitudes. The intelligent negative review has its own merits. I fear that we are moving away from credibility, objectivity and professionalism now that everyone can pose as a food reviewer.
Which still working Chef Do you most respect?
This question is too arbitrary. There are too many long-time chefs working in different areas in the profession to just single out just one. For starters, Jacquie Shantz, Barbara Bandeen Toomer, Steve James, David Chapman, Chris Squire, Kristian Crossen, Andrew Wolwowicz, T.G. Haile and Danijel Dacha Markovic. But there are many more who have been toiling in the trenches for decades with little or no recognition that have my deep respect.
What part of work ‘you’ do you most deplore in yourself?
Deplore is a strong word. It would have to be pride, impatience or stubbornness. They can also be turned on their head and seen as attributes in the right situations.
What was your most extravagant purchase for your restaurant?
What is your favourite food journey?
Trips to Italy have been among my favourite food journeys. It was on the streets of Rome where I first encountered giant turtles fated for soup pots, wild game, and a variety of unusual feathered birds. I enjoyed scouting the open-air food markets in Pisa and Florence and the Rialto market on Venice’s Canal Grande. The outdoor Italian markets have been my nirvana, with abundant varieties of fresh and saltwater fish and shellfish, and the night markets piled high with seasonal ingredients, fresh fungi and obscure local cheeses. Highlights included eating cheese made from the lining of a goat’s stomach to dining in a chic restaurant built inside an ancient cistern near the top of the Apennines in Ovindali. That meal was comprised of many courses with truffled pasta dishes being the centerpiece. The pungent earthy aroma of truffles and their intoxicating flavour infused many meals, elevating them to gastronomic splendour. On these food journeys I have dined in a series of exquisite restaurants in Emilia-Romagna, each one eclipsing the last. We experienced the legendary hospitality of the Abruzzi kitchen in ancient hillside homes. I sampled the sweet, traditional elixir of balsamico in Modena and watched Parmigiano-Reggiano being crafted. In the hospitable mountain village of Celano in Abruzzo, we were instructed in the proper making of amoretti. In Cesena in Emilia-Romagna, I learned how to make strozzapretti (priest-stranglers) and a proper Bolognese. We watched coat-shorn truffle hunting dogs ply their trade and toured terraced gardens spiralled with fruit trees while sampling fresh green almonds. I witnessed “culotello” the king of pork meat being perfected. We toured the attics of former fishers’ homes beside the Po River where it is stored and cured. It is only there; due to the micro-climate that culotello can reach perfection…
What words/phrases do you most overuse at work?
When I am writing I now consciously try to avoid certain words like:very, rather, really, quite, so, of course, and, in fact. Buzz words like authentic, artisanal and small batch that sometimes confer unwarranted credibility.
What do you regret most after all your years in the business?
I have few regrets. I have been fortunate to have a rewarding career in the culinary arts and am have been thankful to be associated with establishing, owning or in partnership with many great restaurants, food businesses and people that became a way of life but more importantly an ideology that has sustained my work. It is a privilege to be able to work at something you feel passionate about.
What do you love most about this industry?
I love the fact that new restaurant concepts are shedding everything that is superfluous and ingrained about guests’ dining perceptions. What’s left is understated and confident, genuinely hospitable and fueled with the life blood of culinary skill, craftsmanship and authenticity. We are living in an age when pioneering chefs wield unprecedented influence, and some of the most innovative among them are finding original ways to utilize unfamiliar and largely neglected ingredients, techniques and traditions.
What is your current state of mind?
If you could change anything about the restaurant industry, what would it be?
I will not knowingly support a business that is antithetical to my core principles. Historically there has been a significant wage inequality, and substantial occupational segregation, by both gender and race in the restaurant business. There was, and continues to be, a profound connection between misogyny and homophobia in the restaurant culture. Everyone needs and is entitled to equal protections in the workplace. In the last few months, another reason to boycott chefs and restaurants has surfaced—more precisely, accusations of abuse, misogyny, homophobia and sexual harassment. And this needs to change now.
Another hot topic is the need to educate and encourage businesses to re-evaluate how they function in the light of long overdue but recent increases to the minimum wage. If an inexpensive meal in a restaurant can only be provided on the backs of people slaving away in the kitchen for next to nothing, you should be patronizing a restaurant that charges enough to sustain their employees with a living wage. Restaurants employ more than 1.2 million people in Canada, and many work at or close to minimum wage, as do the 500,000 employed in food retail. Patrons should not dine out at the expense of the disenfranchised.
I would like to see restaurants return to training their staffs properly. It is fiscally responsible to make the investment to train workers properly. Being a dedicated food professional requires on-going education, mentorship and connoisseurship.
What do you consider your most essential ingredient?
What is your most treasured culinary/kitchen tool?
A sharp Wusthof knife.
What do you consider as the lowest depth of misery?
When you finally retire, were will you live?
I do not see the point in retiring.
What is your most marked characteristic?
What is the quality you most like in a chef?
What is your greatest inspiration/motivation?
Superman or batman or Wonder Woman?
What is the first thing you remember cooking?
When I was thirteen, my parents purchased an old cast iron, wood-burning stove at a farm sale auction that had to be moved on a flat-bed pulled by a tractor. The stove was connected by a stove pipe to a temperamental flue that vented the smoke outside. The stove was both a heat source and cooker and would rarely burn unattended for more than a couple of hours. If the embers were allowed to extinguish no amount of stoking, bellows work or fanning with a newspaper would resuscitate the fire. It was on this volatile stove that I began to perfect my baking skills aided by a dog-eared cookbook and a recipe for tea biscuits. If memory serves, I mastered the peanut butter cookie earlier than the tea biscuit.
Neil Young or Tragically Hip?
Favourite kitchen word or phrase?