Jul 30, 2010

Come Drink The Wine

A recent exchange with performer Sharron Matthews for Love, Loss And What I Wore inspired a bevvy of ideas around the artform of cabaret. As she told me, cabaret is "a form of storytelling." I like the idea of sharing stories within a musical realm; it's something that my friends and colleagues at Givernation understand very well, in fact. Storytelling is, for many, central to one's experience of art itself.

Sharon performed her own cabaret shows at the Young Centre recently. The busy Toronto arts complex in the Distillery District has had a few solid nights of cabaret happening over the past few months. The Saturday Night Cabaret Series has featured performers Patricia O'Callaghan, DK Ibomeka, Heather Bambrick, Denzal Sinclaire, and Don Francks. Upcoming artists set to take part in the series include Elizabeth Shepherd, Mary Lou Fallis, and Micah Barnes.

It's an eclectic mix, to be sure, but one that underlines the importance of keeping the programming diverse and unpredictable -two things I feel are central to the artform of cabaret. I couldn't imagine week after week of crooners, soulsters, fiddlers, jazzsters, or divas. Mixing them up, however, produces just the right zesty flavour befitting a good, engaging music series devoted to the cabaret style.

In attending a few of the first shows this season, what struck me immediately was the intimacy: the gap between performer and audience member has never been so minimal. Cabarets are situated in the tiny, black-curtained Garland cabaret space where the close quarters of piano, bar, chairs, tables, and stage implies an immediacy you don't get in many other small, clubby spaces. The performers are very-nearly in the laps of the mainly silent, awe-struck audience. Musical styles run the gamut from German arthouse (O'Callaghan did portions of Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins) to sexy, soul (with Ibomeka using his enormously rich bass voice to full, spine-tingling effect on Cohen's "Hallelujah"). Again, diversity's the name of the game here, making for what I felt was a good, if occasionally challenging, listening experience. Cabaret isn't about making you comfortable however, and I was happy to have experienced that diversity, if only to expand my own knowledge and sonic repertoire.

Perhaps the most entertaining cabaret I attended was one that featured a gaggle of "roaring girls" -the Roaring Girl Cabaret, that is. With fiery fiddler and frontwoman Miranda Mulholland, the musically-tight band delivered a walloping blend of Celtic-meets-bluegrass-meets-nasty-blues-rock sass with attitude, aplomb, and plenty of good cheer. It was great to actually see Mulholland's eyes sparkle, and small mouth smirk as she delivered line after line of cheeky lyric, interspersing each with meandering if powerful East-Coast-violin sounds. At points she even vibed Nick Cave's dark-lord lyrics and style: quiet and poignant one moment, roaring and bombastic the next, it was thrilling to behold, and refreshing to see Mulholland go against the cute-girl stereotype others might put on her. Don't put this roaring girl in a box -she'll kick your ass. Seriously.

An evening at a Young Centre cabaret is to be transported to another time and place -not merely the "gold lame outfits"-type thing Sharon Matthews referred to -but one that exists entirely by you and for you, meticulously moulded and shaped by any given performer on any given Saturday. Each comes with their own stories -tales of heartbreak, triumph, of lives fully lived -but it's totally up to you, at evening's end, to choose what to take home. In my case, the doggie bag was full of goodies I'm still enjoying, many weeks later.

Cabaret, for me, isn't about being transported to "another time and place" as the old saying goes... it's about feeling, fully and entirely, grounded in the wonder of the present moment, with every passing note, crooned syllable and extended vowel. There's a story in every sound, the cabaret whispers, just sit still. You'll hear it.

Photos by Chung Wong
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Jul 27, 2010

Oooh-LaLa

I always enjoy sharing my special dining experiences online -I find the response, both here and in the real world, to be both inspiring and heartening. So I want to share the wonders of a recent visit to Restaurant Didier in Toronto. But a few caveats before we begin.

First, I am not the most dedicated fan of French food; in the past, I've found it too heavy, too rich, and just too filling for me. Also, it's really hard to reproduce at home. There's something satisfying about being able to whip up basic approximations of yummy past meals in the comfort of my own kitchen, but I've never been able to do that with any degree of success when it comes to French cuisine, which places it in the rarefied world of eat-once-a-year-and-don't-eat-for-a-week-after-ness. Meh. If I like something (or someone), I want it (or him) again and again and again. (And for the record, yes, I equate food and sex; sensuality is central to each, and to the enjoyment and celebration of life. See the Sex On A Plate post.)

Personally, I like food -and restaurant experiences overall -to be approachable, easy-going, pure, and unfussy. While I appreciate the art of molecular gastronomy, I can't get my head -or tastebuds -around it making for an all-around satisfying meal. French with touches of modern, however, is something I really love, especially if there's a light touch. Such is the case with Chef Didier Leroy. Dish after dish of amour pur emanate from his kitchen like pearls in a waterfall. and there's no need to feel intimidated; servers are happy to explain ingredients and method, suggest pairings, and Chef might even come out and chat when all is said and done. Bravo! The restaurant itself is located in midtown Toronto, away from the hub of the scenester-foodie carnival, where basics like service, knowledge, and attention to detail can sometimes get lost amid the buzzwords and well... the buzz. Restaurant Didier is refreshingly un-hipster-esque, but at the same time, is classy, casual, and yes, affordable.

Chef Leroy comes with credentials. He is a member of the Association Des Maitres-Cuisiniers De France and the Academic Culinaire De France. In 2007, he was awarded France's prestigious Medal of the Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite Agricole, one of the country's highest honours. Dating back to 1883, the Medal recognizes the services of individuals who have promoted French culture through their activities within the sphere of agriculture. Leroy worked in numerous Michelin-starred restaurants and has been a part of such fine establishments as Auberge Gavroche and The Fifth. Impressively, Chef Leroy has been the official Executive Chef for the French Embassy/Consulate General in Toronto since 1990. Not too shabby.

The night I went I enjoyed a prix fixe menu, which, at $50 for three courses, offered tremendous value considering a/ the quality of ingredients (everything is organic); b/ the care and respect with which those ingredients are treated; c/ the incredible degree of knowledge, service, and honesty from the RD staff. They'll steer you to the very-best wine pairings, any yummy accompaniments, and have an impeccable sense of timing, spacing out courses appropriately, and filling wine glasses at just the right times. And, of course, you're getting the work of a first-class chef too. Yum.

For my first course, I chose Salade de Betterace, Orange, Fromage De Chevre, a delicately-flavoured beet salad with tiny medallions of snowy goat cheese and orange segments, and topped with Ontario greens. The beets were sliced paper-thin and were tender but not floppy, the fork prongs easily impaling their moist, sweet flesh. The goat cheese was, thankfully, not fridge-cold, but just the right temperature for swirling along the beets & greens, or spreading onto the beautifully crusty baguette side with the succulent, juicy citrus fruit. I could've downed another plate of this luscious, jewel-like salad, really, but I was happy the first course -along with the others -were proportioned accordingly, with absolutely no weird food architecture.

My second course was Duck Confit. It did, in fact, come with a gorgeously-charred sweet potato-half tucked beneath the meat, but there was nothing sky-high about the presentation, or indeed, off-putting about it at all. Quite the opposite! Duck confit is one of those dishes I have once a year (if that), owing to its extreme caloric content. In truth, it was closer to two years since I'd had the dish, but .... goodness me, Chef's handling erased any negative past experiences entirely. It was, quite simply, the best duck confit I've ever had. Moist, if amazingly un-greasy morsels of tender meat, in a beautiful, rich-but-thin sauce that encircled the plate (with a just-so tender side of greens), each bite providing a pure, real connection to the bird and to the skill that so lovingly prepared it this way. Needless to say, I am now re-considering my once-a-year-only confit stance. Any increase might entail jogging home, however -or at least skipping dessert, which, on this night, was totally, wonderfully impossible.

Dessert was Trilogie De Chocolat Valrhona -or a chocolate trilogy, which consisted of layers of moist, ebullient bittersweet darkness. Runny, solid, soft -all the textures and flavours of this special, luscious treat were nestled together in one gorgeously posh, small portion. The level of detail was truly impresssive, with a lovely, subtle presentation and again, a just-right portion. The dessert -with a full-mouth flavour of rich cocoa, but without any cloying sugary qualities -paired beautifully with the 2005 Penfolds Grange wine my companion and I were enjoying the evening of our visit, and (as before, but in reverse) I would've gladly downed a few plate-fulls, were it not for the salade and confit that came before.

All in all, my visit to Restaurant Didier was a wondrously delicious experience. I happened to notice on the menus that the kitchen also caters to vegans and vegetarians, and offers a Chef's Tasting Menu for tables. Truly, something for everyone, but with a smart, stringent respect for the French culinary tradition -along with the quality of ingredients -that, in this world of over-saturated hype and wannabe-stars -is truly inspiring. I am now a confirmed French food fan, thanks to the masterful work of Chef Didier. Yes, I want to return soon. And I will.

A la prochaine!

Jul 26, 2010

Thank You, Amma

One week on from getting a hug and I’m still not sure what to make of it.

Amma, the famous Indian humanitarian and world-renowned hug-er, was holding court at a hotel ballroom last Monday. I have been following Amma’s work now for over a decade; her philanthropic activities, together with the mass affection with which she is greeted at every public opportunity, created a certain awe, as well as an intense curiosity. Impressive spiritual being or over-hyped New Age sort?

Prior to my hug, I recalled the amazing number of reports detailing her work from her home base in Kerala, India. I also remembered the reports of those who had come into contact with her -their sense of feeling strange, peaceful, and generally good after receiving one of her famous hugs. Amma has hugged hundreds of thousands of people; she showed no sign of letting up as she greeted the hundreds assembled to greet (and hug) her last week.

After being brief on the basics of receiving darshan and some simple instructions -”Take your shoes off / She doesn’t speak English / Follow me” -I was lead into a large ballroom full of people dressed in draping white, standing, sitting, swaying, and smiling. Old, young, brown, white, walking, disabled, scarred, spotless, men, women -differences and divisions ceased to matter. I suppose it was a perfect symbol of the universal appeal of Amma. Loud Indian music shot through the speakers, along with a video of Amma singing at a live concert. The whole thing had the feel of a Sunday morning at a gospel church, but with a hushed revery; it was celebratory and quietly joyous. There was little if any poe-faxed seriousness, and many of the people were happily sitting in silence, on chairs or on the floor. Some were meditating, palms up, others were just gently smiling, staring at nothing in particular, high on their own special kind of bliss.

Having been lead into a line near the front, I was told by an assistant to kneel on the floor and move forwards accordingly. Amma, smiling and occasionally chatting with one of her swamis, (who I later learned is a former Bollywood director), hugged couples, babies, families, and individuals, placing an apple, a rose petal, and a Hershey’s kiss into every person's palm as they left.

When it was my turn, I was struck by how physically small this big-hearted woman is. Seated on a small platform, my supplicant position was perfect for a literal, real meeting of hearts. Any initial awkwardness immediately melted away as I wrapped my arms around her waist and leaned my head on her chest. She said something in my ear a few times (“Madoola”), audibly but soothingly, as a swami uttered words I can only assume were part of the darshan. Amma held me a lot longer than I anticipated she might -there was such a long line of people waiting to see her -but I never felt rushed or anxious. Only comforted and totally accepted.

When we finally let go, we looked into each others' eyes and beamed. I was handed a huge red apple, along with a rose petal and my silver-foiled kiss. She gently closed my palm over the gifts and nodded at me. I got up. Tears suddenly came to my eyes, and I had no idea why. Perhaps it was the occasion, the music, the outpouring of adoration by so many who’d come and waited so long, maybe having waited so long myself ... to finally have that moment! Maybe it was the honest, open acceptance of Amma herself that moved me so deeply. Who knows? It was a inexplicable moment.

I held my apple for a long time, gently, letting it roll around my hand, letting Amma’s beautiful fragrance of rose petals and incense envelope me. I’ll always remember her embrace. I don’t know why, and I don’t know why I should feel so moved by this woman -but, to paraphrase Shakespeare, there are more things in the heavens than are dreamt of in philosophies, in reason, or in a world where everything requires explanations, reasoning, evidence, and rational thought. Sometimes the most meaningful experiences transcend language.


Jul 24, 2010

What She Wore

Clothing is a personal thing for many women. That material intimacy is something the Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron understand very well.

The award-winning duo, who've penned some of my favorite movies (including Nora's "When Harry Met Sally"), have brought their award-winning play Love, Loss, And What I Wore to Toronto. It runs at the cozy Panasonic Theatre through the end of the summer. A portion of ticket sales will, appropriately, benefit Dress For Success, a fantastic charity that provides professional services (including attire) to disadvantaged women. What a perfect fit.

The Ephrons' monologue-style play features a collection of stories that connect certain outfits with special, significant life moments. There's the story of wedding dresses, sexy boots, and the joys (or not) of purses, the challenges of mothers, the pangs of body types, and the perfection that is "BLLAAACK!". It's all melded together with happy/sad/bittersweet/funny flavours. Performers Andrea Martin, Mary Walsh, Louise Pitre, Sharron Matthews and Paula Brancati do a truly fantastic job of combining the happy and the sad with equal dollops of grace, charm, wit, and sensitivity.

I asked the Toronto-based actor and performer Sharron Matthews about her thoughts around clothing, creativity, and cabaret recently. She has a long history of performance, with everything from Les Miserables to Mean Girls on her resume, and is a positively radiant stage presence. Her responses are very enlightening and refreshingly honest. Enjoy.

Which aspects of Love, Loss, And What I Wore do you most relate to?

That is a hard question. Not because I don't feel like I relate, but because the things that I seem to relate to are a bit challenging for me to acknowledge. My first monologue is about a child losing a parent and when the material assignments were sent out I was hoping and dreading that I might get this piece. I lost my dad when I was very young and it had a huge impact on my family. I also talk a lot about my weight, now it fluctuates and how hard being a big girl can be. I was a bit nervous about doing these pieces as well but the more I read them the more I thought, "Well, these are truthful and this a group of women that needs to be represented in fabulousness as well as in hardship."

Why do you think so many women associate clothing with other things? Do you think women are more prone to association (& connection) than men?

I think that women are more 'collectors' then men are: (of) shoes, jackets, purses. Men don't have as many accessories as we do, as a rule. Some of us have closets that are like art galleries... I know I do... featuring shoe boxes with pictures of the shoes on them. And yes, I do think we are more prone to association and connection. We are also, for the most part, more sentimental. We see "a shirt that a wore on my first job interview, the day I was hired to begin my career"...and men see a shirt. I think that it can be a sensual thing, the feel of a fabric or the smell but is also a sense-memory thing... we feel something and we sometimes be in that place again... recalling our emotions.

How much has your other work, specifically in TV and film, has been useful in doing the Ephrons' work?

Though I have worked in TV and film -of course not as much as Paula, Mary and Andrea -I think that my work in cabaret, as a storyteller has been my greatest asset with the stories in Love, Loss And What I Wore. I feel right at home in this piece. The audience is present and a part of the piece and the stories are brief... like a song.

Define 'cabaret' as it is, now. What does it mean to you? What do you think it means to audiences of the 21st century?

I went online to look for some definitions of cabaret. They are all very dry and general: "a form of entertainment featuring comedy, song, dance, and theatre, distinguished mainly by the performance venue." I recently did a cabaret that was a part of the Young Centre's Saturday Night Cabaret Series and (their) description is one of my favourites: ''Cabaret is a combination of intimacy, personality, and social contact."

So my definition of cabaret is a evening of musical storytelling including themes that are universal and accessible, but challenging at the same time. I love cabaret. It is the way I best feel (able to) express myself and really explore my creativity and my artistic voice.

I also think that cabaret can be performed "intimately" in a huge theatre. (It) is an art form that is not fully recognized in Canada.

To some, the word 'cabaret' conjures up images of singers belting out "My Way" in gold lame outfits . I am slowly trying to change that perception. I believe that cabaret is a journey, not the picture I just described. It is a form of storytelling to me. A way of breaking down the fourth wall an reaching out to people.

Stage or screen -what's your favorite?

Having done screen work, I have a huge respect for people who work in film and TV day in and day out. Film acting is a true skill and the people who do it well are artists as well as technicians. I enjoy the spontaneity that is the stage. It is so live in front of an audience and you can never be totally sure what is going to happen. I like to feel an immediate response to what I do... it fuels me to move forwards. I love the stage.

Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Jul 6, 2010

Local Chef


Further to my last post, I'm pleased to present my chat with Chef Trevor Middleton, who's with The Local Company in Toronto. I think you'll find his thoughts on food, presentation, and the cultivation of relationships enlightening. Does it get my any closer to defining what "local" means in this day and age? Yes and no. See for yourself.

How would you describe yourself?

I'm a moody bastard.

Where do you source your meat?

It all comes from The Butcher Shoppe. All the meat coming through (there), you have a guarantee -you know it's Canadian.

The biggest challenge has been getting set up with (local producers).

What about dairy?

I'll use Mr. Dairy -they source Canadian -but I will also source artisanal stuff, like Quebec organic. And I'll also use stuff from the street (Danforth Avenue). Sysco is a major supplier to all the restaurants. You have to use it -but I only spend about $500 a week with Sysco, whereas I spend $1400 or $1500 everywhere else. There's a local market near here, a village market, and I drop $60-$100 a day there.

How does the word "local" relate to what you do?

It's a conceptualized name, meant to be a local restaurant, more local to the Danforth. The food philosophy side came with me -this comes from my love and intimacy with food. I've done enough fine dining, ... (to know) I don't want run-of-the-mill. I don't ever want to be known for pretty food; I want a wonderful experience. I want to feel good about myself and what I ate.

A lot of this goes to my childhood. I was raised poor and with Crohn's disease, and I was always hungry. Because of my own disease, I have to make it work for me, I can't use garbage. Anything processed makes me sick, and it'll make you sick along the way too.

What is your ultimate ambition?

My end goal is to teach. I want to be teaching culinary arts within five years. Part of it is, i have a gift with mentoring the young, and taking in lost souls. If you've got it together, don't talk to me. I want someone who's a f*ck-up, that's how I heal myself. My former dishwasher is a young man most thought was autistic, and I found out it's just social anxiety. No one would let him do anything but wash dishes; now he cooks every dish on the menu. He doesn't have a high school diploma, though I have him enrolled in George Brown as a mature student. He carries that passion for food through his life now.

What do you think of sensuality as it relates to the restaurant experience?

When I worked at The Boilerhouse, they had beautiful food, wonderful execution, they were the best of the best. They had high-level chefs too, but I noticed one thing within a few months, something they tried to beat out of me: they take the rustic-ness out of food. They wanted perfectly trained-out stuff. I want chunks, not perfection. Restaurants take the technique part too far; they forget food is a living thing, that it's natural, just because it has to be pretty. i think a lot of newer chefs are in a backlash, so now there's more comfy food again.

What's the end goal, for you, as a chef?

It's morphing. At the beginning, it's like everyone: you want to be a superstar. But really, the greatest experience is to sit down, invite people to have a glass of wine, a good meal, and talk. Dining isn't just about food, it's about how you interact - how you interact with your world, your surroundings. I'd rather be known as someone who cooks plain, simple food, more than anything else.

Do you know the people you buy from?

I do. If I don't come in, they go, "where have you been?" One Asian lady at the local market, she and her husband always joke with me. Once a week, because of the nature of our relations, they'll give me a care package to take back to kitchen, I have friendly relationships with local people. There are no pretensions. But I lament not being able to drive hours out to food sources. In the past, I ordered from Echo Bay -they provide grass-fed organic beef -but that means I have to charge more, and when I do, people (customers) complain.

What's a chef's job?

To engender respect for agriculture. If i can't get organic, there are companies that have ethical way of doing business. I don't want the fancy stuff if it's not harvested ethically or sustainably.

Jul 3, 2010

Local or "Local"?

Ironically or not, the term "local" has come to mean a number of things, especially when it comes to food. The word "local" is generally defined as "close by" -but in what context? And to whom?

I pondered these definitions as I took a gander recently to a farmers' market near to where I grew up. Only one -yes, one -producer had a sign up stating where their veg & fruit comes from: Clement Farms, in Newcastle.

"I'm really glad you have that up," I remarked to an individual guarding the cherries.

"What do you mean?" he inquired.

"Well... " I hesitated, worried I might sound snobbish, "aren't farmers' markets supposed to be local?"

"I guess..."

I walked around the rows of farmers and their goods, and the whole thing struck me more as an exercise in feel-good-ism than a chance to educate people about food issues. I want my farmers' market to be more than an outdoor produce section, and this one isn't. It isn't difficult to find eager local producers to be part of the market, either -numerous food groups exist and maintain active websites and online presences. Maybe I've been spoiled by better markets with more conscientious farmers, artisanal food producers, and super-cool suppliers.

Having bought potatoes, tomatoes, & the last of this year's asparagus (the latter proved perfect for soup) along with cherries from Niagara (which, taste and texture-wise, definitely beat those horrible woody things from California), I walked off still thinking hard about what local means, and whether caring about its definition is the oeuvre of food snobs, or good, simple common sense.

This internal debate about "local" came up a while ago, when I had a beautiful dinner at a restaurant located in the eastern end of Toronto. The gorgeous, white-and-wood-toned room is not exactly in the most culinary astute of areas; it's located in what we Torontonians call Greektown, meaning there's lots of souvlaki, dolmades, and flaming feta to be had. That stretch of Danforth Avenue has experienced a kind of renaissance the last few years, as other cultural tastes moved in -you can find Thai, Indian, and vegetarian restos along with the Greek stand-byes. But fine(ish) dining, with a big dollop of Locavore? Not so much. Not until The Local Company.

From the looks of their Facebook page, it's being promoted more as a Danforth party spot than a place you'd go for a fine, inspiring meal. But that's just what a companion and I enjoyed a few weeks back. I wrote a review if you're curious about the meal details. (Addendum to that: I still dream about the flavourful goat cheese appetizer and the moist deliciousness of the chicken main.) Tomorrow, I'm posting my interview with The Local Company's chef Trevor Middleton. I think his answers will surprise and delight. That definition of "local" means a lot of things to him, mainly involving the cultivation of relationships in the immediate community, which is certainly refreshing to hear in this age of TV-star chefs and kitchen egos.

I'm still not sure what "local" means, or why it has to mean so many things to so many people, or why it's so hard to find actual, local food in outlying areas. I'll post more thoughts on this in the coming weeks, including Chef Jamie Kennedy's reactions when I asked him about it on the radio recently. In the meantime, look out for the chat with Chef Middleton a demain.

In the meantime, have a delicious Monday.