Too many cooks? Not at all—Amy Rosen gets Toronto's superstar chefs to share their secrets.
“When you write about food, those are your best stories.” For Amy Rosen, hearing those words from her editors changed her life. About 12 years ago, she switched from focusing on lifestyle trends to writing just about food. Already a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu school in Ottawa, and armed with a graduate degree in journalism from the University of King’s College in Halifax, Rosen thought focusing on food would make her writing outlets disappear. She was wrong. In her first year, she doubled her income, and now she contributes to enRoute magazine, the LCBO’s Food & Drink magazine, the National Post, and more.
Her most recent project is 2014’s Toronto Cooks, a love letter to Toronto’s growing culinary scene. It showcases 48 chefs, including local legends like Dufflet Rosenberg and undeniable taste-makers like Parts & Labour’s Matty Matheson. Their collection of 100 recipes runs the gamut from donuts to pad thai, and brawny burgers to delicate ceviche. “I wanted recipes that people can execute, and that they will execute,” Rosen said. “My biggest passion is getting people to cook at home.”
Our interview with Rosen—about the value of travel, the impossibility of scheduling a five-day photo shoot, and reflecting Toronto’s diversity in a cookbook—is below.
Torontoist: What prompted the creation of the Toronto Cooks cookbook?
Amy Rosen: I had a new publisher out west, and they had done Vancouver Cooks a decade ago, and he thought the same could work in Toronto. But Vancouver Cooks, which I owned, was the opposite of the book I would want to do. It sold really well, but it was sort of old-fashioned. It was everyone in their starched whites, food plated high, and nothing achievable at home. Each recipe was four pages long. I said, “Now is Toronto’s time, and thanks for coming to me, but I’ll do this if we make it the opposite of what Vancouver Cooks was.” Let it be known that this is what the Toronto food scene is today. I wanted chefs in their street clothes. I knew there would be burgers. I wanted it to be a well-used, dog-eared, stained cookbook. I wanted people to make the recipes that they eat at their favourite restaurants at home. The publisher said yes to everything, and it really was the best-case scenario.
What was it like trying to wrangle 50 chefs, their recipes, and photo shoots, all on a deadline?
My first choice of photographer was Ryan [Szulc], and he agreed to it if we could shoot everyone in five days. I was like, “Impossible.” This is how it worked out: for five days, every 45 minutes a new chef would show up with their components ready. They would finish cooking their dishes on-site. The food prop stylist would set up. They would plate their own dishes. There was a five-minute portrait. And then the next chef would come through the door. It was every 45 minutes for five days straight. They hired someone else to schedule it. I would do everything else for this book, but I would not schedule that. There were some problems: one guy showed up without his food, but he had a restaurant right around the corner, so he just went there, grabbed the components, and it worked out.
For the recipes, I asked for the two recipes that they thought represented their restaurant best, that they thought people could achieve at home. No fancy equipment, but if you had to go to a specialty store for certain ingredients, that was fine. I asked them to test the recipes at home, using at-home measurements, in their own kitchen. I don’t want their sous-chefs doing this. I said, “Get a pen, write it out.” It worked out to a pretty even split between appetizers, main courses, and desserts, which made me so happy. What I did have to do so much work on, and I should have known this because I had a food column in the Post for years, was getting the recipes out of them. I was on really tight deadlines. The publisher basically asked me for the recipes two weeks before Christmas, and I was lucky if I got them within two months.
The book showcases young chefs and established chefs, there are men and women, and people of colour. Was that diversity intentional?
One hundred per cent intentional. I was trying for more diversity, and some people said no, or didn’t get back to me, or it wasn’t in their culture, or whatever. I kind of had to lower my expectations and realize it wasn’t going to be quite the mix I wanted. The feedback has been universally positive, but one woman got in touch and said, “Too bad it’s 99 per cent male chefs.” I was taken aback, because it was my number-one priority to get female representation in the book. I actually counted, and it’s not a huge majority, but it is above the demographic. The other thing is, [the women are] almost all pastry chefs. But I looked at the restaurants and asked myself which ones had female chefs, and which ones were my favourites. I was going east, west, north, south, all different ethnicities of food, and that was definitely on purpose. I don’t think it 100 per cent reflects what Toronto is today, but I’m happy enough.
Over the last 10 or so years, fine dining has changed to include more fusion, local, and street-inspired influences. Do you think Toronto has the potential to be a trend-driver in these areas?
Totally. It’s not that [David] Chang and [Daniel] Boulud are coming here, which are completely just business propositions. We’re creating our own type of food here, and it’s delicious. You can’t get away with expensive shit in Toronto because it’s one of the places that lasts for three months. We don’t have the population to support crap or frivolity. We don’t care about labels as much, and in the past 10 years, we’ve been really lucky with places like Bar Isabel that make really unique, delicious food. Everything’s homemade, it’s very thoughtful. It’s based on travel—it’s not fusion, but people go to France and Spain and Italy. They make authentic food, mixing with local ingredients and the local palate.
What was your favourite part of creating this cookbook?
Definitely the photo shoot, and watching how the chefs move. They loved the portrait sessions, and the photographer said it was one his best experiences as well. They were just so happy to come together, they were high-fiving the next chef as they came through the door, they all knew each other. It was was there that I realized that this is a real community, and I hadn’t realized it existed before.