Canada’s Top Chefs Talk of Wine
They’re legends in their own right, you’ve seen them on TV, they forge new culinary ground and they’re masters of their own edible domain. So how do these icons of culinary celebrity feel about wine?
“I probably drink more wine than the average guy, and know less about it than I think I do,” says the chef that is larger than the average guy. This is Chef Michael Smith, host of Chef at Home and Chef at Large, both the highest-rated Canadian series on the Food Network. His latest series, Chef Abroad, embraces wine as part of a polished lifestyle.
The first time Smith’s head was turned by wine was at Mission Hill Winery while with an old friend, Chef Michael Allemeier, and a bottle Oculus. “I was simply hanging out with an old buddy, casually, perhaps not the formal occasion that one figures such a wine commands,” reminisces Smith. He was impressed with the wine’s depth of character, and it changed his perception of the possibilities of Canadian wines. “I now think it’s one of the top three wines in the country.”
Smith is not one to get too high up on the complexities of oak or the nuances of terroir, nor does he like to drink alone. In fact, wine has no significance to him other than the sheer enjoyment it brings to his friends and to the table. Smith feels the people at the table are far more important than what’s on the table. There’s always wine around the Smith house waiting to be opened for something. It simply becomes part of the fun of the evening, whether at a dinner party, a formal occasion, a spontaneous get-together or just a relaxing night with his wife, Rachel.
When it comes to cooking and wine, Smith likes to keep it simple. “If you like the flavour of the wine in the glass you’ll like it in the food,” says Michael. When Smith cooks with wine he uses the whole bottle. Winter stews are an event at his house on Prince Edward Island. Michael and his son Gabriel like to build a roaring fire in their hearth. When it dies down, they simmer a stew in a giant pot over the glowing embers for hours. In goes an entire bottle of any wine he likes to drink. All Michael recommends is that the wine you cook with be big-bodied and full-flavoured, and that you use every last drop.
Smith doesn’t have a wine cellar, but he does have a cold cellar in the house where he stores preserves and vegetables for the winter. “It’s the most logical place to keep wine,” says Michael. Smith has more empty bottles kicking around his house than full ones. “The only full bottles of wine in my cellar are there for special reasons. For example, I have a few dozen bottles of essential New Zealand Pinot Noirs because Anita Stewart likes it and I can’t wait for her next visit.”
Although Michael loves his red wine, he admits to having a white side too. “I’ve been drinking a lot of Viognier and bottles of Conundrum.” Smith was seduced by the latter wine’s complex floral and honey-like flavours and its great depth of complexity. For a man who has no problem describing food, he finds it hard to discern exactly what’s in the glass, other than that it’s rich, deep and amazing on the palate.
Ricardo Larrivée, simply Ricardo to his fans, is Canada’s most successful bilingual celebrity chef, and like Smith he starts out by saying, “I’m just a guy who likes to drink wine.” Many people believe that because Ricardo is on TV, he must be an expert in wine, but that’s not the case. “I’m good because I drink so much. I love wine,” says this fun-loving chef.
The star of Ricardo and Friends says, “I drink a lot of Champagne with my wife. We don’t wait for a special occasion to open a bottle. I like roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and Champagne. Not fond of it with steak, but if the menu allows, I drink it with almost everything.”
When it comes to wine preferences, Ricardo describes himself as a “New World kind of guy.” He likes wines from Australia, Chile, Africa and New Zealand. “There’s just something very refreshing about them.” In white wine, Ricardo is attracted to the citrus appeal of New Zealand. “You never have to think about it; it’s always a winner.” He brings up the wines of southwest France around Toulouse. “The wines are nothing fancy, there’s something very unsnobbish about them. You can find other wine regions with more prestige, but I just love southwest wine. I love it.”
While Ricardo’s wife Brigitte is a Pinot Noir lover, the man who commands so much of Canadian culinary attention is having a love affair with Shiraz. “I play the clarinet, and my wife the piano, and we have a glass of wine and play music together.” Okay, he’s a romantic too!
Ricardo drinks wine mostly with food, but in the evening? “I’m a rum drinker. I’m not a chocolate guy, I’m a caramel guy, so I just love the caramel thing around [rum],” says Ricardo, who admits he turned from a Scotch drinker to rum when he noticed all the women in his life drinking it. Because he never likes to drink alone or see anyone drinking alone, he joined them one evening and was hooked. “And it works so well with different recipes. I would love to have a rummery!”
Ricardo predicts that rum will be as popular this year as scotch was 10 years ago, and he’s doing his part to promote it. He offers his special rum cocktails to guests as a perfect start to dinner: a splash of sugar cane syrup, a bit of rum and a glass filled with wine.
On Ricardo and Friends, the wines are chosen around the food. “I think, ‘What am I going to cook,’ and then I find the proper match for my food.” Like Smith, Ricardo puts a lot of wine in his food, and knows it’s all about enhancing food’s flavour — and wine does a great job.
Mara Jernigan is a celebrity chef in her own right. Often referred to as the Alice Waters of Canada, Mara is a chef, the Canadian Slow Food President, founder of the Vancouver Island Feast of Fields and the proprietor of a culinary retreat and guesthouse at Fairburn Farm.
On a cold February day, I walked with Mara and a small group of journalists outside to harvest turnips, carrots, Jerusalem artichokes, beets and potatoes. We were gathering food to prepare for dinner. A quick detour to pick up some eggs in the chicken coop, past the rare breeds of San Clemente goat and Navajo-Churro sheep, and we were dead centre in a herd of big, beautiful, hulking water buffalo.
Darrel and Anthea Archer, the farm’s owners, raise a milking herd of genuine river water buffalo and make buffalo mozzarella. After our morning harvest, we played in the kitchen, then sat down to a wonderful and bountiful February local food meal. There was a large bowl of potato and beet salad, individual bowls of carrot soup and seared scallops, a platter of pear and parsnip ravioli, Jerusalem artichoke timbales and a few chilled bottles of sparkling wine from Venturi Schulze Vineyards. A culinary activist, Mara only serves wines from British Columbia. Mostly whites from the Cowichan Valley and reds from the mainland.
If you’ve ever dreamt of an idealized back-to-the-land farm vacation with a focus on exploring regional cuisine and wines, then Fairburn Farm is the destination for you.
Mara first learned to appreciate wine through Ontario’s quintessential wine instructor, Jacque Marie (then of George Brown College, Toronto). Later in life, her husband at the time was a wine rep, and they had their own vineyard. “I’ve had a love affair with agriculture for years, and when you’re passionate about farming you’re passionate about all kinds, and that includes vineyards.”
“For me, wine is an agricultural product. I cook from the land, and I have the same amount of care and respect for viticulture (as for agriculture).” Sunday lunch at Fairburn is a memorable affair of six courses served with local wines. Depending on the food, names such as Venturi Schulze, Blue Grouse, Averill Creek and Merridale can all be found in between the platters and bowls of locally sourced family-style dining.
When asked for her most memorable wine experience, Mara claims to have nothing but memorable experiences. One such time pops into her mind immediately. The summer she turned 19 she lived on the Eaton family’s private island. (Her father was a private pilot for the Eatons). One evening someone dropped an aged bottle of Chateau d’Yquem, and it smashed all over the kitchen floor. To this day, Mara remembers, “The smell of that mop afterwards was divine!”
Then there was the time she attended the 20th anniversary of the Wine Spectator Grand Awards in New York City. Just getting to taste the top 100 wines of the year and talk to the likes of Rothchild and Angelo Gia was a surreal evening.
Well-travelled Mara doesn’t like to go to regions where there is no wine. “I like to learn (and discover) while I’m away. It’s sad to go all over the world and eat the same foods and drink the same wines. You taste and approach wine differently when you’ve been there.”
Mara is much more theoretical and strategic about her wine than Smith and Ricardo, who just love to drink for the sake of its limitless pleasure. In true culinary activist style, Mara is motivated to find a purpose in everything she eats and drinks, and heaven knows, there’s an infinite amount of purpose in a bottle of wine.