If you are reading this article, chances are that you’re just like me. You love to cook. You love to eat. You flip dreamily through recipe books and gourmet magazines, gazing at glossy pictures of perfectly presented entrees. The meat is juicy, the tomatoes are firm, the sauce is smooth as satin. I have heard such photographic spreads described as “food porn,” but I scoff at the term. Not because it’s vulgar but because it’s inaccurate. Sex is easy as pie, but baking a pie is a difficult and frustrating science. And trying to bake a pie worthy of having its picture taken — well, that’s courting disaster.
The Bigger They Are, the Harder They Fall
For two years I worked on a massive project that kept me constantly commuting from my home in Toronto to Ottawa. I saw my girlfriend only on weekends. I always assumed I was hard to live with. Apparently I am also difficult not to live with, but we weathered this period by ensuring that every Friday we cooked a great meal together and opened a special bottle of wine.
Throughout this whole period, we planned the final dinner that we’d make when my project was finished. We settled on the most decadent recipe we could find: stuffed squab. As the months dragged on and my project bogged down, I became a little obsessed. I mapped out where to find the best of each ingredient and put myself to sleep at night by cycling through potential side dishes. Messiahs have arrived with less fanfare and anticipation than this little pigeon got from me.
Finally, the Day of the Squab came. The raw bird itself seemed anti-climactic (it’s no bigger than your fist), but I lovingly followed the recipe: stuffing it with sausage meat and chopped giblets, browning it in a pan and then wrapping it in the best acorn-fed prosciutto that money could buy. Then I placed it in the oven.
All was for nothing. Although I never departed from the recipe, I left it in the oven for a few moments too long. A few moments was enough. When it’s even slightly overcooked, squab meat shrivels into a grey and dirty-tasting fibre. I tried to eat it joyfully, but it felt like a re-enactment of the chicken sequence from David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
I made matters worse by impetuously deciding to uncork the best wines in my fledgling cellar, a 2002 Château Léoville-Barton ($75) from St Julien. The problem was that in 2007, this precociously good 2nd Growth Bordeaux was nowhere near ready to drink. It thundered with big, aggressive tannins that made the dry pigeon meat taste even more like rope. As I picked away at my potatoes and tried to unpucker my lips, I realized that the fastest way to ruin a meal is to try too hard to create a big splash.
Beware of Labels
Many a catastrophe can be pinned on our failure to read labels, recipes or cooking instructions. Oddly, the opposite can also be true. Tidings’ food editor, Nancy Johnson, confessed to a particularly curious story about the trust we place in packaging.
“My biggest disaster occurred the first time I decided to make a roast.” She was young and believed that spice makes a meal, just like clothes make a man. “I went to the grocery store and bought every single spice that said on the label it could be used with beef. I put them all on the meat. All of them. It was a lot of spice,” she says in a low tone.
“When I took it out of the oven, the roast had turned bright green.” Unless you are cooking for Dr Seuss, I think we should all heed Nancy’s advice: “Don’t put every spice on meat just because the label says you can.”
Don’t Experiment on Your Friends
Spontaneity. Creativity. Daring. These are the cook’s worst enemy. To illustrate, I offer the case study of Tony Aspler — columnist, taster and former editor of Tidings — and the chocolate birthday cake.
“It was 1975 in Paris,” Tony told me. “My wife and I were young, but we were old enough to know better.” A friend of theirs loved chocolate, so for her birthday, they decided to bake a chocolate cake for the very first time. “We decided we were going to do it from scratch, not out of a box. We set the time on the oven as the recipe said, but when we took it out, the middle was all runny.”
Instead of putting the cake back in the oven for a few more minutes like a sane person would do, they decided that they could achieve a more consistent texture by going their own route. They threw the underdone cake into a bowl and stirred up the half-cooked portion with the rest before replacing it in the pan and rebaking the reconstituted batter.
“We hoped it would rise again,” said Tony, “but it was like a discus.” His cake was completely inedible: as solid as a piece of hardtack. “We went to Fortnum Mason to buy a replacement. The moral: don’t experiment on your friends.”
Look Before You Leap
Peter Rockwell, aka Tidings’ Bon Vivant, understands that the best way to ruin a romantic dinner for two is to discover an uninvited guest. “I had brought a particularly appealing date back to my place for a little wine and cheese by candlelight,” he recounted. “She liked white, so I had picked up a nice bottle of Aussie Chardonnay.”
“With the lights dim and the candles lit, I took the bottle out of the fridge, uncorked it like a pro and poured her a glass.” As Peter sat beside his date and started to pour some for himself, the glow from the candle silhouetted a shape in the bottle. He looked closer, and then it caught her attention too. Together they observed the remains of a thumbnail-size spider floating its way towards the surface of the wine.
“The evening ended early, and it was the beginning of the end of our relationship,” shrugged Peter. “But there was good news, too … I got a full refund on the wine.”
If at First You Don’t Succeed, Give Up
Of course, disastrous meals are not simply confined to home. It is just as easy to humiliate yourself at a restaurant. Contributing editor Tod Stewart (who wrote an article on wine faults for the last issue of Tidings) told me about an excruciating meal he had at a Spanish restaurant. “My friends put me on wine duty, and I opted for one of my favourite Spanish Rosados — a recent vintage with lots of strawberry and herb character. I felt supremely confident with the selection.”
“As the waiter poured, the colour seemed a tad suspect; Spanish rosé can often sport a ‘onion-skin’ or ‘partridge-eye’ colour — a sort of salmon hue. They should not, however, be orange with a belligerently oxidized nose. Apologetically, I sent the bottle back to be replaced. As the dry cork crumbled out of the second bottle, I began to feel my stomach sink. Same colour, same aroma, same problem.”
Did you order a third bottle? “I didn’t want to be one of those guys who gets blacklisted by a restaurant for being a pompous snob,” said Tod, “but with a bit of goading by friends, a third victim, er, Rosado was brought to the table. The stopper squeaked in protest, finally coming loose accompanied by a slight plume of cork dust. As the waiter hesitantly poured the same tawny and oxidized liquid, I asked to see the beer list.”
Don’t Panic. Have a Beer
No matter how bad the food, or how spoiled the wine, there are few meals that can’t be remedied by a cold lager. If you think I exaggerate, I offer you the story of Adam Foley, the chef at one of my favourite hidden gems, the Osgoode Hall Restaurant in Toronto. His story starts in 1997; he was the sous chef at Splendido, which was then (as now) in the highest tier of Toronto’s fine dining.
It was a Saturday night during the Three Tenors World Tour, so Splendido was packed to capacity with hurried concert-goers and high-flying socialites. Just before 7 p.m., most of the diners had yet to be fed. The house was hopping.
Suddenly, the fire suppression system malfunctioned. “A large vibration shook the kitchen,” said Adam, “then a loud bang was followed by white foam that sprayed down from the sprinkers and covered the entire kitchen.” All the prepared food was contaminated by this fog of billowing chemicals. Splendido had an open kitchen, so the entire dining room could see the stunned chefs swimming in fire-retardant powder. “It looked like a horror movie.” To make matters worse, when the fire alarm activated, it shut off the gas main until the system could be inspected by the Fire Department.
Arpi Magyar, the owner at the time, did not miss a beat. The first order of business: he dispatched a busboy to buy a case of beer for the kitchen staff: it was going to be a long night. Striding into the dining room, he apologized to his patrons and told them that everyone was invited back after the Three Tenors for a complimentary meal. This was a grand gesture, but also somewhat crazy. He had no prepared food, he had no gas, and his staff looked like snowmen. Plus, there was a full slate of reservations at 8 p.m.
Adam and the other chefs set to work like madmen, not only scrubbing the kitchen from top to bottom but redoing an entire day’s worth of prep in only an hour. Meanwhile, Magyar jury-rigged the safety controls on the gas valves so that he could start cooking again. Everyone toiled until the early hours of Sunday morning. “But everyone was fed,” he says with a grin. It was a disaster, but at least they had some beer.