Humility & mastery

A lovely mention by Renée Lavallée in her Chronicle-Herald column this week reminded me of how we met. She showed up at the back door of Cafe Henry Burger looking for work, tiny and seemingly timid. She was recently out of cooking school and had some interesting experience in Italy, which made it easy to recommend her. We were able to place her a few short weeks later, and once on her station, her talent instantly emerged. Strong, smart,  and fiercely protective of integrity in her work, she went to town, and the restaurant was better for it. That was 1997.

In Halifax last fall to cover the World Culinary Tourism Summit, I got the chance to sit at her table and taste what she was doing with what her beloved purveyors were giving her. Dinner was understated and brilliant at the same time. It made me think of my favourite quip from Alice Waters

“Humble yourself before your ingredients.”

Only a skilled hand knows how to let the ingredients tell us what to do. Only an insightful cook knows that embellishment is futile.. It can never make up for mastery.

Seven of us were gathered around the table that night: Jodi Lastman and Barry Martin of Hypenotic, Noelle Munaretto and Rebecca LeHeup of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, and lucky husband Doug Townsend of Taste of Nova Scotia . Zoe and Phillipe, their two little ones under two, were asleep upstairs.

We started with Metwurst, Whestphalia ham from Roselane Farms, and Dragon’s Breath blue cheese from “That Dutchman” in Economy, NS.

Then came bay scallops in white wine and herbs, cultivated by Nick Budreski and Père in Pictou. A stone’s throw from the bay in question, having lived land-locked all my life, I was pretty excited. These babies were glorious.

The rest of the meal deftly kept pace.

Harpoon-caught swordfish with sumac and coriander. Celery root and beet salad. Arugula with lemon juice, olive oil & shaved Old Growler gouda from “That Dutchman.” For dessert, salt-roasted Annapolis Valley pears with caramel sauce.

It’s been easy to admire Renée all these years. Share her gifts and adventures at FeistyChef.ca. You’ll come to admire her, too.