A Quick Bite with Chris Nuttall-Smith

A Quick Bite with Chris Nuttall-Smith

Okay, that’s not Chris Nuttall-Smith. It’s his son, the handsome and discerning Cormac (eating quinoa for breakfast no less). The chief food critic and restaurant columnist for Toronto Life can’t really be putting his picture around town, you know? In a town where restaurant-going is a competitive sport (oh, you haven’t been to Campagnola yet?), it’s a serious business and Chris isn’t afraid to give it to us straight. In his other gig, as the Globe and Mail’s Ask An Entertaining Expert he advises would-be hosts with just the mix of humour and strictness. But it’s his role as dad that has Chris enjoying food in a whole new way. Dinner parties may not be as elaborate as they were in the days before Cormac, but who wouldn’t trade that for a goodnight smooch from the sous chef? (Oh, and between you and me, Cormac, I don’t think mangos are tasty food either).
SPC: What is your earliest food memory?

CNS: It’s probably going to huge Ukranian weddings in Richmond, B.C., as a toddler. One side of my family was Ukranian-Canadian, and I went to three or four of them in a space of a few years. I had an aunt Rose who was a great cook, and she and the old ladies from the local church would spend days making pierogies and cabbage rolls before a wedding. It was simple stuff, now that I think of it: the dumplings were boiled only, and buried under sour cream, the cabbage rolls were smothered in tomato sauce, and there’d always be kielbasa, of course. I ate truckloads of that food as a kid. There was always borscht, too, with lots of dill and sour cream, but I always thought it was disgusting until I got older. Now it’s one of my favourite things. And, jeez, one other: I lived in Delta, on the Fraser River, and every year the local fishermen would drive through our neighborhood in their pickup trucks with the backs piled high with sockeye which they’d sell for $1 a piece. You couldn’t buy sockeye guts for $1 these days. That’s really stuck with me.

SPC: How did you learn to cook?

CNS: How I started to cook was with one of my uncles, who was far younger than my parents and was a bit wild when I was a kid. Way, way before I was old enough to understand this, he told me that cooking is a “panty remover.” Whatever that meant, it sounded amazing. My uncle was cool (he was the only cool person on that side of the family, as I remember it) and he was a great cook. He showed me how to make an omelette. That got me interested. I did simple stuff as a teenager: muffins in home ec class (it was mandatory then, and should be now), spaghetti with meat sauce.

SPC: Do you still cook any of your family’s recipes?

CNS: I make tourtière on Christmas eve. Eating it still makes me a bit teary. But otherwise, emphatically, no.

SPC: Do you like to cook solo or with others?

CNS: It depends if the other person knows how to cook. That sounds outrageous and snobby, but I like being in total control in the kitchen. I am a clean freak around food, and I cook quickly, usually with five or six burners and the oven going at once. I like everything to be set up, organized, cut just so, all the counters to be wiped down. It also drives me absolutely insane if other people try to wash my dishes. I’ll almost always get somebody to help at the last minute—washing lettuce, chopping herbs, plating food (but exactly the way I want it, after they’ve washed their hands and I’ve given elaborate instructions), churning ice cream. I have a few friends who are way, way better cooks than I am and I’ll always drag them in. But otherwise, I’m not so big on getting people to do critical stuff in the kitchen when I’m cooking. At a party we had recently, I threw out a baguette that one of my best friends had sliced because the slices were way too thick. I tried to do it discreetly, but the friend noticed.

SPC: Does your son join you in the kitchen?

CNS: Yes. He has a stepping stool that he stands on, and I’ll get him to crack eggs, or whisk stuff, or roll out chapatis or peel carrots, all of which he loves doing. He turned three in December, but knows the recipe for making Red River cereal, which is simple, but which still impresses me to no end. He makes concoctions, too, a lot of the time. He’ll sit up on the island in the middle of the kitchen with a metal bowl and whisk and stir together water, milk, whatever liquids he can get his hands on (at one point, after we cut him off, he took swigs from his sippy and spat them into the bowl), with herbs he scrounges from my cutting board, and spices. He asked me for caraway a few months ago. Specifically asked for caraway. Happiest moment in my life so far.

SPC: How do you deal with pickiness (if it’s an issue)?

CNS: It’s hard. I’d love to say the kid eats everything, but he doesn’t. He’s a kid. Our rule is generally to make him try stuff. He always has to have two bites, and then if he really doesn’t like the taste he can spit it out. It works about 40 per cent of the time. I remember how frustrated we were at one point because he wouldn’t try mango. He kept saying “that’s not tasty food.” (He learned the phrase at daycare, of course.)  He tried a taste and spat it out. Said he didn’t like it. Then he had a second bite, and discovered that he loves the stuff. Now whenever he says he won’t try something we remind him about the mango.

SPC: Do you feel any pressure to have a “foodie” or adventurous kid?

CNS: Not from anybody but myself. My wife and I love to travel, and we want to take him, and it’s a pain trying to find supposedly kid-friendly foods when you’re abroad, so we’re keen to get him interested in Thai and Han Chinese stuff and Latin American food. We’ve been lucky with some things: he loves Pakistani food, as it happens, because we used to go a lot to a place in East Toronto called Lahore Tikka House. And he eats broccoli, peas, corn, loads of cheese (when we were in Martinique recently he ate his body weight in Crottin de Chavignol) and pretty much anything Italian, which is helpful.

SPC: What does he not eat that you wish he would?

CNS: Thai. Chinese. Fish. Cruciferious vegetables (my wife’s a cabbage freak). And eggs, especially eggs. When he was a baby we’d make omelettes together all the time—simple french omelettes with cheese and a bit of chopped tarragon sprinkled on top. He ate one every day. It was ritual, beautiful, something we always did together. It was that way for me at least. Something clicked though. Not tasty food, I guess. He won’t touch them now.

SPC: What’s your go-to-late-home-from-work-on-a-Wednesday dish?

CNS: Bucatini with simple sauce made from fresh or canned tomatoes (I put up a whack of San Marzanos last summer), oil and garlic, and maybe some chard or rapini on the side. Or simple chicken soup with a Parmesan rind, a nub of Italian ham and whatever’s in season: shiitakes, asparagus, baby turnips, kale, fingerling potatoes, carrots, whatever. It’s a great, great simple recipe, particularly if you’ve got homemade stock on hand. It’s from the Bouchon cookbook, which I think everybody should own.

SPC: Are there rules at your table? (Clean your plate? Eat your vegetables or no dessert?)

CNS: I’m not big on the “clean your plate” thing, because I’ve recently learned not to do that myself. I’d rather my stomach tells me when to stop, and not the portion that somebody gives me. We make sure he has his bum in the chair, and he doesn’t play with his food (we threaten to take it away, and follow through, if he plays too much). We’ve just taught him to ask to be excused and to clear his plate. I remember being told that children are to be seen and not heard when I was a kid. Still pisses me off today. So mostly, I want him to enjoy food and enjoy our company and not have a bunch of stupid Victorian hangups around food and eating.

SPC: Has parenthood changed the way you cook?

CNS: My dinner parties are far less ambitious, for the most part. I used to happily do six or seven courses, all plated, fresh pasta, scratch ice cream, etc. It was fun, but exhausting. Honestly, I don’t know how much fun it was for my guests. With a few exceptions, it’s all easier now, largely because I’d rather play with the kid on a Saturday afternoon than debone half a dozen quail. What I find now is that the dinner parties are way more fun. The food’s still good—I’m not doing Stouffer’s dinners or anything. But it’ll be spatchcocked chicken, bucatini, chard with raisins and pine nuts and tarte tatin with store-bought ice cream, or something like that. And Cormac’s always a part of our dinner parties. He hangs out, eats with us, signs songs, laughs at ribald jokes he doesn’t understand, kisses all the guests good night. He loves it. We love it. It seems to work.

SPC: What do you like best about cooking?

CNS: I eat out for a living, and it’s just about the best job on earth. But when I’m not working I love being able to cook exactly what I want to cook how I want to cook it. I love buying great vegetables and great meat and cheese and shopping at the farmer’s market in the summer. I love the feeling of feeding people—it’s completely fundamental. I love it when my wife looks up from a pastry I’ve made or from a soup or some ravioli and swears because she’s so happy. I love having huge, huge dinner parties, with 14, 16 people who pile around the table—kids, adults, people we know well, people who are almost strangers—and piling bowls of great food in front of them. And I love feeding my kid. I think it’s one of the best things you can do for your family, to cook good food that’s good for them, that they love and that makes them happy.

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3 Comments

  1. stylinmommy
    April 14, 16:20 Reply

    Great post…I can’t wait to get my son involved in cooking – at 6 months old he’s a great eater so far *knock on wood* and I look forward to introducing him to foods of all kinds! Great recipe idea too for a quick meal.

  2. There is a great joy in feeding large groups of people and you own family and seeing the happiness on their faces – it’s sort of what it’s all about. Thanks for a great interview.

  3. Allan Shiff
    May 08, 13:38 Reply

    Chris,
    Thanks for the column.

    Desperately looking for quiet (quieter?) restaurants. caught one you mentioned a while ago.
    – omiverous – all types – various price levels – quality’
    Allan.

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