When you receive an email from an organization called The Society, inviting you to a private dinner, there are a number of possible responses. They range from bafflement (which I experienced fairly significantly) to a sense of impending dread that you might be on the radar of the illuminati or freemasons. I don’t think I’m cut out for massive planetary economic conspiracy, so that was just a fleeting thought.
It turns out that The Society are a group of likeminded culture vultures, fashionistas and social commentators. They have branches in Toronto, New York and Miami; they seem to be expanding as well into Los Angeles. In the cursory research that I did on them before accepting the invitation to dinner, I noted that they tended towards being thin, fashionable, mannered people with pronounced bone structure. They are the sort of people that would generally not look out of place in an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue; Size twos in an increasingly XL world.
Mostly I wondered how in the world they had settled on inviting me. It’s a common anxiety that I face in situations like this. I have a movie star physique, but unfortunately that movie star is Ernest Borgnine. I need not have worried. They’re a pleasant bunch of well spoken, erudite people, and since it was putatively a beer dinner, I was very much on my home turf. There are few situations in which being barrel shaped is a blessing; at a beer dinner, it’s practically de rigeur.
The dinner was held at Jamie Kennedy’s Gilead Café, and the element that had not quite sunk in when I received the invitation was that it involved an interactive seminar on canning and pickling. In the past, if you had asked my opinion on canning and pickling, I would probably have fled the room. This is owed to the fact that somewhere in the basement of my Mom’s house in Kingston is a relatively large number of jars of damson plum jam which date from the 1980’s. The debate rages periodically about whether or not they are fit for human consumption. They are likely just fine. They may possibly be delicious. It is my hope to retain a sense of mystery on the subject.
Jamie Kennedy views the subject rather differently. He would, having been recently awarded the Order of Canada for advancing the cause of local food. After announcing to the room that he was trying an experiment in socializing while working, he made a fairly compelling argument:
A hundred years ago, prior to refrigeration, people needed to know how to preserve food. Without the long supply chains which we take for granted in the 21st century, this was a common practice. Moreover, one of the things that determines a sense of place in cuisine is the ability to live off of what is locally available. In a place like Toronto, which has some of the most fertile farmland on the planet just outside its borders, it’s practically inexcusable not to take advantage of the bounty of the farms that toil during our hot summers. In short, the preservation of fruits and vegetables would have been a culinary staple 100 years ago and is one that we currently overlook.
I suspect that you’re not going to find a Caesar salad on his winter menu, and with good reason. The clapboard shingles that make up the décor of the bar area suggest a sort of uber-rusticity that belie the gentle nature of the chef himself. The opposite wall is adorned with jars of pickled vegetables and preserved fruits that are seemingly intended to be used by the kitchen during the coming winter season. In terms of commitment to the practice of locavorism, Jamie Kennedy wears his heart on the wall of his dining room.
After a few Heinekens (Did I mention this was an event sponsored by Heineken? Well done, Heineken. Dennis Hopper may not have liked you, but you’re ok by me. I begin to wonder how many times I will mention Heineken. That was four. That oughta do.) and a beer battered cheddar beignet topped with mustard pickles from Kennedy’s great aunt’s recipe, we milled into the kitchen to our workstations.
I was given an apron, two jars and the explanation that I would be pickling peppers. Like a latter day Peter Piper, I was ready to pick a peck. My tablemates were similarly enthusiastic, although they seemed somewhat astounded by the minimalism of a working kitchen. I was pleased to note that they had hidden all of the knives before letting slightly inebriated members of the general public in. After all, there’s only so much damage you can do with a spatula.
We pickled to the utmost, but we eventually ran short of peppers and team members were recruited to stand outside over a grill in a supervisory capacity as additional peppers were charred. As happens in these situations we looked for something to do, ending up in a discussion over how many peppercorns to put in a pint of pickled peppers. All of this while standing more or less directly in the way of the exceedingly patient kitchen staff. After a suitable amount of standing around awkwardly, we found our way to the dining room.
The menu, as one might expect from the reputation of the chef was local and seasonal.
It has to be said that I am not much of a fan of soup. I never have been, and as such I feel as though it’s unfair to comment on the Squash soup, except to say that it was a delightful autumnal colour. As happens in situations like this, I forgot to take a picture of it until I had thoughtlessly disturbed the presentation.
The main course was a galantine of chicken with what I suspect was a sage and rosemary stuffing served with a trio of onions and a Heineken onion sauce. The flavour of the sage and rosemary was just sharp enough to cut the sauce, creating a very pleasant combined mouthful with the caramelisation from the roasted onions. It put everyone in the Thanksgiving mood, and inspired me to commit the somewhat déclassé act of mopping up the sauce with bread. This is the kind of dish which you, had you been served it at a family dinner, would volunteer to wash dishes so that you could sneak into the kitchen and pick at the leftovers or use the vacuum sealer and to sneak some home! The only minor quibble I had was that I think the green onions were included essentially as a plating element and didn’t really add anything. My enjoyment of the dish made it extremely hard to view critically.
For Dessert there was chocolate mousse served with a vanilla cone and a raspberry puree. It was rich enough that my colleague from the Post was unable to finish his. The vanilla cone provided a nice textural counterpoint once crumbled over top of the mousse and the tartness of the puree provided some respite from the sweetness of the dish. It was a playful plating and interesting to see how people approached disassembling it. There’s a certain amount of joy in seeing people overcome the apprehension that they might be risking unsightly stains on their clothes in order to indulge in chocolate.
It was a beer dinner in the sense that it was sponsored by a beer. Heineken, being a lager, doesn’t really go with squash soup. For something that creamy, you’d want something in a pale ale with enough hop acidity to cut the texture and refresh the palate with carbonation. You might even run to an India Pale Ale. It had no chance of standing up to a chocolate dessert.
I spoke with Kennedy afterwards and it was clear that he knew that this was more or less the case. It’s for this reason that I find him all the more impressive. Rather than attempting to shoehorn the beer into dishes that would have blown it away, he used it where it would be effective: In the batter for the beignets, where it provided a textural advantage and in the sauce for the chicken, where it aided in creating sweetness and flavour. I’d like to see what he could do with a full menu of pairings.
After collecting a jar of Rhubarb jelly, I was off into the night. My brief flirtation with the lifestyle of the extremely well dressed intelligentsia of the city was over, and I was able to stagger home to collapse into a mousse induced coma.