TORONTO—If Jamie Oliver had to pick a “last supper” it would be his mother’s Sunday roast with all the trimmings, while Donna Hay and Nigella Lawson would opt for an elaborate string of favourite foods if it was their last day on Earth.
P.E.I. chef Michael Smith would tuck into a thick steak cooked over a bed of glowing coals, but Mark McEwan says he’d choose a very dry, very cold double martini with olives if he was on death row.
“I’m an emotional eater. I don’t think if I was being executed that I would be thinking about food, to be perfectly honest,” says the Toronto restaurateur.
Nostalgia is the draw for British chef Oliver, who told a Toronto audience this fall it’s not just the deliciousness of his mother’s roast: “It’s the moment, the place, the people and family and all that sort of stuff.”
The Canadian Press asked some celebrity chefs to describe their “death row” meals, cooking gaffes and favourite ingredients. Their answers may surprise you.
Final perfect meal
Cookbook author and TV host Lawson caused a furor this fall on social media when viewers of her new show “Simply Nigella” took umbrage over her “recipe” for avocado toast.
“Probably I’d begin with the infamous avocado toast. I’d have to have avocado somewhere. Maybe my Roquamole, which is blue cheese and avocado mixed. And then I would do linguine with clams, no tomatoes,” she says.
“I would do sort of a lemony roast chicken with lots of chickeny juices, mashed potato, really good chips—fries, not skinny fries, proper fries—and some slow-cooked peas, fennel and lemon salad.”
Lawson would round out her meal with lemon Pavlova, perhaps some blackberries and double cream, and then some really good cheese and fantastic bread.
Hay, a magazine editor and cookbook author, lists “French rose Champagne; really beautiful lightly seared or caramelized foie gras or some sort of chicken or duck liver parfait; Moreton Bay bug tails either lightly tempuraed or with my line of lemon grass butter; and lots of ice cream… and more rose Champagne.
“I’ve never, ever been able to answer that question before,” Hay adds with a laugh. “Maybe I’m growing up. Maybe I’m getting more decisive.”
For chef Graham Elliot, who has been a judge on “MasterChef” for six years, it would be “a fried egg and scrapple sandwich with melted cheese on white bread, untoasted.”
“It’s my deal. Scrapple is… almost like a mix of pate and sausage from the East Coast. You press it and then it’s sliced and fried. It’s one of those memories that I have and just really love.”
McEwan, who was head judge on four seasons of “Top Chef Canada,” cites his biggest culinary failure as when he burned 80 pounds of Hungarian goulash while apprenticing at the Constellation Hotel.
He wasn’t fired.
“So when young chefs make mistakes I try to remember back that I made them as well,” he says. “Sometimes when you make big mistakes like that they’re interesting lessons.”
Elliott, who now owns a restaurant in Chicago, recalls one big learning experience he had with a terrine that was rolled in plastic wrap.
“You slice it and put it on the plate, serve it—and I left the plastic on it. The chef made me go into the dining room and tell the table I was the reason why I ruined their meal. I was 20 years old. I was so mortified.”
Hay admits to many failures in her office’s test kitchen—“you’ve got to be ready to fail”—but says she’s also had some funny ones at home.
“I was preparing some corn for the barbecue and I just tied all the husks around the bottom and I forgot to soak them. I wasn’t looking and one of my friends put 24 cobs of corn on the barbecue and, seriously, all my neighbours came out. It looked like the whole neighbourhood was on fire. It was a little embarrassing.”
Guiltiest food pleasure
Lawson says as far as she’s concerned, there’s no such thing as a guilty food pleasure. “I would feel guilty if I didn’t take pleasure.”
Derek Dammann, who owns gastropub Maison Publique in Montreal with Oliver, admits his guiltiest food pleasure is hot dogs dressed with mustard, relish, onions and coleslaw from the chain Belle Province.
“If you’re happy they’re good, if you’re sad they’re good, if you’re at a sporting event they’re good. There’s an occasion for everything. They relieve guilt. They’re magical, magical little creations,” he says.
Smith likes elaborate ice-cream sundaes, while Hay loves anything “from granita to sorbet to ice cream any time of day. Going from plain good old vanilla bean right through to something complex.”
McEwan munches on a bag of potato chips when watching a movie. “I like a little bit of junk food here and there.”
Elliot’s go-to treats at home are things like cheese and crackers and beef jerky sticks: “Quick little grabs (that) if I had more time I should probably make.”
Lawson and Dammann love olive oil.
“Extra-virgin olive oil, as far as I’m concerned, is the elixir of life,” says Lawson.
If Hay could choose only one ingredient it would be a lemon.
“I love that you can use the rind and the juice. It’s sweet or it’s savoury. You can make a dressing out of it. You can make it one of the shining ingredients. They’re good to have around. Lemons and fresh herbs.”
Elliot loves a variety of herbs and spices because they offer a way to infuse food quickly with flavour, and avocados, which are “super fun to work with. You can roast it, you can puree it, serve it warm almost like a butter sauce, it’s vegan.”
McEwan loves a fatty, well-aged steak from a grain-fed cow.
“That’s almost a dirty word these days when you talk about corn-fed, because everybody wants pasture-aged—but grass-fed beef can’t age,” he says. “There’s something about a grain-fed animal that when it’s aged properly, it’s one of the beautiful things out there.”
Both McEwan and Elliot think celery is taken for granted.
“I love the tender yellow leaves and the delicate heart of it. Very sophisticated flavour,” says McEwan. “You can really dress it up, dress it down. It can be very special as a premier vegetable on the plate. You braise it in good veal stock or chicken stock. It costs you nothing to buy a head of celery. It’s just one of those standard items you can turn it into something.”
McEwan saves the leaves for garnishing salads and fish. “It’s kind of a clean, bright, fresh flavour when it hits your mouth.”
Elliot says you can marinate or pickle celery or use it in a chilled soup.