I had an unexpectedly magical night the other week at a cooking class geared to 30-40 year old singles in Montreal. Get this- I’m not single, nor am I in the 30-40 year old age bracket just yet, but the night was still incredible, so I will be sure not to spare any deets!
Things really heated up when the cooking began. Chef Joe Mercuri instructed four teams of four on creating a salmon sashimi appetizer with spicy mayo (from scratch), an entrée of mushroom tagliatelle with a white wine sauce, followed by a lesson on cleaning and cooking clams in Mercuri’s famous (million-ingredient) sauce. The night comes to a sweet end with coffee, tea, and dessert.
By the end of the evening the founder of Cook and Date, Cristina, (who has a real sixth sense when it comes to pairing people up) had me saying Tinder who??? So I suggest grabbing a girl or guy friend and signing up asap. Whether you find your soul mate or not (and I heard many stories of people who have!), you are guaranteed a good time, new friends, and to learn a thing or two in the kitchen (which might come in handy if you don’t meet the love of your life). Win-win!
So I have been to your restaurant before, but was with a large group of people so took a break from taking photos of my food for the night, and I loved my experience. I will definitely be back to blog about it. My visit made me wonder about your culinary journey. Culinary school?
Yes. At Pearson in Lasalle. Here in Montreal. I am a Montreal chef. I call my cuisine Modern Montreal. Why? I’ve never worked outside of Montreal. What I do, the cuisine I cook, people always ask me – is it French? Is it Italian because your Italian? Is it fusion? – It’s never fusion. It’s me growing up in Montreal. I like to say my heart is smeared on the streets of Montreal. It’s all of the different ethnic backgrounds, I have a big pantry of ingredients, and I have the natural taste buds to mix them.
I love that.
A lot of my dishes have so many ingredients but you’ll never know it. I don’t like to show that it has a lot- it’s all about balance.
Speaking of ingredients – do you have a favourite that you use every day or in your restaurant?
No favourite ingredients?
Maybe the tomato in-season. In-season the tomato is one of my favourites for sure. But one favourite ingredient…no. It really is the ingredient. When I find that perfect ingredient I fall in love.
Least favourite ingredient?
Not even. I like everything.
So anything that’s fresh and in-season is a favourite ingredient?
I’m very seasonal. really really seasonal. In the summer I go to the market at least 3 times a week.
Jean Talon. Lino Birri is like one of my gods. Farmers are my gods- they’re the people I believe in! So it’s very much Modern Montreal. It’s what I’ve picked up here. I’ve only worked for one chef. I’m a lot self-taught. I’m cooking obsessed. I have thosuands of cookbooks and magazines- if not more – and I’ve read them all. You could pick one out and tell me anything and I’ll tell you- that’s Gourmet January 1990.
So when did you know you wanted to be a chef?
I’ve always been obsessed with the restaurant business. It’s not just about being a chef, I love the restaurant business. I’ve been in it my whole life- I used to work at a place called Il Fornetto that was very popular and busy. I worked there for about 7-8 years and I’ve always worked in the dining room and I had opened up a café with the owner called Dolce – this is on the Lachine Lakeshore. We needed a chef and couldn’t afford one, so I said to my best friend, you know what? I make sandwich and salads. Come with your girlfriend tomorrow- you taste. We’ve been best friends since we were 5 years old- now it’s 21 years. So he came for a tasting the next day and said it was amazing. He was like, I’ve known you forever, how could you not know you had this talent? I never thought of it as a profession, but I’ve always loved the cooking aspect of the restaurant business. So slowly I started cooking in that kitchen and the more we’re getting busier, the more I’m falling in love with cooking. Then my brother in-law came with a cookbook that he had bought (because he’s a chef) – the Charlie Trotter cookbook and when I sat down and looked at it, I decided at that moment that I was going to cooking school. This is what I want to do. And that’s how I became a chef.
Amazing. Final question- what is your advice to someone who is considering culinary school?
I think- firstly, everyone has to stop thinking about money. You know, everyone wants to come into the kitchen and make $17 an hour and nobody wants to learn anymore. If you want a chef to give you his time, you really have to be passionate. You have to understand that it’s a different lifestyle. I love the lifestyle. When I started cooking I wanted to work at Mediterraneo for chef Claude Pelletier and there was no position, so I worked Saturday and Sunday free for a year until a position came up. I would go in at 12 and finish at 12 and never asked for a pay and then you know, things happen. So I think you really have to learn your trade. And then it’s going to be about experience. So if someone is giving you the opportunity to get experience in their kitchen – take it. Especially if it’s a good kitchen.
Hard work pays off.
A huge thank you to the Cook and Date team for giving me a glimpse into one of their wonderful evenings. A special thank you to Chef Joe Mercuri for the cooking lesson, and for being so honest and open about his experiences.
Mind, Taste, Lifestyle.