The Love of a Good Chef: Joshna Maharaj Brings Beauty, Care, and Awareness to Every Plate
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Joshna Maharaj, and I am a chef, activist and educator/teacher.
What is your hood, and what is its hidden gem?
Albert’s Real Jamaican, although it really isn’t a hidden gem. A lot of people know it, for it’s legendary food and island hospitality. If you are lucky, Albert is there and in a chatty mood, because that can get interesting and even political. Just don’t be in a rush, the aunties in the back take time and care to prepare your meal. Other places of note: fried chicken at The Stockyards, Baker and Scone, and Sea Witch for fish and chips.
Who is your number one motivation when you are cooking?
Best case scenario is whoever is going to eat that plate, right? I have a really strong belief that your temperament and the energy you have when you’re cooking transmits into the food, so I always try to be very self-aware. People need my most beautiful intentions in the food, and when it is working the best for me when I am cooking, is when I am thinking about who is eating. Like when you and I did the fundraiser at The New Farm (Farms for Change), and the three pots of chicken curry that I made, I thought about that beautiful place and the wonderful people we would feed. The love and care and intention is what I have always taught.
Who is your personal food idol and why?
Good one! I know it’s cliché, but I have to say Alice (Waters). I think about Alice all the time because she is “It” for me. She f—ing just gets it and she knows. I love that there is somebody in this community that still talks about the transformational powers of the perfect peach. I have so much respect for people who are unafraid to do something for the first time. She just was convinced by the truth that was inside her, and plowed forward. The depth of commitment to teaching is where I find the most motivation from the examples she has set. Sometimes when I am cooking for people, I think “What would Alice think? Would I be proud enough to serve this to her?” She is my little spirit animal. Alice showed us to think about the people, the farmers, the guests, the workers, and this is what I want to teach—respect for the food, the process and the people involved.
What is your favourite seasonal ingredient?
Honestly, it’s that f—ing strawberry. It tells me that the season is open. If you are lucky enough to get some that are still sun-kissed and warm, it’s why it is good to have a mouth and be human. When I did work at Scarborough Grace Hospital, that was one of the first changes I was able to make. That beautiful, real, fresh food on that plate as a dessert, instead of some disgusting and devoid-of-nutrients pudding. Those strawberries will forever be in my heart.
What is your favourite cut of meat to cook, and why?
I love me a flank or skirt steak! That tough bit that requires some love to make it extra tasty. I have this tamari-chili-garlic angle, with a bit of balsamic vinegar. Cast iron, smoke out the whole apartment, and slice it with your best knife. Ribbons is the key!
What is your dream ingredient from any corner of the globe?
Lemons, no question. Almost everything is better with a squirt of lemon. Ideally more interesting ones than what we get here, like the ones you find in India. Acidity and freshness is so important! (She tells a story about when she worked on the Steven and Chris Show, ending with why she uses so much lemon…). Steven, It’s like a bright pop of colour; like a decorative pillow on a couch. It is that last finishing bit, the accessory when you are getting ready to go out. It’s everything.
What do you do and cook when you have a day off?
I always over-shop at the farmers’ markets in season, but sometimes I don’t connect it to the busy reality of my life, and end up with a lot of beautiful things in my fridge at the end of the week. If it is winter, I am making a pot of curry or stew, and in the warmer months it is about salads and things I can just grab. So I always get creative and process what is left into something I can eat in the moment, or even later on, to preserve this food that was grown so lovingly.
Favourite home cooked meal cooked by someone else?
No question. Mom’s chicken curry—because we both make it differently. I have changed the recipe, just based on my skills as a pro cook, and have learned and seen other traditions and have tinkered with the recipe. So mine is not mom’s. The way she makes it is still that really instinctual method, the way her mom taught her to make it. They taste different. We had a very open-door home, so big pots of chicken curry were always prepared, and mom was always feeding the army of friends of me and my brother. The momma touch is especially great. No one makes it like she does.
What is your guilty pleasure?
That I’m willing to admit on the record? (laughs!) Sometimes I really like that zero-nutrition hot dog. It has to be the street dog; you can’t replicate it. They cross hatch it, so all the toppings just get in there, and they toast that bun. You have to put the line of ketchup and mustard on either side, and load it up with that corn relish. I really love it. (We talk a bit about Doritos and chip-fetish in general until we are interrupted by another friend passing through).
What was your favourite job, to date?
I loved running food services at Ryerson University, and I was there long enough to see the impact. I remember a moment when I did a presentation for parents on move-in day, and I eased their stress and it made me realize that if you just do the right thing, it helps. We had built a beautiful experience to take care of their kids, and some of them were farmers, so it just hit all the right notes, because we were sourcing as direct-from-farms as we could. I got a standing ovation and hugs from moms. It gave me such a feeling of great and deep gratitude.
If you could give one piece of advice to the cooks of tomorrow, what would it be?
You’re never going to get anywhere if you’re not prepared to work your f—ing ass off! There is no version of a cook ever, that is successful without being prepared to do that. If you aren’t willing, go find another industry. This work is not glamorous and is hard work. You have to perform, and be ready to prove yourself.
Have you figured out the meaning of life?
If we could all deeply sit in connection to this beautiful relationship that we have with the earth we can provide outstandingly delicious things to keep us going. You know, this beautiful transaction that was put here on earth, this gorgeous thing was left for us. I believe that we are connected to core meanings in our lives, we are deeply connected to these relationships. The taste of the land is why we are here; there is a meaningful connection. The earth is a profoundly beautiful thing, and food just grows.
Joshna leaves us with a story about eating farmstand raspberries, driving with a pal through Prince Edward County, windows down and tunes blasting. Now that is a meaning I can get down with. And I can get down with Joshna; she is a beautiful human.
AS SEEN IN VILLAGE LIVING MAGAZINE – MIDTOWN