York U’s Rebecca Russo Shares her Secret Ingredient with Joel Solish @foodie411: Sustainable, Seasonal Sustenance
When you catch a chef in a rare moment outside of their busy kitchen, you eat with them. It’s just what you do. Sharing good food with good people is what life is about. If you can, you eat at a place that fits with their philosophy. So when I sat down with Rebecca, the chef manager for the sustainability program at York U, we went to the west end’s preeminent seafood restaurant, Honest Weight—a Mecca of sustainability and seasonality.
What is your hood, and what is its hidden gem?
Well, I just found it today, it is Honest Weight in The Junction. I should also point out the great farmer’s market we have, seasonally on Saturday. It is a great balance between fresh and prepared foods.
What is your number one motivation when you are cooking?
I realize when I am cooking I’m trying to create the difference between feeding and nourishing people. So, my motivation is a holistic view. It is not the fact that the food is pretty on the outside, but on the inside. Good food that starts with real and recognizable ingredients.
Who is your personal food idol and why?
My Nona, because she set such high standards, while feeding my entire family throughout the seasons. With a high respect to nature, and cultivation, naturally, not in the fashionable sense. She was my true love.
I also highly respect René Redzepi, and his local food procurement . . . and the re-interest he instilled in me in foraging—using things that make sense within your own area. Finding things that have taste, like special black ants that taste like lemongrass, for example. Instead of bringing in food, he found what was available and made it work.
If you could ask him one question, what would it be?
I met him once, and trampled someone else to get to him (chuckles). I asked him his thoughts on bio-dynamics. He said he was working with different farms and cultivators that were adhering to this philosophy, and he felt it was an elevated . . . one better step over organics, to help understand nature and respect seasonality. This was exactly in line with what I was thinking. And he was so down to earth.
What is your favourite seasonal ingredient?
A perfect summer peach. Peaches to me are intoxicating (pulls her shirt down slightly exposing a beautiful peach tattoo on her upper chest, and giggles). I lived on an orchard for many years, and from blossom to fruit, as they develop there is this spectacular smell they create. It is the smell of sweet summer afternoons—very subtle and fragrant. There is just something so perfect about a Niagara peach . . . and when you bite in and it dribbles down your face (inhales and exhales deeply), I find the taste and smell intoxicating. I can use it in everything—sweet, savoury or raw.
What is your favourite cut of meat to cook, and why?
Veal shank, because Osso Bucco makes me delighted. I love the process of it: the long slow braise, the marrow, there are so many elements that are just alchemy to me. To me it changes the dynamic of your brain. Also . . . pasta—especially Amatriciana, being a good Italian girl . . . just makes me happy. Food is love.
What is your dream ingredient from any corner of the globe?
Telline: tiny, tiny, little mollusks that are similar to clams but 1/3 the size. When I lived just outside of Rome, my friends had this net that they made (old school fishing), and it had teeth on the end, and they drag it along the sandbank, and the telline come into the net. They taste exactly like the sea. I had never had these anywhere else, they are sweet and salty—just perfect.
What do you do and cook when you have a day off?
I cook a lot at home. My one thing is nona sauce, which is an attempt I have made over many years to replicate my nona’s ragu. It’s all kinds of different meats. You slow cook it all day. It’s the smell-track to my life. The bubbling ragu, it reminds me of my entire life. Sunday at nona’s, it was always happening. Fresh pasta, probably pappardelle. I also have a 1920’s cheesecake recipe from Lindy’s in New York that uses an obscene amount of full-fat cream cheese. The topping would be seasonal, but I am often prone to chocolate. And the prosecco . . . and a simple green salad . . . and very good bread. If I could sneak mozzarella di bufala in there somewhere, I would. It all goes back to the roots; tomato and basil are the foundations of my culinary life.
What is your guilty pleasure?
(Laughs loudly) Other than a teen burger from A&W? (Laughs again). I’m trying to not be a nerd. (I tell her to say the first thing that comes to her mind, and she blurts out:) Chocolate! All kinds. I mean crappy, like a Big Turk, which I had to give up because I am doing a fair trade and sustainable diet with my family for 3 months, but really . . . chocolate of every kind.
What was your favourite job, to date?
Other than my current one? Because this is my favourite. Working with Jesse Valins at The Saint (now closed), and all of those crazy doughnuts he let me make? I enjoyed that so much. I also got some great insight into his award-winning sausage making. Jesse, for me, I liked his attitude. He was honest, and never freaked out on me. We had a really good dynamic. He was respectful and nurturing.
If you could give one piece of advise to the cooks of tomorrow, what would it be?
Understand what you are getting into. It is not the Food Network. It is not pretty, it’s not perfectly organized. It is laborious, it is poor paying with long hours, it’s competitive, and if you don’t absolutely, with every ounce of your being love what you are doing, this is not the place for you. Food is love, and if you aren’t putting love into the food, you are harming rather than feeding people. Also, I wouldn’t bother with school, I would apprentice. Start at the bottom, and be a dishwasher, and move your way up. Research the kitchen and find a place that adheres to your personal values. And I would make sure that you are ready for what’s coming. Meaning everything changes all the time. You need to be fluid and creative, accessible, you need to keep your wits about you, and respect your colleagues. The uniform means it is a gender-neutral environment.
Also read. Read! Not just cookbooks, but Letters to a Young Chef, and Life on the Line, and Service Included. I could go on and on. Just read the experiences others have had to confirm this is for you. When you find that kitchen, and you know what you stand for, and you’re ready for the long hours and the mediocre pay, find one thing every day that reminds you why you’re doing this. Because it can be pretty disheartening sometimes, and you get your ass handed to you. But remind yourself every day that one thing which is why you are here. Love what you do, and everything else will come with it.
Have you figured out the meaning of life?
Love. Love of family, friends, food—it’s love. Even when you hate something you can still love it. (We talk about like and love, and the difference, at length. Love transcends, but like and dislike can come and go, while love remains in the background). Everything comes from love. Anger even comes from the frustration or disappointment when you love something. And you can’t actually dislike something unless you loved it first, in essence. The meaning of life is love, in everything: food, relationships, sex, music . . . all of those things.
AS SEEN IN VILLAGE LIVING MAGAZINE – MIDTOWN