The Queen of the Castle: Chef Meagan Andrews
Getting to Know the Queen of the Castle: Chef Meagan Andrews of Casa Loma’s BlueBlood Steakhouse
I’m a hugs over handshakes kind of guy, and Chef Meagan Andrews gives you the kind of warm, firm hug that gives you fair warning of the passion and care she puts into her food at Blueblood Steakhouse, at Casa Loma. This Northern Ontario native is in love with cooking and started in the kitchen at a young age, growing up on her mom’s and grandmother’s Eastern European cooking, so she is of solid stock. The social aspect of cooking put it in perspective for her, leading her on the path to becoming the chef that she is today.
Blueblood is a modern steakhouse, and Chef Meagan and her team want to put a twist on the traditional steakhouse, and you see this modernity on her menu and in the techniques and flavours used, all coming out of their very small kitchen in the castle. They still wanted to feel like a classic steakhouse, so you can get that tableside Caesar salad you want, and feel like you are being pampered, but the elegance of the space really says it all. No expense was spared, and it is classic and refined, yet definitely has some very contemporary touches.
Meagan has a smile that lights up the room, and as we sat and chatted and got to know one another, with the sunshine refracting off the many beautiful surfaces in the room, I knew instantly that we would be friends. She lives in Little India, with her chef boyfriend Kerry, and they love to take advantage of the Pakastani and Indian food that is walking distance from their house, but her neighbourhood is seeing a resurgence and we talk about Lake Inez, a restaurant by former Harbord Room chef Robbie Hojilla. It is a favourite haunt for the couple, along with some snack bars in the area, specifically Poor Romeo and Pinkertons. Andrews calls it “a neighbourhood to watch, as far as cuisine goes”, and I agree. We also agree on Godspeed, a Japanese tapas bar inside a brewery, which is quick becoming a destination for area residents and craft beer enthusiasts, as being another great stop in the east end.
“When cooking, I always think, would I serve this to my mom? Is this good enough? Her standards are so high, if it’s good enough for her it is good enough for everyone.” Not only did Chef Andrews receive life lessons on cooking from her mom, but she also learned leadership skills, how to communicate with people, and how to just live life, basically, those great small town values. I think a lot of us could use some of those qualities in our own lives, as city dwellers. Meagan doesn’t really have any specific food idols, but she did read about the classic chefs like Bourdain and Marco Pierre White, idols for a lot of us in the industry, but she uses their stories more as a cautionary tale, though she did gain some insight from the lessons they could offer when it came to stylistic gastronomy. The Nordic food movement is another thing that Andrews does find some dreamy motivation from, and I think she has a bit of a crush on Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken. In an ideal world chefs like Meagan, and food lovers like myself, could all run something like Chef Nilsson does in Sweden, and from our land, forage, hunt, and just live our best lives. Not that we are complaining with our current state of affairs.
Early on in her career, Chef Andrews often found herself being the only female in ‘bro-culture’- dominated kitchens, so boundaries were key, “ [and] you either have to go with it, or get out.” This was another time, and it was an accepted normality which, thankfully, is something that is going by the wayside in the current climate in hospitality. As her mom taught her, she was to stand up for herself, and if she felt the need, she spoke u; if it wasn’t worth it, she just kept her head down and was an exemplary employee. We can all see why she has attained the success that she has. A female manager in the restaurant where she got her first sous chef job taught her, on a day that everything was going wrong and Meagan was acting out, that you catch more flies with honey. This lesson has stuck with her, and you can see that her team respects her and takes her word as law.
As her mom taught her, she was to stand up for herself, and if she felt the need, she spoke u; if it wasn’t worth it, she just kept her head down and was an exemplary employee
Successful leaders and their teams show mutual respect, Chef Meagan does not yell at her team, ever, but a touch of fear and guilt is definitely built in to the mood of this kitchen. Also, gender or sexual orientation does not play a roll in her kitchen, whatsoever. “People in general need to speak up for themselves and let their voices be heard. Don’t let anyone disrespect you ever!” Oui, chef!
Seasonality is prominent in Chef Meagan’s cooking, which makes me so very happy. Chef Andrews explains, “especially when it comes to a menu that has dishes that need to be fresh accompaniments to meat-heavy meals, local and seasonal vegetables are super important.” The short growing season and taking advantage of things when they are at peak, the need to know where the food is coming from, and to be able to communicate that to the guest are her focus, and pert of her ethos. I’m sure that it doesn’t hurt that her mom works for Foodland Ontario.
I think you can gather by now that I had a really great time visiting the Chef Queen of the Castle, and we bonded talking at length about common friends in the industry, places we want to eat at, and the rich culinary landscape that is Ontario, and all of the things it can provide for us in the short growing seasons that we endure. I think this is where we really connect with one another. Our love for the ‘Black Box’ challenge, that is, a visit to our local farmers’ market, and cooking an amazingly fresh, seasonal meal, and there is not much better than being able to share that bounty with loved ones. I hope that, this summer, we will have a chance to shop and cook and eat together, and bring all of our loved ones to the same table. Nothing would make me happier.
ON THE SIDE
Favourite ingredient from each season:
Clementines – Winter
Ramps, or wild leeks – Spring
Strawberries and tomatoes – Summer
Acorn or butternut squash – Fall
Dislikes – green or yellow beans
Dream ingredient, if grown locally – kafir limes. The leaves are one of her favourite smells, and are very prominent in Thai curries. They are extremely fragrant.
Favourite cut of meat – bone-in rib-eye, or prime rib, and the challenge of being able to perfectly cook this steak. Slowly extracting the natural juices and perfectly cooking each muscle group in the cut, to make sure they are the right temperature for serving.
Favourite after-service meal: Craving of the moment – Thai curry, or really anything open late that she can get on the way home, after service.
Key to success of two busy chefs – Taking days off to meal prep, in an attempt to be more healthy. If they are together, they will go to the market and splurge to satisfy a craving, or if solo, it might tend to be more cooking out of necessity, basic, basic food. This all balances the rest of the week, when the junk and bad habits tend to win, as a result of lifestyle.
Best meal of recent memory – Having just returned from Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where Christian Bravo of Cueva Siete was the resort chef on their trip, they had some amazing food. Playa del Carmen is also home to an Italian barista, using some of the finest Mexican coffee beans, and Meagan and her boyfriend became obsessed with this amazing coffee experience. Fried, fresh red snapper with a semolina crust, was another big aha! moment of this trip, and lesson learned when the crispy beautiful fish was served to them. Maybe one day we will see this on the menu at Blueblood? Meagan won’t confirm or deny. Oh, and lots of ceviche, a bonus for the citrus lover.
Favourite home-cooked meal – Her mom’s or grandmom’s (she is of Polish and Ukrainian background) pierogi or cabbage rolls (I drool). Total comfort food! She has fond memories of spending time at home, making hundreds of pierogi, twice a year, and then having a good taste of home whenever she needs a fix. They even have a special wine glass for cutting the dough, and it HAS to be rolled out by hand with a rolling pin, also using the same bowl they have used forever. Moms rules, how cute is that?
Guilty pleasure – She has a HUGE sweet tooth. Anything sweet, and ramen, but not from the package. Jinya Ramen Bar and Kinton Ramen, are favourites, but Santoku is her go-to, and we agree, it is so good. We both haven’t tried the Michelin-recommended Konjiki Ramen, and make some plans to try and go together.
Pro tip – Salt pepper and citrus are the keys to Meagan’s favourite dishes.
Seems we have a love of citrus in common. Rice-roasted almonds and any citrus zest, was something she suggested that I made at home, and I’m now in love with.
Pro tip – Fry your grilled cheese in mayo, we both agree this is life-changing.
Pro tip – when you visit Blueblood, save room for dessert. A true pastry program is hard to find in our city, and this was a focus for Meagan when building the menu. She has a lot of faith in, and respect for, her pastry chef Chris, and his “spot on flavours and textures.”
We talked a bit about the Weslodge sexual harassment scandal: She was the only female in the kitchen when the story first broke, and the sous chef, to boot. This was a hard time in her life, as people still associate her past with this issue that she had nothing to do with. This was before her time, but she was seen, unfairly, by some, as guilty by association. Is this the world we really live in? As is the case with Chef Meagan Andrews, she just did her job as best she knows how to, as she is above the bullshit. “Don’t let anyone put you down, and keep your head held high.” This is all she needed to do, and continues to do.
Favourite jobs, to date:
Batch in Creemore was a place that she learned to pair beer with food. This was a real challenge, and learning experience, from learning about the brewing process itself, and the different styles, to how to pair beer with cheese, dessert, and savoury courses. She is not a beer girl, but by the end of her time there, she executed a six-course beer dinner, pairing with beer, and cooking with beer ingredients. Beer mustard, spent grain burger buns, graham crackers with spent grains, hops infusions, and more… right up my alley, and I wish I knew her at the time, to have been present for that meal.
Another challenge for the chef was opening Weslodge in Dubai, part of Ink Entertainment, based in Toronto. Learning lessons, like working in a very foreign country, costing in a different currency, not knowing any suppliers, or having a support network of friends and family. The biggest challenge is Dubai imports everything, so if your order gets miscommunicated at any stage, you are without product, potentially, for weeks! Not what Toronto chefs are used to, but Meagan is strength-on-strength and took the challenge head-on, and was quite a success, in the end. I think her favourite part was staff meals, in a kitchen where no two cooks were of the same background, and there was always a pot of rice on the stove, and a lot of the best curries she has ever had the pleasure of enjoying!
Photo Credit: Arash Moallemi