Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017

© David Elkins

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Counter culture

Classes at Montreal's Appetite for Books fan the flames for home chefs

"This is the best restaurant in town," enthuses Kathryn Osbourne, a noted Montreal interior decorator. That's somewhat surprising since she's chatting in what looks more like a bookstore than a citadel of fine dining.

A long table is laid out with the latest titles and the walls are lined with dark shelves full of volumes that suggest the proprietors take their selections very seriously. "I eat here every chance I get," Osbourne continues, "I've been coming since they opened in 2005."

Entering Appetite for Books from Westmount's busy Victoria Avenue, the store seems to be exactly what the tasteful red sign over the door suggests, a bookshop devoted to cookbooks. Anyone who enjoys food could while away a happy hour browsing — but the books are only the opening chapter in the story.

At the back of the store is a large granite counter edged by comfortable chrome and black leather stools. A professional cooktop and grill are set into the counter under a large stainless steel hood. Behind are twin commercial ovens, a wide sink, a big refrigerator and a high shelf full of bowls and pans and cooking utensils. This is where Jonathan Cheung works and, decked out in a chef's jacket with spiffy black buttons, looks most at home.

Tonight the counter is laid out with 10 place settings, as it is as many as six nights a week. Elegant white dinnerware and this evening's menu grace each spot alongside tall wine glasses. At about 6:15PM, the dinner guests begin to arrive. Some have booked months in advance for the privilege of watching Jonathan cook, and to enjoy the amazing meals he prepares.

At the Chef's Table

Every few months, an author-chef will drop by to cook and answer questions in person. Each evening class features recipes from a different cookbook. Tonight it's Chez Panisse, Pasta Pizza & Calzone by Alice Waters, offerings from the legendary restaurant in Berkley California. The introduction to the book suggests some of the joys in store, "lighthearted cuisines of Provence and Italy — grilled radicchio and anchovies, roasted peppers, brandade, crusty pizzas […] informal food with lively direct flavours."

Tonight's menu: basic pasta and pizza dough; radicchio, pancetta and buckwheat noodles; garlic, parsley and anchovy spaghetti; fresh buffalo mozzarella, tomato and basil pizza; Chez Panisse calzone and a few extras.

Everyone is hungry. Jonathan begins by rolling out pasta dough and passes it through the rollers of a KitchenAid pasta maker three or four times, until it's smooth and silky. After switching to the cutting attachment he runs it though again and holds up a sheet of perfectly evenly cut golden strands.

Next he cuts five or six cloves of garlic into astonishingly thin slices and pops them into a pan of virgin olive oil on medium-low heat so they turn golden brown but don't burn. Some finely chopped anchovies are added.

A large pot's now on the boil, and in goes the pasta. In less than two minutes it's lifted out of the water and dropped, damp and tender, into the waiting oil and garlic. A small handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley is mixed in with a few deft flips of the pan and the dish is ready to be served.

Using tongs he puts a twist of the steaming pasta on to each proffered plate. Hot, fresh, heavenly. That mysterious ingredient that's hard to place is the anchovies, utterly transformed.

Next come buckwheat noodles, again worked and folded and passed though the rollers several times. Jonathan cuts them into wide ribbons with a chef's knife, douses them in flour and sets them in six separate piles. Now he quickly slices thick bands of pancetta, that most savoury of Italian bacons, into bite-sized cubes and tosses them into a pan with more virgin olive oil. He cores the radicchio and cuts it into a very fine chiffonade and adds it to the pan, then pops the wide buckwheat strands into the boiling water for a couple of minutes. Into the pan goes the cooked pasta with a little water, a few flips of the pan mixes the ingredients together and onto the waiting plates it all goes.

Facts and Feast

The dinner conversation is instantly quieted to "ohs" and "ahs" and "mmms". Many of the guests have brought bottles of wine and, now that the initial hunger is sated, they pour and sip and put questions to the chef. What kind of salt does he use? Why does the cooked radicchio loose its bitterness? Why do you add oil to the pasta water? Where do you buy your pancetta?

Michelle York-Cheung appears to make sure the water glasses are full and the area tidied up before the next dish. With her extensive business background, Michelle knows as much about how to keep the enterprise afloat as her husband does about combining flavours.

Next up, it's pizza time. A "sponge" made of yeast, rye flour and lukewarm water has been rising in a small bowl for 20 minutes. Jonathan deftly adds unbleached flour, water, olive oil, salt and a tablespoon of whole milk, and kneads the dough.

While he works, he field questions about his beginnings as a student at a Culinary Arts program in Vancouver. After that he studied classical French cuisine for three years under Gerhard Pichler at Le Petit Genève in Vancouver earning his Red Seal (trade accreditation).

Then it was off to Hong Kong for another couple of years, where he worked in the kitchens of his father's international restaurants, learning to prepare Russian, Spanish, German and, of course, Chinese dishes. He'd always wanted to have a place of his own and to teach cooking.

Michelle had lived in Lausanne, Swtizerland and also appreciated good food. Back in Canada she embarked on a career in finance and business. And when they decided to open their own business, a high-end specialty bookstore with a SoHo look that offered cooking classes was a natural.

The dough has been set aside in a warm place to rise for two hours after which it will be punched down and allowed to rise for another 40 minutes. Fortunately for the diners, four rounds of dough have been prepared earlier and Jonathan now rolls one out on the heavily floured counter with a fat wooden rolling pin before beginning to layer on ingredients. Slices of baked tomatoes and garlic, fresh buffalo mozzarella, a few thin slices of red onion and into a hot, hot 260°C oven it goes.

The thin crust rests on an overturned baking pan, it's essential that the dough sit on a very hot surface, a cooking stone would be ideal, the chef explains. While the first pizza is cooking, a second one is prepared, this time topped with rich baked heads of garlic, olives, savoury ground sausage and some hot chilis. After just 12 minutes in the oven, the first offering is ready to be sliced and devoured.

The golden brown crust has bubbled up around the edges and is as tender and tasty as the ingredients. An earlier debate about what restaurant in the city serves the best pizza in town is settled after a first bite: it's Bon Appétit.

The treats keep coming. Two more sheets of dough are rolled out. Half of each is piled high with ingredients, folded over and fashioned into fat calzones. They emerge from the oven a few minutes later puffed up golden and aromatic, food for the gods.

Three hours have flown by. The sated guests who have shared this wonderful food, laughed and chatted with new friends. But wait, there's more. Jonathan is icing carrot, walnut and raisin cupcakes. Eat up, they're good for you and so delicious.

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