I’ve long held the belief that food must be one of the most interesting forms of communication. A universally human experience, the act of preparing, serving, and consuming food, alone or together, however much effort put into recipes or ceremony into eating, has layers upon layers of meaning. People even speak of putting themselves into a dish, putting love into recipes. These dishes, prepared, constructed, finished and presented, are then literally consumed by someone else. In what other instance can you say you’ve had communication on such a level?
I’ve always known this to be true. Known, but never really understood. That was, until I went out for a certain meal at 39 Carden Street, a French-inspired bistro here in Guelph. I’d been there many, many times before. The food is always beyond excellent – the best in the city, easily. But something was different on this certain evening.
It was November 2nd, my birthday, and my girlfriend asked me where she could take me out for dinner to celebrate. Where does one go for composed, perfectly executed food without the pretentious settings that traditionally go along with such dishes? 39 Carden, of course. Having been privileged to get to know Becky Hood and Ches Zaborowksi, Head Chef and Sous Chef respectively at 39 Carden, on a personal level over the last three years, they came to our table and offered me the privilege of a small tasting menu offering (something not usually done).
Carden’s menu features elegantly simple, seasonally inspired dishes. We started with freshly shucked Atlantic oysters on the half shell with fresh lemon, horseradish and a red wine and shallot mignonette. Following in quick succession, we were sent three courses, each dish distinct but equal in quality and composure to one another. Seared halibut, in a delicately spicy golden beet and red curry broth, with toasted cashews, peas, beans, and cilantro; confit duck leg with a rich goat cheese and cauliflower puree, garnished with bacon and springy Brussels sprouts and a tart sour cherry gastrique; Trotter’s pork shoulder alongside turnips, tomato and lentils, accented by an elegant sunchoke puree. After the first bite of every dish, my girlfriend and I looked up at each other, met eyes, and mouthed something along the lines of, “holy shit.” This incredible meal was concluded with Becky herself delivering my dessert with a single candle. Asking how everything was, I was surprised to find tears in my eyes, and my only response was to get up from my table to hug her.
I guess I was feeling very emotional. Maybe it was the bottles of wine we had split over dinner, or the moody candlelit setting and my illustrious company, or maybe it was because Becky and Ches took the time to alter dishes during a busy service to create a tasting menu for me. Or maybe, like something out of Like Water for Chocolate, the skills and emotion put into each dish had been imparted unto me; the hard work, honesty, execution, and sheer love had been imbued in each dish, which acted as a medium for me to experience. The feeling was palpable, and I left the restaurant that night thinking something special had just happened.
A few days had passed, and I could not stop thinking about that meal. I have had many good meals before, many incredible meals even. But nothing had quite resonated with me like this before. I started to reflect on what could have made it different. I knew I felt more emotional after that meal than I had ever previously before (and I’m a pretty emotional guy). Of course the setting, the situation, the personalized service all contributed to my overwhelming gratitude. But I kept thinking there was more to it. As my mind continued returning to the aromas and flavors of each dish, I began thinking more about the food itself. At what level did that food exist? How is it different from something you might hastily whip up at home after a long day of work; how is it different from other dining experiences?
Sure, you can go to a large chain restaurant, sit down to an oversized plate containing far too large a portion of pre-cooked, hastily assembled food. You can chew through such a meal, gazing listlessly towards the television set, and float off into the sunset of mediocrity. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and a place for such meals. I have many fond memories involving such establishments, whether plowing through my plate as a child with only the coveted end-of-meal toy-chest in mind, or even more recently, being eternally grateful for the ability to sit down to a 24 oz glass of beer after having been asked if I wanted to make my order into a “man mug” or something of the likes. But the food and dining experiences that go along with this undoubtedly exist at a different level than the one I had at 39 Carden. Sure, I will admit even some of the food is delicious (give me a quarter-white with fries any day), but it is hard to say there is much feeling behind it; food with intentionality, purpose, meaning, respect involved in its planning, preparation and plating surely must exist at a different level.
Having the rare opportunity to actually talk to the people behind the food at 39 Carden, I asked Becky and Ches to meet with me to ask about their thoughts on putting meaning, intentionality and even love into the food they make. I’ve had too many conversations about food with these two in the past to count, but they usually took place some time close to last call, half yelling at one another across graffiti riddled tables at the Jimmy Jazz. While seeming a little startled when asking them if I could record our next conversation (and be at least a little sober), they willingly obliged.
Ches is one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met, and his voice raises and falls with excitement and love when telling stories, most especially when they involve food. “150% yes you can put love in food,” he bolted out, “but I think also 150% it’s the hardest thing to put into food, especially in a restaurant setting.” He separates his food memories between restaurants and personal life, but his fondest food memories involve family. “I hold that above any restaurant too. Christmas Eve in my babka’s basement is like the Holy Grail for me – eating that food that has that loving and personal touch. I think I can speak for Becky when I say that we try and touch food in that way, and I truly believe that love in that touch can make that food taste a certain way.”
Becky, equally passionate about food though perhaps more calculated than her counterpart picked up where he left off. “With Ches and I, every plate needs to have thought. That goes into the whole restaurant. Even some of our failures, where we are like ‘this dish sucks,’ at the time we were planning it, there was thought in it. Ches and I think about everything. It’s never just ‘hey we have this and this and this in the fridge,’ – no, we actually get stoked on things.” It’s fair to say that this thought carries through the entire restaurant – 39 Carden, from the menu to the books and preserves that adorn the shelves and walls, is entirely an expression of Becky Hood. “I think most successful restaurants, what you’re tasting is thought,” she continued, “most of my favourite meals are in small places where the chefs don’t necessarily make a ton of money, and you know they all work really fucking hard, and every plate you get has so much thought.”
As the night progressed, the themes of the conversation revolved heavily around this conception of thought, which Becky and Ches worked to refine further to the importance of honesty and seasonality in their food. “Cooking while respecting seasonality is kind of like being fair, I guess. You’re highlighting the ingredient at its best,” Becky explained, “when asparagus season happens, you are like so fucking happy!”Ches interrupted, bursting out “Use it everywhere! Eat it fucking raw!” On honesty in food, Becky was steadfast in her beliefs: “do as little as possible to your ingredients. Let them be exactly as they are. I can’t stand this like, foaming, eat this smoke before you eat this, turning shit into other shit. You know that I would rather eat a bowl of spaghetti in front of the TV as opposed to that smoky fucking carrot powder.” “SAD-GHETTI!” Ches beamed.
As with most of my interactions with these highly knowledgeable and passionate cooks, the conversation ebbed and flowed between a vast array of topics regarding food and beverage, from the best beer they had last week to the reason why you can find a form of dumpling in any given food culture. “The thought and love in food, I believe absolutely you can feel it when someone puts themselves in food,” Ches explained, “it sounds lame, but it can be so moving. I’ve gotten teary eyed before. You know when you eat something, you like breathe in your nose, that deep breath, and it fuckin’ takes you away, absolutely.” These types of conversations don’t happen frequently enough. They provide a sphere where it’s okay to take food seriously, in which you can engage with your plate and think about all of the consideration, ideas, diligence, and hard work put into every inch of it. It’s a humbling foray, one that exposes the commitment and dedication of the incredible people and minds that fuel our restaurant industry, like those of Becky and Ches. And it’s a demanding industry, too.
“Cooking is mechanical and it’s a job,” Becky concluded. “And sometimes you wonder what you’re doing, you know, I mean it’s just food. I’ve strayed away from the industry a couple times to try and ‘find myself’ or whatever… but my identity is defined by cooking. I’m a cook, that’s just what I am. I don’t even know how I’d function without that mentality.” Ches resounded, “It is who you are. But you love it, and you respect it so much.”
It seems all too often we are searching to find the glimmers and shards of meaning that keep us motivated to work in what can be an exhausting and thankless occupation. Next time you sit down to a meal, have a second look at the menu. What does it say about the city, the region, the people behind the plates? A confluence of intersecting forces of food and hospitality occurred on November 2nd 2017 at 39 Carden. Immensely dedicated and passionate people put their thought and being into something that was so expressive I literally felt it. I did not just sit down and consume food on a plate; I experienced what someone put their love and intentionality into. And yes, I tasted love.