A recent addition to Canadian food writing comes from our nation’s literary aristocracy. Jacob Richler, the son of the late and beloved Canadian man of letters, Mordecai, has been a food columnist for most of his writing career and his book, My Canada Includes Foie Gras (Viking Canada, 2012, $32.00), provides a glimpse into his culinary life. As much as his father attained the status of literary giant, Richler has achieved eminence as our own national food columnist and restaurant critic. He is in the enviable position of frequenting Michelin-starred restaurants around the world the way some people visit Domino’s Pizza. It is Richler’s habit as an insider to enter famous restaurants through the kitchen door, and he has chummed around enough with the owner of the famous Schwartz’s delicatessen to slyly receive the recipe for the secret spice rub for their Montreal smoked meat. He has even collaborated on cookbook projects with some of Canada’s best chefs, like Mark McEwan and Susur Lee.
Richler follows the ups and downs of high-profile chefs like these because his career is intertwined with the food scene they are creating in Canada. Hailing from Montreal, he doesn’t focus only on the food of Quebec, but he does lean heavily on it because, as he writes, “Canada has never produced anything that boasts even a small fraction of the culinary renown of Montreal smoked meat.” The strong emphasis on the terroir of Quebec food is also a distinguishing feature. Numerous Quebecois chefs take care in serving only in-season products from provincial suppliers. Chef Yvan Lebrun told Richler, “I’ve seen a lot of suppliers work very hard to adapt to the demands of local chefs. Today their products are superb, and it’s our responsibility to encourage them so that they can make a living from their work.”
In the days when foie gras was getting heavy negative press, Richler was comfortable serving his dog foie gras biscuits made by Toronto chef, Marc Thuet, who claimed to have been weaned on the terrine of fattened duck liver as a baby. He was raised in Alsace where it was a staple, rather than the luxury treat it is considered today. Richler, like his dog, does have a fondness for foie gras in all forms (terrines, seared foie gras and bacon sandwiches, whole roasted foie gras, foie gras-topped poutine) and, as the title implies, he expounds upon the high quality produced in Quebec as a defining dish in our country.
Richler has eaten much great food and lived to write about it; if I can’t see or eat it personally, then listening to Richler remember some of his favourite dishes is mouth-watering enough.
Charcuterie boards, first introduced to him as a child by his father in Paris, seem to be another favourite of Richler’s. We are treated to his privileged involvement in the complete rituals of slaughtering a 400-lb pig to get the appropriate parts for making all manner of salami, prosciutto, sausage, pancetta, and the like in what he considers to be the most authentic Italian restaurant in Toronto, Buca Osteria & Enoteca. A game dinner served by David Lee at Toronto’s Nota Bene restaurant convinced Richler that meats from the Canadian wild — mallard duck, elk, pheasant, and bear tenderloins — rise above the blandness of much of the standard meat served.
Although mainly focusing on his writing as a restaurant critic, by pointing out restaurants from seafood-rich Vancouver to the tasting-menus in Toronto, Richler’s food journey also takes us to his home life. As a child, his father ate the same thing for lunch every day in their family cottage while he was writing his best works of literature. From his mother, he inherited an immense cookbook collection which got him on his way to enjoying classic cooking in his own kitchen, and keeping it well stocked with speciality items from Toronto markets. We accompany the adult Richler as he takes his own children for Peking duck for the first time, hoping they won’t revolt at the head and beak still being attached. About his daughter, he wonders: “Would Simone now notice the obvious anatomical connection between lunch and the little stuffed fuzzy duck with which she like to spend the night?”
Richler ends the book with a look to the future of fine dining, suggesting that a broader selection of truly competent chefs in less fancy restaurants have made everyday eating less of a stretch from haute cuisine than it used to be. Even though he has spent much of his career partaking in foie gras-laden, truffle-infused meals across Canada, he has also been a long-time patron of Montreal delis, devouring the medium-fat pastrami sandwiches on rye that were much-loved by his father. And both styles give him a great deal of pleasure in the eating.
Darin Cook works and plays in Chatham-Kent and regularly contributes to eatdrink.