Succulent dumplings and glistening stir fried noodles are by now a mainstay in many Torontonians’ diets — they are everywhere and affordable, unselfconsciously delicious despite their stints as American-Chinese food. In the precarious food world where trends bubble over, these classics seem somehow eternal. We’ll be slurping up versions of glistening noodles long after toasts become toasted bread again, terms of authenticity are redefined, and the kingdom come. And if there is a place to slurp, slurp as the world pirouettes out of orbit, Chop Chop on Dundas West is the place to do it.
The tall windows, the white walls, and the high ceiling of Chop Chop would put one in mind of a hip brunch place with colorful hollandaise sauce and ‘creative’ takes on French toasts, if it weren’t for the subtle nutty smell of woks being worked in a small open kitchen. The simple menu, divided into three short sections, ‘Dumplings’, ‘Appetizers’, and ‘Mains’, feels like a bridge between a menu at a corner takeout joint and one at a place marked authentic. Ginger beef, Shanghai Noodles, and General Tao chicken sit side by side with mapo tofu, Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, and spicy cucumber salad. The daily specials menu that includes braised eggplant and pig ears continue the theme. Chop Chop does not cater to the shooters in search of the authentic, nor does it fall back on the comforts of the simulacrum. It’s truly welcoming, in the way eating at a friend’s place is: Come eat what we like to eat.
If you luck out and find the pan-fried vegetable dumplings on the daily specials, start there. The thick and chewy skin that’s absorbed the nutty oil lead the way to the sweet fillings of cabbage and other veges I was frankly too absorbed in eating to decipher. The Shanghai noodles is unsettling as it reminds diners of how good this simple dish can be: vegetables sautéed to be soft with a hint of crunch, slivers of pork and small shrimps swimming in the tangle of oil-glistened, perfectly seasoned noodles. The mapo tofu, more mellow and tangy than it would be in a Sichuanese restaurant, is silky and comes with just the right amount of kick to offset its own sweetness. The braised eggplant makes the apostate believe in vegetables again.
Among the fortune cookie-like aphorisms written in crisp red letters throughout Chop Chop, every syllable of “Happiness begins from within your stomach” rings true like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There are reasons why you are not rushing to a fishmonger after work for a pound of fish that’s not salmon so you can go home and cook dinner. Perhaps a vile den of villainous conspirators are behind the rise of UberEats and the decline of cooking something other than a sad pasta. Who knows? But if there were an action figure the remaining eager home cooks and would-be chefs can rally behind, it might just be in the shape of Todd Perrin — a short beard, red tuque, blue jeans, and fishing boots. He has the back story too: a viking, as Matty Mathieson once put it, of a man with an unassuming background, from an unassuming town rises to champion good cooking and good eating. Maybe there’s a TV series here. Somebody call Anthony Bourdain.
Perrin, now famous for the Mallard Cottage in Quidi Vidi Village, Newfoundland, may be familiar to some from his appearance on Top Chef Canada. Though, looking back since our interview, it seems like an unlikely place to find him in: television is too rehearsed, obsessed with the need to pit one against another, too many close-ups. With so many scenes of ‘judges’ taking bites, TV’s somehow drained the actual process of cooking and eating out of food.
What Perrin talks about when he talks about food is the joy behind cooking and eating. Less grapefruit mousse, more mushrooms.Less bullshit, more fresh caught cod. Less judging, more food.
As part of his collaboration with Paderno, Canada’s only cookware manufacturer, Novella had a chance to chat with chef Perrin about the holidays in the kitchen.
Tell us about your partnership with Paderno.
TP: My relationship with Paderno is cool because I’ve been in a partnership with Paderno even before they knew I was in a partnership with them [laughs]. I’ve had their set of pots for more than 20 years. When I went to cooking school, one of the first places I went to was the Paderno factory in PEI because I just knew about it through friends and family who knew. Being a young cook, I wanted to get the coolest pots I could find. I’ve had them 20 years and I use them almost everyday: their “Pots for Eternity” is a real thing, they’re as good today as they were the day I bought them. The thing with Paderno is that the moment you take them out of the cupboard, you feel like you’re doing something [laughs]. They’ve got a weight to them and are quality. It’s been a fond partnership so far. I talk about local ingredients a lot and, you know, quality ingredients: these guys have quality products that are Canadian-made.
Do you remember your childhood Christmas meals? And if there was turkey, do you actually like turkey?
Todd Perrin: We were pretty traditional, so a turkey dinner with all the fixings was the classic. At home in Newfoundland, where I grew up, we basically had Christmas dinner pretty well every Sunday. Every Sunday was like roast beef, roast turkey, salt beef, vegetables, and what you’d normally do on Christmas. We’d do that at my grandparents place. Turkey is still one my favorite things to eat.
What dish do you think people should stop/start making for the Holidays?
TP: I think that in a world where people are cooking less and less, the holidays is an opportunity to cook something. So, I wouldn’t suggest to anyone to stop making anything. I would say, get out there and do something: a traditional turkey dinner, lamb, whatever you like, maybe a vegetarian feast. I would never say anything to discourage anyone from doing anything. I’d just say try something different, expand your horizons, and don’t be afraid of failures — the holidays, around your family, it’s the best time to do that.
The cliché is that home cooks need to use more butter and more salt to be on par with restaurant food. But what are some other things home cooks can do to elevate their skills?
TP: I think the single biggest piece of advice for a home cook that a professional cook can give them is: you need to be better aware of what you can do in advance. Maybe this isn’t so much for the taste of the food, and more for the overall quality of the experience you and your guests are going to have when you are entertaining. There’s no reason for you to be running around like an idiot when your guests are there.
This is something thing that’s always been true with me since I started entertaining. When I entertain, people are always amazed at how cool and calm I am, sitting around with a glass of wine or a beer when they’re supposed to be there for dinner. It’s because, as a professional cook, I know how to take things part way through the process, how to do mise en place. That’s the biggest thing people can pay attention to as home cooks: learn those few tricks and how to bring things along part of the way, so that the only thing you need to do last minute is to cook that piece of fish or turn the oven on high to finish cooking something. If you learn how to organize, it will make the cooking better, make you a better, more relaxed cook.
You’ve spent time in various parts of Canada. In your mind, what’s the most Canadian dish, and what’s so Canadian-y about it? Also, where do you get it?
TP: I wouldn’t say I have a favorite Canadian dish per say. What I love doing is going to different parts of Canada and experiencing what those parts have to offer. We have an awesomely vibrant food scene in the country right now. We have a big country, which makes for a diverse palette of food, chefs, styles of food, etc. The east coast is heavy on seafood, and we can do wild-foraged foods. You go to Alberta, you’re talking about beef, and in B.C. you have the west coast seafood; Ontario and Quebec are the bread baskets of Canada.
There’s such a wide variety across Canada. What I really love is seeing what’s happening in each town, city, and province. You get an experience in Alberta unlike what you’d get in, say, Newfoundland. So everywhere has its unique touches. Not to mention the ethnic diversity in our major cities.
What’s your favorite Newfoundland ingredient?
TP: My favorite Newfoundland ingredient is probably chanterelle mushrooms. But when you are talking about Newfoundland ingredients, it starts and ends with cod fish, because it’s the reason why we’re there. Unless you’ve had a fresh piece of cod straight out of the Atlantic coast in Newfoundland, you’ve never eaten a good piece of fish. It blows your mind with how special it is. So, a good piece of fresh cod with a few chanterelle sautéed over is about as quintessential Newfoundland as you can get.
Our ‘relationship’ with food is a constant topic these days. Why do you think we are more concerned with what and how we eat now than ever before?
TP: I think it’s one of the ironies — when we feel like we are losing something, we talk about it a lot, but we don’t act on it. Fact that there’s so much food tv, food journalism, that we talk so much about it is a direct correlation to the fact that we don’t cook as much as we used to. People feel like they’re getting the connection to food from reading about it and seeing on TV. Unfortunately, it’s the way our society has moved. We’ve never had a stronger virtual relationship to food, and, at the same time, we have the weakest actual relationship to food. I think we need to push back against that. I think there is a way to use media as a way to promote actual and better relationship with food.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Find out more about Mallard Cottage hereand Paderno here.
Zakkushi in Cabbagetown is crowded and hectic. The staff moves quickly through the narrow hall, carrying giant pints of beer. The crowd, mostly parties of four or more, is another indication that this is no delicate, precious Japanese dining scene. You can see everyone and everyone can see you in the bright yellow lights: there’s no shame in eating and drinking in excess here. It’s just homey enough feel like your living room and all that space entails for your usual inhibitions. Come to have fun and the staff lets you know you’re right at home; bring a weird uncle who talks to strangers, make new friends.
Also, yakitori. Truth be told, after a few of those giant pints and $9 bottles of sake, I’m no longer sure whether the chicken hearts (hatsu) were served split or whole, or whether the cartilage (nankotsu) were served mixed in a bowl with scallions or just plain with sea salt, and various other details those in the kitchen, the center of gravity that holds everything together, toiled over. But a copious amount of chicken was eaten, and I trust myself to say that it must have been pretty good.
General rule of thumb: wherever they offer ‘teriyaki sauce or sea salt’, opt for the sea salt — in lieu of writing an entire thing against the easy deployment and reckless abundance of ‘teriyaki sauce,’ let me just say, don’t do it. Let’s not make the man/woman who butchered the chicken into multiple different parts and slowly grilled them over charcoal with loving care and occasional dunks in tare look back at the plate of wet kushi in anger.
The raw section of the menu is less than ideal, but considering the prices and the range of meats offered, it’s understandable. And, as mentioned above, it’s difficult to stay disappointed at anything here, what with new dishes to try and new dishes to envy over at the next table. True, some may say that other izakayas or those who want to be izakayas may have larger menus with cooler typography and photos and ostensibly daily specials and a staff with more expansive vocal cords. Okay, cool.
At Zakkushi, order more than think you can finish because the portions are often small, and eat your fill. It’s a bit of a walk to the subway station, so go over the menu again and order some more.
Churchill, Manitoba, is as foreign as the Mojave desert to most Torontonians. Yet it’s right there on the Canadian map, a once burgeoning and now tourist-destination port city, home to the dissipating dream of a lively Arctic route, on the southwestern edge of Hudson Bay. Earlier this year, on May 23rd, a flood washed out the train track connecting Churchill to the rest of the Province. Read more on the effects of privatization and climate change on small cities and towns around Canada here. –
On a different note, on my recent visit back home to Montreal, I found my stash of past issues of Lucky Peach and felt anew a deep sense of regret at not buying five copies of each and keeping them plastic wrapped — I’m telling you, soon they will go for +100$ a copy. I also felt sad. Lucky Peach was the best food magazine out there. The editors, contributors, artists, and whoever was involved with it truly seemed, to borrow Peter Meehan’s words, “pigs in shit” — irreverent, happy, absolutely in love with their subjects. I just found out that their website is down. Walter Green’s “Fancy Butter Taste Test“ is the only article I could find that you can access online. It’s from the Fine Dining issue of Lucky Peach. Have a taste. –
Granted, a grocery store is a not the sexiest topic. You just might get stood up if you dm ‘meet me in front of the Provigo at seven, we’re about to really eat’. But what you are not taking into consideration is that there are stores that carry produce and meats and cheeses that are unconscionably sexy they will have you planning out home cooked dinner dates for days. Trust me — that sliver of Bleu d’Elizabeth will have you and your boo moaning in no time.
Since we at Novella are, all things considered, only truly concerned with making you the sexiest motherfu**ers Toronto’s ever seen, we couldn’t in all good conscience not give you the below list of stores you should hit for a night in. Go for the salt, goo, and stink of the splendor at these establishements and enjoy it in the comfort of your home and sweatpants. (Pusateri’s at Saks Fifth was not included in the list because it makes me feel uneasy).
Cheese Boutique (and Nancy’s Cheese)
This could be our way of re-purposing our interview with Afrim Pristine, but it’s not. The Cheese Boutique really is the best place to get cheese in Toronto. Get a bit of different cheeses — make sure to taste them —, pick out a chocolate or two, and grab a baguette and a thing of olives. The best part of the Cheese Boutique is that the staff are knowledgable and will help you pick out what you like.
If the Cheese Boutique is a little too far, Nancy’s Cheese on Dupont and Spadina also carry a very good selection of cheeses from around the world and Canada. Nancy’s has an approximate list of what’s in stock on their website, so you can check it out before you go.
Sanagan’s Meat Locker
Sanagan’s Meat Locker has two counters — one for the butcher and one for the deli. The butcher section features meats from numerous farms across Canada and offers everything from premium steaks to offals. The deli side is a little retrained in its choices but all the better since everything it offers is excellent. Personal favorite is their blood sausage — ask for an inch-thick and grill it for breakfast. Sanagan’s also carries a variety of meat-based deliciousness like bone marrow broth; it also has lunch options, so if you’re too hungry to wait, you can get some straight away.
Schmaltz is truly a magical place. From a variety of smoked fishes, pickled herrings, caviars to cream cheeses and deli salads, these ‘purveyors of fine fish’ really know how to eat. If you need more convincing than a brief look at their goods, try one of their bagel sandwiches — chazzer (gravlax, salmon caviar, horseradish cream cheese) is great place to start. Eat it next to a tiny counter with napkins and local event ads and proceed to spend all your hard earned money. It will be worth it.
Last on our list is Galleria Supermarket. As the name cries out, it is expansive and covers every section of the food pyramid and spills over some. This Korean grocery store’s mandate is “Better than the best products”. As such their products are fresh and reliable, and their stores are clean and well-managed. Galleria offers produce from Asia alongside your regular blueberries and watermelons, and niche products for adventurous home cooks to chefs alike. Going to Galleria is like an adventure (with a cafeteria at the back at the Finch location) — you will always be surprised by what’s available. (They’ve recently opened a smaller ‘Express’ branch on Bloor W.)