You Should Cook More and Other Holiday Tips: a Conversation with Chef Todd Perrin

©David Howells 2017

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.

Paderno’s stainless steel multi-roaster with removable rack.

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.

Paderno’s classic non-stick fry pan

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 here and Paderno here.