Imagine a world where there is no variety. Imagine going to the grocery store and being presented with a row of immaculately perfect bananas, all identical. Bell peppers, symmetrical and the same shade of colour. Bunches of carrots, all the same width, length and colour. This may be someone’s dream. The decision-making process has been simplified with no need to choose which fruit is the ripest, juiciest or sweetest. This is the aspiration of most players in the food industry: to produce identical products time and time again.
Nature provides us with an abundance of flavours, textures, patterns and genetically diverse plant and animal life. None of this would be possible without inconsistency. Natural selection and evolution are the cause of, and product of, natural inconsistency. This process has brought about the sweetest tasting and ugliest carrots, buttery rich sea urchin and the beautifully decadent marbling of Wagyu beef.
It makes sense to me that the better of these two scenarios is the latter, creating a playground of ingredients to choose from. At the restaurant, because we work with smaller producers, we rarely find products are consistent from one to the next. Sometimes the beef tenderloin will be thinner and more marbled, next time it will be shorter and fatter with less marbling, even though it is from the same herd and raised in the same way. Maybe one cow’s appetite was a little less voracious that its friend or their genetic make-up meant that they were unable to put on as much intramuscular fat. These inconsistencies are embraced and celebrated. Inconsistencies make it more challenging to create dishes and push us to think outside the box, always be on our toes, and to appreciate and respect nature. In doing so, the challenges of inconsistency are relished, not feared.
Last summer, we received the sweetest Ontario peaches. We used them grilled and fresh. They were so incredibly rich and giving! We ordered more in the hope that we would get the same. These were from the same farmer, same orchard and only days apart. They were totally different. So we were lumped with peaches that were sub par. Or were we? We preserved them in a molasses syrup with bay leaves, rosemary and peppercorns and forgot about them. Six months later, in the pit of winter, they are gracing tasting menus with their incredible flavours and texture, giving our guests an elevated Ontario peach with the weather outside being thirty below zero.
Maybe the most notable example of inconsistency is in something that all our food touches at the restaurant: the plates. They are handmade by Dayna Wagner in La Salle, Ontario and no two pieces are the same. Even the width, height and weight of the plates differ. Small bowls have up to an 80g difference in weight and plates have a good half inch diameter variance. They are truly unique, each with a story, their own thumb indentations and irregular speckles. The fact that everything we plate lands on this dinnerware instils the philosophy of embracing the abnormal: the misshapen apple, the under-ripe peach, the fallen immature pear. It helps the cooks to be comfortable with adaptation, problem solving and uncertainty. Yes, the plating for each dish is roughly the same, but with subtle differences as to where the leaves fall or sauce drips, all along with the plate being the conductor of the symphony, shaping the cook’s decision as to what looks best.
In Canada, each season brings differences in ingredients, along with vast temperature swings. This means that even ingredients that are in season will vary greatly based on what is happening in nature. This is even true in the case of flour. We only use organic stone ground flour at the restaurant. It is unbleached and tastes like wheat. It sounds funny to say but shouldn’t all flour taste like wheat, not washed out white dust? This flour is one of the most beautiful, delicious, complex, frustrating, neurotic ingredients we have dealt with. We make a batch of sourdough and let the shaped loaves proof overnight in the fridge before loading into a proofing oven. From one bag to the next, the loaves can take 30 minutes or 4 hours to proof. Once we get used to the characteristics of one bag, we move on to a different bag and have to start the experiments again. But how can we expect to have a consistent product that is organically grown in nature? Temperature, sunlight, humidity, nutrient levels in the soil, pests, wind speed and rainfall all play a part in the wheat’s ability to grow and, essentially, replicate. Their end goal is symbiotic with ours.
Achieving a consistent product usually means sacrificing another aspect. Is it worth consistency if the product has lost all flavour? But it’s consistent, right? I’d rather take a bag of deliciously unwieldy flour any day…
Chef Chris Locke