#Canada150 Alumni Spotlight: British Columbia (Chef James Walt)

As part of the Stratford Chefs School’s celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial, we will publish a monthly feature that focuses on alumni who have established roots in cities and communities from sea to sea, and who each uniquely contribute to our distinctive Canadian cuisine.

Canada150 Alumni Spotlight

British Columbia

Chef James Walt

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Chef James Walt | Photo courtesy of Araxi Restaurant

Feet in the Ground

Chef James Walt and the Evolution of Fine Dining at Whistler

Article provided by Judy Ahola, Toptable Group

To begin, James Walt came to his unique style of modern mountain cookery naturally, even organically. It was an evolution that has taken place over decades, and that has many component parts – his love of the farms and ranches in the nearby Pemberton Valley, where he lives, his close connectivity to the coastal fishery first earned while a chef at the iconic Sooke Harbour House, and his restless culinary roaming that has embraced the essence of Peru, Italy, Mexico, Vancouver and Manhattan, amongst many other gastronomic touch points.

Along the way there have been many accolades: countless “Best Whistler Restaurant” Gold Medals awarded annually in Vancouver Magazine, a lengthy recognition of Araxi Restaurant + Oyster Bar’s 11,000 bottle wine cellar by Wine Spectator, and even a featured role on Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen just prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

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Quebec Foie Gras Parfait
Red Wine Poached Pears and Candied Orange Zest
Red Wine Gel and Toasted Brioche

Photo: Terry Manzo

But for this cheerful yet self-effacing chef – who recently published his second cookbook Araxi: Roots to Shoots, Farm Fresh Recipes – his greatest joy lies in connecting field, farm, and fishery to his seasonal kitchen. And it is a natural connection, for this son of the soil grew up in the small farming community of Stittsdale, Ontario in the Ottawa Valley. Surrounded by hay fields and potato farms, James worked in the farm labour pool while still a boy, picking fruit, milking goats and haying. At home, his family ran a large fruit and vegetable garden, and raised two cows that would be slaughtered and frozen to sustain them through the winter. For the Walt family and their neighbours, the term ‘Eat Local’, was made a virtue of necessity a full generation before it became fashionable.

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Chef James Walt’s second cookbook “Roots to Shoots”: Farm Fresh Recipes

James first visited British Columbia in the summer of 1990, while still attending Stratford Chefs School. What was to be a short visit turned into summertime idylls at the stoves of Rebecca Dawson’s seasonally inspired Raintree Restaurant, as well as at Sinclair and Frederique Philip’s Sooke Harbour House. Both restaurants were early progenitors of a determinedly, even stubborn grasp of local ingredients prepared fresh in the season.

The young chef returned to Stratford seven months later to complete his culinary studies, but with the ink barely dry on his diploma, made a beeline back to the coast. Stints at Sooke Harbour House, Araxi’s sister restaurant Blue Water Cafe in Vancouver’s historic Yaletown district, and in Rome cooking for the Canadian Consulate General, followed. “It was my goal to join Toptable Group,” he says today. “The quality, the attention to wines, service, and absolutely top grade ingredients really spoke to me. So did the creative license that I was allowed.”

Nineteen years ago, when James moved to Whistler to head up the kitchen brigade at Araxi, cuisine on the mountain was only just beginning to shed its ubiquitous cloak of ‘international cuisine’, pizzas and pastas. Working with other early adopter chefs such as Bernard Casavant of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, James reached out to the famers of the Pemberton Valley to grow menu-specific fruits and vegetables that could be used fresh in the growing season and canned for the winter. Local beef and pork soon followed, and close liaisons with coastal oystermen, prawners and fisherfolk of all stripes assured pristine ingredients throughout the year – and, unusually, delivered daily up Highway 99 to the mountainside restaurant.

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Photo courtesy of Totable Group

 

Local sourcing was challenging at first: many of the farms in Pemberton were still fledgling operations, and Jordan Sturdy’s North Arm Farm was just starting out. Now the site of Araxi’s annual Longtable Dinner (which this year numbered 400 guests dining at one very lengthy table), the farm is now a vast purveyor of first-class fruits and vegetables. “I don’t have to think about it as much now,” James says. “We know the growing rhythms, and what’s ready to harvest every week – it’s very helpful to have the consistency of supply in volume now during the busy summer season.” And beginning each spring, Chef Walt extends his reach to the Fraser and Okanagan valleys as well, for stone fruits, berries, and vegetables.

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Photo courtesy of Araxi Restaurant

For the past several years, James has worked towards the launch in November, 2015, of Bar Oso and The Cellar by Araxi. Bar Oso (‘Bear’) features the Spanish-inflected pinxtos, tapas and charcuterie of Chef Jorge Muñoz Santos cast in a beautifully decorated room that exudes Iberian warmth. And at The Cellar, dining for special events, also overseen by James, are prepared in a demonstration kitchen that infuses a special sense of occasion into the sophisticated and contemporary room.

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Photo: David Buzzard

It’s a Sunday in late August, and the Longtable – stretching over 400 feet – has been gorgeously set with white linen at North Arm Farm. Wine glasses and silver cutlery sparkle in the sun under the peak of Mt. Currie. In the chefs’ tents, sauces bubble and the grills are laden with local beef while fresh oysters are shucked for the hungry crowd to accompany a sluice of sparkling wines. Charcuterie and pates – served family style – begin the dance, then simply dressed chunky cut heirloom tomatoes under a strew of basil and baby lettuce, thick-sliced Pemberton beef au jus nestled on carrots and long beans, local cheeses, fruits, and sweets to finish. Much of it has been grown within a mile or two, and as Chef James Walt and his brigade of more than 30 cooks take their bow, it is clear that his feet remain firmly in this ground, and that everything he cooked tasted of right here, right now.

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Alumnus James Walt (’91) with SCS students after dinner service January 2017

Photo: Terry Manzo

Click HERE to watch Chef James Walt discuss the Pemberton terroir and his food philosophy

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehuyyVizr3c

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God is in the details

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by guest student blogger Stepfanie Spencer

Coco Chanel once said “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory” and although she was talking about fashion, the adage holds true for cooking as well. 

As new cooks, we are constantly learning: techniques, flavours, equipment we’ve never seen or used before. Everything is fresh and exciting and we want to excel with them all. Skill, knowledge and experience are all required to be a good chef, but knowing how to use them with refinement is what makes a great one. We are all Stuart from Mad TV yelling “look what I can do!” when what we should be doing is practicing our butchery; our ability to trim the fat. 

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to eat my first Omakase (a sushi chef’s tasting menu) at Yasu in Toronto. It was a study in the simple and understated; a #nomakeupselfie for each dish. No bite had more than 6 ingredients, and none were used unnecessarily. A bit of soy for seasoning, some Yuzu zest or juice to cut the fatty richness of a fish or a sliver of a Shiso leaf for a unique herbacious hit. Everything had its place. Even the sake selected for pairing followed this rule. The rice wine didn’t work to contrast or compliment the bites of sushi, they instead worked symbiotically to heighten the experience of each other. 

It made me think about the importance of simplicity. A major trend this year has been minimalism: in furniture, clothing, life in general – but also food. There is a celebration of quality over quantity, of purity over muddied complexity. When you pay more attention to sourcing ingredients, how they are made or grown, there is a stronger pull towards allowing them to shine. Why work so hard to grow something perfectly if you are just going to hide it behind stronger flavours? 

I’ve found, for myself at least, that creativity is only nurtured in the presence of limitation, and so I urge everyone to remember when you are asking yourself, “what does this dish need?” sometimes the answer is: less.

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Italy Comes to Stratford

Mel Athulathmudali

by guest student blogger Mel Athulathmudali   

photos courtesy of Terry Manzo

Earlier this month, during one of the coldest weeks of this winter, students at the Stratford Chefs School were lucky enough to experience some Italian warmth thanks to a visit from Chef Gino Minacapilli. He was here as our second and final International Guest Chef in Residence for this year. He is a chef and teacher at a school of hospitality in the region of Piedmont, an area of Italy renowned for the production of Barolo and Barbaresco wines, truffles and many other Italian delicacies.

I had the good fortune to spend 2 evenings working in the kitchen with him. For one of those evenings I was student chef, my last time at the school before we graduate.

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Me, Jose Matamoros, and Chef Minacapilli

Our initial meeting was over a dinner at Pazzo, attended by some faculty and students. At dinner he expressed a desire to eat something that was typically Canadian for his first meal here. The recommendation? Ribs, which, after finishing, he proclaimed to be ‘molto bene’, or ‘very good’. This was followed by a discussion of Canadian wine, which he had no knowledge of apart from ice wine. We all assured him there were some very good Canadian wines out there and I promised to deliver him a bottle sometime during his stay.

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At work in the Kitchen

The next day all of the second year students met with him at The Prune to go over the menus for the week and to get to know him a bit. Ignoring his jet lag, he managed to excite all of us about the menus for the upcoming week. Over the course of the week, he managed to teach us about the regional specialities of which he is so very proud. The food he wanted to prepare wasn’t the Italian food we are all used to. Piedmontese food is mountain food, and being a land-locked region, it relies heavily on game, vegetables and grains, with little tomato and garlic. It is strong, hearty, home food, and many of the recipes he gave us during the week were from his family. While we were making Tajarin, a linguine like pasta that is a regional speciality, he explained to me the way his mother and grandmother had made pasta every day from scratch, just like we were doing.

My experience working as student chef under him was very positive. He is a natural teacher, patient and willing to explain things many times to get his point across. Differences in language were not an issue, and by the end of the week we were joking and laughing with him and he understood most of what we were all saying to him and vice versa.

The entire class was very lucky to have the experience of working with this chef, one who values new experiences as much as he treasures time-honoured classics, and brought Italian warmth to a Stratford winter.

On the night I was student chef, as I had promised, I gave him a bottle of Canadian red wine, which I hope he took home and enjoyed. Who knows, maybe he’s in Italy right now extolling the virtues of great Canadian wines over Italian Barolo…you never know.

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Interview with Gabrielle Hamilton

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blog post #7 by 2015-16 student blogger James Toenders 

 

photos courtesy of Terry Manzo

 

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to have lunch with Gabrielle Hamilton at Rene’s Bistro. We talked about food writing, being a chef and her process for choosing menus. These are the bits of the interview that weren’t just us rambling about drinking at the Boars Head and our mutual love Eddie Huang. It’s a lot to read, but a person like Gabrielle Hamilton has a lot to say.

JAMES TOENDERS: As a budding food writer, and going to a school that brings professional writers in to teach, I’m curious: what’s the importance of having a formal education to a food writing career? Is it like cooking, where there are many successful chefs like yourself without any school-based education?

GABRIELLE HAMILTON: I think that, frankly, with cooking, with writing, with I don’t care… masonry, you have something or you don’t. Which is not to say that there’s not room for tons and tons of bodies in all of the industries. We need a lot of shit written down, there’s all kinds of ways to make a living writing. We need a lot of cooks, we need a lot of stone layers and I think the education can only enhance, and bring out what you innately have. If you have a little gift or a talent, the education gives you the structure, the architecture, the armature on which to hang your talent that’s just fluttering around in your body waiting to be harnessed.

JT: Have you ever done any teaching engagements like this?

GH: You have to teach in graduate school so I taught undergraduate classes, English class, writing class for 3 years, so I have that. Then I’ve done a lot of cooking classes, demos, but never writing in a food-related residency like this. So this was my first time.

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Gabrielle teaching the first year class

JT: Did you like it?

GH: I was scared out of my brain. I find it very scary to stand in front of a classroom of mostly young people, I can stand in a room, an auditorium of 400 and do a book reading or a Q&A, I don’t have stage fright… But this small space with everyone looking at you, waiting to hear the great pearl of wisdom roll out of your mouth, it just makes me wanna wet my pants. I’d stay up the night before planning, and at the same time you need to stay in the moment, not force it. It reminds me a little bit of what it’s like to be a chef as a woman, which I no longer suffer any of the insecurity about!

JT: Not at all?

GH: Not at all! I have to deal with all the regular push back where Mr. Chef told me how it should be done, or Mr. Chef over here wants to tell me how long my thing’s really going to take to cook and I’m just like “sit down and be quiet”. I know how to cook this dish, and I know how to run a restaurant and I’m the chef. I never bring up the gender thing, I don’t like the gender thing at all, but of course I’m acclimated to society the way all women are so of course I don’t want to yell or insist or be abrasive… But anyway, it’s something very nice now at this stage of my career (laughing) I am abrasive and I don’t really care, I just wanna get the job done. So I wish I had some of that in the classroom. That kind of self possession and confidence makes me actually a much calmer leader in a kitchen and I don’t yell, I’m not mean and I don’t throw anything and I’m not defensive or overcompensating. I’m very quiet and clear and sure, and everyone can talk back for as long as they want, but I’m just gonna sit back here and say, “Okay, are you done now? Let’s do it my way, and thank you for all your feedback.” And in short, I wish in the classroom I had some of that.

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After this we talked about a lot of things that were not so consequential: where I like to drink in Stratford (Boar’s Head), Gabrielle’s drink of choice (gin and tonic), her minimal experience in Canada, but nothing too crazy.

JT: What was your process in curating the menus for the school dinners? Obviously a lot of them are from the Prune cookbook, with some of your own notes from the restaurant. Was there a lot of thought put into what you were going to cook?

GH: I’m going to put it very frankly how those menus were chosen. I gave the task to my new assistant, Erin (shout out to Erin Keene), and said I want you to design the menus for Stratford and let me see them to see if you’re good at this. She did a great job! She had to be edited on 2 or 3 things, like “let’s not do that with that” or “that’s good but I can’t produce it for 40 people very quickly”. It was a great writing exercise, and a great get-to-know each other exercise, and that’s how it happened!

Both of us started laughing at this point.

GH: And I knew at this point she couldn’t go wrong because of the cookbook. Everything we make at Prune is everything I loooooove, so it’s not like it was gonna be “un-tasty” or food I don’t like. It was just right.

“Just right” was exactly how our week with Gabrielle Hamilton went at Stratford Chefs School. Until next time, Gabrielle, it was a blast!

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Cooking for Real with Chef Gabrielle Hamilton

Donna Borooah

By guest student blogger Donna Borooah    

Photos courtesy of Terry Manzo

Chef Gabrielle Hamilton came to the Stratford Chefs School for two weeks this January as the Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer in Residence and International Guest Chef. Students in both levels got to interact with her, learn from her and cook with her. There is a natural ease in how she speaks, both in her writing and to the people around her. As a student, this made everything I learned from her very clear and simple.

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Gabrielle Hamilton (left, middle) and Kitchen Team 

For her final dinner lab at SCS, I was lucky enough to be the Student Chef. In anticipation of this dinner, I read her cookbook Prune, which contains recipes from her New York City restaurant of that name. The book was given to me and a few of my classmates as a ‘thank you’ for helping out at Richmond Station (no really, thank YOU!) where Gabrielle, Chef Carl Heinrich, his team and alumni of the School created a collaborative dinner.

While reading, I got an immediate sense of what she might be like in the kitchen, and as a leader. For anyone who has worked in a professional kitchen, this cookbook will feel a lot like what you wish your workplace’s binder of master-recipes could have been. It is much more than a collection of standardized recipes converted for the home cook. Filled with notes and tips that feel really personal, it is almost conversational. Throughout, Gabrielle emphasizes particularities of a dish that require special care, ideas about how to stretch and improve a meal, imperatives on necessary consistency for desirability and deliciousness, and how to execute the service just right.

For her dinners in Stratford, Gabrielle created menus from the recipes in her cookbook. It was sweet of her to use and share her book so personally. All the students, and anyone who came to those dinners, can refer back to the book and recreate something like the dinner they enjoyed.

On her last day of a two-week stretch with us, Gabrielle Hamilton wanted to cook food that felt right for a Sunday. A luscious roast of veal breast, an aperitif, wines, and oozy wheels of Epoisses cheese to share at big communal tables. All of the food was cooked simply.

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Preparing the Veal

In a meeting before we started preparing this meal, Gabrielle set the tone for the food, describing how ‘real’ the potatoes were to be. We were not going to par-cook, quickly cool, wrap and store overnight, organize and portion, reheat, and serve the potatoes. We were going to nestle the potatoes alongside the roast in the juices and browned bits. Then we’d prop them up next to the carved meat on a big plate for sharing. No odd and innovative cuts, no last minute preparations.

We could have used many restaurant cooking techniques in preparing this meal; instead, we cooked in a way that was more ‘real’. We served grilled shrimp, in the shell, smothered and basted in anchovy butter. We could have used the grill in the kitchen, but Gabrielle loved the luxury of the wood-fire grill in the backyard of The Prune. No charcoal, no paper, just wood, hay, and heat.

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Veal and Potatoes

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Shrimp on the outdoor grill…

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And on the plate!

A lot of what we cooked was slow, and for good reason. We aimed for tender and soft veal, wiggling away from the bone. We washed baby leeks over and over and braised them gently.  We brought the Epoisses cheese to the right temperature at its own pace.

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Dessert

Gabrielle had an impressive ability to read and understand each of the students right away. She and her partner Ashley adapted well to the Stratford Chefs School, while staying true to the style and deliberate affectation of Prune in New York – and bringing that to The (Old) Prune here in Stratford. I will blissfully continue learning from her, through her writing and her influence.

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A Visit to Vietnam

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blog post #6 by 2015-16 student blogger James Toenders

I spent 2 full weeks of my Christmas holiday this year in Vietnam, visiting my partner-in-love Larrissa. We travelled from South to North and back by plane, bus and motorbike (the king of transit in Vietnam). I ate my face off and had some of the best experiences of my life. It’s hard to distill that down into a short format blog post, but here a few highlights from a trip that I hope wasn’t once in a lifetime.

When I tell people I was in Vietnam, everyone wants to know about the food; how were the bánh mì, the phở, maybe even the roasted dog?! Vietnam is synonymous with delicious street food, although their cuisine is generally tamer in flavours than other East Asian countries like Thailand, Singapore or Indonesia. The stars of the food we were eating (which was largely vegan and vegetarian) were super fresh herbs (Thai basil, coriander and mint), the French style breads left over from colonialism and the liberal use of fish sauce and fresh chilies.

The food that encompassed my Vietnamese food experience most fully was called bánh xèo. Sitting at children’s patio furniture on the side of the street, a woman wearing a fake Gucci tracksuit takes your order. She brings it to a quiet man standing over a small grill heated by a wood fire who starts to cook in even smaller frying pans. The server then brings over a platter of the holy trinity of fresh herbs, fresh greens, pickles, sauces and rice paper rolls. The cook himself brings over the beautiful bánh xèo: super crispy crepes filled with bean sprouts, prawn and pork. The bánh xèo gets cut into pieces using scissors; you assemble your own fresh rolls with crepe pieces and the ingredient rainbow in front of you. They’re the perfect little bundles of texture and flavour, and if you don’t mind that the cook is covered in filth and that you’re only inches from the ground, it’s probably the coolest eating experience of your life.

Besides the food, we got to see A LOT of the country: from Hanoi all the way up to Saigon. One of my scenic highlights came in the form of Bạch Mã national park, a mile high mountain in the south littered with waterfalls and underground tunnels. A car from the nearby city of Hue drove us up the single winding road, through clouds and around large rocks that had fallen off in the past, and dropped us near the top. From there we hiked another 20 or so minutes to the look out where you could normally see for miles, but that day we were enveloped in thick fog. We took the scenic walk down the path of the 5-Lakes: waterfalls that make 5 distinct pools of crystal clear, freezing cold water that the brave (read: idiotic) could swim in (we were the idiots). This was my first time in any form of jungle, and although I didn’t see any tigers (the French colonialists used to make the Vietnamese catch them to eat!), I did lose some blood to the leeches.

This trip also found me swimming in the Ocean for the first time in my life. We spent a few days in Đà Nẵng: a city known mostly for its beaches, which we spent all our time at. As soon as I started to get close to the water I could smell the salty brine that people talk about, and when I got in I had the most surreal experience. As a cook, people are constantly telling you that things taste like the sea: oysters, muscles, seaweed etc. Having never tasted seawater before, my first time in the Ocean all I could think was “THIS TASTES LIKE PERIWINKLES!” (Shout out to Leo Pereira!).

That same first morning on the beach, I had another super surreal experience. At around 10am, a group of men started forming around some ropes sticking out of the water. Soon they were starting to pull on the ropes, and while Larrissa and I were trying to decide what it was they were pulling on, people started to congregate and help the men. It suddenly dawned on me that they’re fisherman pulling in their nets and after quickly handing Larrissa my phone I ran like an excited dog towards them and joined in the help. The catch of the day wasn’t bountiful, maybe 20 or 30 small fish, but no one seemed too disappointed. After putting them all into a bucket in the back of a motorbike, the fish were swept off to the market down the street to be sold.

Vietnam was a truly surreal place. It was hot, beautiful and a little gross. The people were mostly friendly and accommodating and just wanted to say hi as you walked down the street. The food was always incredible, and in an emergency there was usually a Pizza Hut around the corner. I miss it a lot, but I know I’ll be back because I never actually ate the phở.

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Housing in Hanoi

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Christmas, Stratford Chefs School Style

Mel Athulathmudali

By guest student blogger Mel Athulathmudali

I’d like you to think back to this past Christmas season. Did you cook a turkey? For how many people? Was it dry? Were you stressed out? I think most people cook a turkey for 10-15 people, and have nightmares about serving those people dry meat. Now change that amount to 40, and add the fact you’re serving them a 3 course meal, over 2 hours, and they get to critique you. Can you say stress? Well that’s just what my group did on the 12th of December. We were responsible for bringing a bit of the Christmas Spirit to Rene’s Bistro on a sunless, snowless Saturday afternoon.

The menu was designed by me, and included some of my favourite things and some of my not so favourite things. Turkey breast is not one of my favourite things. I am not a fan of white meat turkey, and never have been. I think it may be a result of my childhood memories of sawdust dry turkey breast being pulverized to a fine dust by an electric knife. Apologies to my parents, two fine cooks otherwise, but who just never got turkey breast right. I decided to challenge myself to make a turkey breast that even I would eat. We took the breast off the bone, and brined it in a solution of salt, water herbs and spices (not the Colonel’s 11!) overnight. The next day, we took the meat out of the brine, wrapped it around a stuffing made from the dark meat (my favourite part of the turkey), and placed it in an immersion circulator to cook, allowing it to retain its juiciness and flavour. When we removed it after cooking and tasted it, I was shocked! A juicy, well flavoured turkey breast…the holy grail of Christmas cooking had been achieved! With only 30 minutes to spare before the first guests were arriving. Just in time for a perfect Christmas!

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The perfect, no dry white meat Christmas dinner, as imagined by me.

We cooked our meal that afternoon, the kitchen staff wearing Santa hats and the floor staff in their worst Christmas sweaters. Forty guests, a lot of them my friends and family, came and shared my vision of the perfect Christmas lunch that day, and not one complained of dry breast meat.

I was away from home for Christmas this year, but next year, I’m going to make a subtle suggestion to my mother…and give her an immersion circulator.

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The amazing 2015 Christmas kitchen crew, Group A & chef instructor Ryan O’Donnell

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