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Q&A: Chef Derek Dammann and food journalist Chris Johns share insights into their debut cookbook

Photo by Farah Khan

(photos: Farah Khan)

If you ask a group of culinary professionals to define “Canadian food,” chances are you’ll get as many different responses as there are national lakes. One thing that most will agree on, however, is that Canada’s domestic cuisine has grown up and come into its own. In 2014, Derek Dammann, owner and chef at Montreal’s DNA and Maison Publique restaurants, and food writer Chris Johns set out across the country with photographer Farah Khan to uncover the best regional recipes and culinary ideas. The result is the comprehensive and stunning Taste Canada award–shortlisted True North: Canadian Cooking from Coast to Coast (HarperCollins). If the lively storytelling and recipes aren’t enough, the book includes a foreword from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver – who originally provided Dammann with the financial backing to open Maison Publique – praising the book for its dedication to produce, provenance, and farming.

Dammann and Johns sat down with Q&Q to talk about their gastronomical collaboration.

Both of you have deep connections to the West Coast. Does your personal history influence this book in any way?
Dammann: The West Coast’s Okanagan is my happy place. I think having a growing season almost all year long was a catalyst to understanding where ingredients come from, to not try to manipulate them too much and to just use what’s there. Also to understand and meet the farmers, and get them to take you out and show you what they’re passionate about.
Johns: B.C. and Vancouver Island, in particular, were really early adopters of the whole farm-to-table seasonal eating. That was happening out there well before it was anywhere else.

How did you select the ingredients?
Dammann: In every province there are certain ingredients, like wild garlic, that grows, and there’s rabbit available all the way across the country. But there were certain regional specialities we wanted to tap into. Like in the Maritimes, all the usual suspects are in there, plus a little bit of seal. I think seal is something that doesn’t get picked up very often because it’s an easy topic for people to get angry about.

How do you expect people to use the book, when obviously not everyone has access to ingredients like seal?
Johns: We included alternatives for everything. We wanted to show that a cool thing to do with moose tongue is make pastrami or smoked meat. Yes, chances are you might not get your hands on moose tongue, but it’s the same method if you want to do it with veal or beef tongue, or if you wanted to cut back on time and use lamb. It’s not for shock value, but because hunting is part of Canada, and that’s a very special thing to showcase.

Why did you decide to include a section dedicated to home cooking?
Dammann: It was about wanting to celebrate the kind of foods we grew up eating.

Johns: Yeah, the stuff I ate growing up is in my memories of what a Canadian meal is, like the taco kit recipe. Everyone remembers having that, and the smell of it walking in your house is unmistakable. There was instant excitement. Also, foods like roast chicken, and my nana doing sausage and peppers, and my dad making fish and chips.

Dammann: I wanted that section to evoke something from my childhood as well, like those Company’s Coming and Best of Bridge cookbooks. My mom was an excellent cook. I do the cooking now when I’m home, and family meals are super important to us. Those are our traditions. Canada’s a young country so we don’t have Europe’s recipe history, so why not celebrate those we do have?