Saturday, September 4, 2010

5 Questions with Chef Joshna Maharaj

Imagine a Chef with the passion of Julia Child, the warmth of Oprah and a sense of humour that puts struggling comedians to shame. Add a commitment to local, fresh ingredients and a toss in some Indian spice, and you have Chef Joshna Maharaj.

I knew I would like Chef Joshna even before I met her based on her appearances on Steven and Chris and the highly entertaining musings on her Posterous blog. I wasn't disappointed when a few weeks ago, Joshna and I shared a delicious lunch at the Drake Cafe in Toronto. Amid searing city heat and delicious Drake dishes, Chef Joshna was gracious enough to answer 5 Questions for After the Harvest.

First, a little about Chef Joshna Maharaj. In my humble opinion, Joshna is one of Canada's most intriguing culinary talents, and I haven't even tasted her food yet! I'd like to see Joshna on my TV screen teaching me how to cook, educating me about food culture and sharing a fun story like only a good girlfriend could. Are you listening, people? Give this woman her own show!

Joshna began her career at George Brown College Culinary School and moved on to work at Dish Cooking Studio before making a major impact at The Stop Community Food Centre, including writing all the recipes for The Stop's very successful cookbook, Good Food for All.

Currently she splits her time between writing about food, cooking food and supporting the local food movement. Joshna is working with Slow Food Toronto and Evergreen partnering Chefs and Producers for the Evergreen Brickworks Picnic which is going into its 4th year. She writes for Good Food Revolution as well as her own blog, and she's spending lots of time in the kitchen creating scrumptious food for privately catered events. Joshna even put in a pitch to do a Ted Talk for TedxTO. Her angle: "Food is the most effective catalyst for social change today." Is she inspiring you yet?

That's not all! Aside from being one of Steven and Chris' favourite chefs, she has competed in and won Iron Chef competitions in Toronto and spent time in Italy with the Canadian Delegation in 2008 for Slow Food's Terra Madre event.

If you're like me you're probably wondering, "when does she sleep?" Don't worry, it's not all work and no play for Chef Joshna. I get the sense that her work is her play. Everything she does she does with a smile on her face, a friendly laugh and a passionate energy.

Joshna sipped on a blackberry lemonade while I enjoyed a "Paul Jackson": lemonade, iced tea and fresh mint.

So, without further ado, Chef Joshna Maharaj answers 5 Questions:

After the Harvest (ATH): How did you get involved with The Stop Community Food Centre?

Chef Joshna Maharaj (JM): I started volunteering with their What's on the Table event and wrote an article about it. The Executive Director, Nick Saul, asked me to be on the hiring committee for the job of cook for The Stop. I ended up applying for the position myself and the rest is history.

ATH: What is your approach to Indian food?

JM: Essentially my take on Indian food is about freshness, even if it's simmered on the stove for 3 hours. I love experimenting with vegetables and my food symbolizes Indian food in Toronto using local ingredients; it's eclectic. The knife skills and French techniques learned at culinary school added to my cooking style as well, therefore it's still rustic but a little more refined. I want people to open their hearts to spice. Spice doesn't just mean heat.

My approach is to use local ingredients to make that faraway food. I don't like the term "ethnic food" -- I think it's a silly way to describe it, it's actually really segregating and it makes it about "the other". For example I see pork fried rice on the Drake menu and it's simply listed on the menu along with the other dishes, not under an "ethnic specialties" section.

There are two things about Indian food I really want to say:

#1: It's not just about heavy curries! There is such a thing as a quick, fresh curry. People are more familiar with just one region of India (Punjab), but there's more to Indian food than one region.

#2: Abandon butter chicken -- it's the burrito of Indian food. (therefore not authentic.) I grew up eating Indian food and I ate my first butter chicken in a restaurant!

ATH: What is your earliest food memory?

JM: My earliest food memory as a child is listening to the clucking of aunties in the kitchen. I thought they were magical because of the complex food they were making. They were like wizards because they just knew how to cook with all those spices. This memory of women in the kitchen sticks with me to this day, and it's more fun now interacting with them because I'm a Chef, and because I've become an auntie herself. It's all about the female food legacy.

ATH: What kind of music do you listen to while you cook?

JM: Right now I'm listening to a lot of Miles Davis. I recently went to an exhibition in Montreal in the Fine Arts Museum and learned about his creative process; his improvisational style. I have the same spirit of improvisation in the kitchen and I get really inspired by the ingredients.

She twisted my rubber arm to share this peanut butter semifreddo with caramel brittle and chocolate sauce -- it was heavenly.

ATH: There's been a lot of talk online about the future of food writing. What do you think about it?

JM: The food writing I want to see and produce is like good journalism but it also has to have a personal element to it. It's dangerous to abandon food writing because it's such a crucial description of culture. What we eat is who we are, so if we stop talking about what we eat, that's problematic.

Joshna's not even close to being done putting her stamp on the food world. Being very inspired by Julia Child, she plans to create video podcasts teaching people to cook. I'm sure she also has many more plans up her sleeve, so keep your eyes and ears open!

If you're going to be in the Toronto area in October, make sure you grab yourself a ticket to the Evergreen Brickworks Picnic on Sunday, October 3rd and enjoy some fabulous local food while raising funds for Evergreen and Slow Food Toronto.

My gratitude goes out to Chef Joshna for sharing passion, conversation and lunch with me on a hot summer day in Toronto. Cheers, Joshna!
Joshna enjoyed The Drake burger with Treeline beef, bacon, white cheddar and Russian dressing; I lunched on the Fish Tacos with shredded cabbage, smoky salsa, sour cream, lime and tortillas.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading about Chef Joshna; that was a lively enthusiastic interview that I would have loved to be part of...she sounds quite unique and passionate about foods and is joyfully sharing her passion with others, like you for instance!Bravo!!!