Chef Jason Laurin, the young, amiable owner of Essence Catering, has a dark secret.
"I actually didn't like eating as a kid," he confesses with a laugh. "Food was just not on my family's radar - my mom didn't really cook so we visited a lot of restaurants. There was one particular spot in Montreal's Chinatown where we ate a couple of times each week for many years."
He concedes that this unusual culinary heritage has had a positive impact on his cooking, with Asian influences popping up in unique and interesting ways as he continues to enjoy experimenting with food.
When I got together with my wife Lisa about fifteen years ago, she wouldn't cook, so I had to learn; the more I cooked, the more I liked it. We moved to the States and I completed a hotel and restaurant management program in Dallas, then we chose to come to Ottawa so I could attend Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, which was great training prior to founding Essence Catering several years ago.Who has inspired you?
The first was James Barber of CBC TV's "Urban Peasant" - I made whatever he was making that day! I am also a huge fan of Charlie Trotter because he uses unique, authentic ingredients. Locally, working with Georges Laurier at Laurier sur Montcalm moved my food in a new direction. His dishes were elaborate and required a lot of prep work - I learned to survive in a "commando cooking" environment.What is one of your most memorable food moments?
It was pretty awesome when Le Cordon Bleu asked me to cater their Christmas party a few months ago. As an alumnus, it's great to have a chance to go back and show how the excellent training they deliver can be applied in both practical and creative ways.Have you had any near-disasters?
On the way to an event I had an incident where a tray of too-thin mango jelly splattered all over the back of my car. Thankfully, I was able to serve the remainder in a different way so no one realized I'd had a problem. That's the great thing about my food - it's so creative that if things don't quite turn out as planned, I can just change things up and fix it - that should be the hallmark of any good chef.Is it hard to get motivated to cook for your family after playing with food all day?
My wife is my number one taste-tester, so it's always great to cook for her. And our boys are really appreciative of good, healthy food. Seven-year-old Oliver loves pizza - Evan, who's four, is a sushi fanatic. Aiden is one-and-a-half and just eats whatever's on the go. My food is always pretty assertive so I do have to tone things down a little bit, though I think kids are pretty adaptable when it comes to spices and strong flavours.What is your favourite kitchen tool, appliance or gadget?
Right now it's my new smoking gun, which I have been using to infuse salmon sashimi with Lhapsang Souchong tea smoke. I then wrap the salmon morsels around seasoned grated carrot and daikon. It's a subtle, balanced bite with loads of flavour and texture and has been a huge hit.If your kitchen was on fire, what would you grab before you ran out?
My sous chef, Phil, and then my knives. That's it.Every chef plays favourites. What about you?
I truly love menu development and fine-tuning new creations - cleaning is definitely my least favourite part of cooking. When it comes to eating, I loathe Brussels sprouts, though I do work with them anyway. I'd say pork belly, or anything that needs to be cooked for a long time, is a favourite food. Although, I eat a lot of sour Skittles too - that's my crack!How would you categorize Essence's food?
It's about making a strong impression with every single bite. I want to deliver dishes that are unlike anything people have tasted before - to really push the boundaries. But I am also practical. Realistically, I have to be mindful of what people are ready to accept. I am trying to make the most remarkable food possible within that box.What ingredients or techniques would you most like to experiment with?
I'd love an immersion circulator to make sous-vide preparations a little easier. I'm also coming back to foods I didn't like as a kid, such as artichokes. I love trying new elements I haven't used before. As spring approaches, I'm looking forward to having really fresh, high-quality local ingredients to play with.Chef Jason Laurin's Twice Cooked ?Beef with Black Bean Sauce
This dish incorporates many of Jason's favourite Asian flavours. Although it needs to be started the day before serving, it is actually relatively simple to prepare. The beef would be delicious served with a side dish such as stir-fried bok choy.beef:
1.5 lbs beef skirt steak (or flank steak) 1 medium onion, halved 2 carrots, roughly chopped 2 ribs celery, roughly chopped 1 head garlic, cut in half through cloves 2 inch piece ginger, sliced 2 inch piece lemon grass (bruised with backside of knife) 1/4 cup soy sauce 3 tbsp agave nectar or honey 1 tbsp coriander seed 3 star anise 1 bunch cilantro roots (reserve leaves) 4 cups chicken stock salt and pepper Put all ingredients in a large pot and add water to cover the beef. Bring to a boil and maintain a simmer for 2 hours. Cool in the same pot. Remove and discard all but the beef. Using two forks, or your fingers, shred the beef as finely as possible.marinade:
1/2 red onion, finely sliced 1 bunch cilantro leaves, chopped 1 tbsp hoisin sauce 1 tbsp mirin 1 tbsp agave nectar or honey 1 tbsp garlic chili sauce (sriracha) Combine reserved shredded meat with marinade and cover in a bowl for at least 4 hours and preferably overnight. When ready to serve, prepare a very hot pan. Fry in batches till crispy all over. Allow to drain on paper towel. Serve over hot rice with black bean sauce.black bean sauce:
3 tbsp salted black beans, rinsed ?and chopped 2 tbsp ketchup 2 tbsp mirin 2 tbsp hoisin sauce 1 tbsp agave nectar or honey 3 cloves garlic, minced 1/2 cup chicken broth 1 tbsp cornstarch mixed with 1 tbsp water green onions for garnish Bring all ingredients except cornstarch and green onion to a simmer in a small pot. Simmer for 15 minutes, then bring to a boil. Add cornstarch and mix. Remove from heat and drizzle over meat and rice. Garnish with shredded green onion. Serves 4. Written by Paula Roy