.A few months ago, I bid on an auction item – Dine with the Chef at the PC Cooking School at Maple Leaf Gardens, a four course dinner for eight prepared by Executive Chef Mark Russell. It sounded like fun. The cause was the Radio Television Digital News Directors Association – one close to my heart. I had never been to the new Loblaws. I knew it got rave reviews when it opened last November, but I didn’t have any real expectations – other than a fun evening with eight great work buddies.
OK, if you haven’t been there…this isn’t just any neighbourhood Loblaws.
And a meal prepared by the Chef is anything but ordinary.
The underground parking got the first nod of approval. But really, this place had me and Tina at the wall of cheese. Stilton, Pecorino, Grand Padano, Buffala Mozzeralla – you name it. Marci was overwhelmed by the wall of cupcakes. Lucie loved the aisle of freshly cut flowers. This is the way Europeans shop if they can’t hit the individual butcher, baker and candlestick maker. It reminded me of Italy’s Costco equivalent – aptly called Hyper-Coop. You can get everything there without feeling like it is mass produced.
Russell says the store has come to define the neighbourhood with people coming in to eat lunch and dinner daily.
“They treat it like the village square,” he says.
The Chef supervises the preparation of fresh food prepared in the massive kitchen above the supermarket. He lived and breathed this baby for two years before it opened. A former chef for the family of Diana, Princess of Wales, he also worked as personal chef to the Weston family for seven years before they approached him to take on the project.
“I spent 15-18 hours a day here. Now that it has opened it’s more like 10,” he says. “It’s a really unique place.”
There is another production he is even more proud of. . He and his wife are parents to five-month old Thomas.
“He changed my life. And every time I bring him to the store, I lose half a day because everyone wants to see him,” he explained, while pulling up photos of the new star on his IPhone.
And we got a taste of the kind of food this village square had to offer prepared by the Chef himself.
We originally thought we would help in the food preparation, but when you get eight women together after work, talking about anything BUT work, we were most happy to let Chef handle the food and as good journalists, we could ask questions.
How often do you get to spend time with amazing people from work without a deadline, without an agenda, just for the sake of having fun. It doesn’t happen often enough. These people I work with are so dynamic – they all come from different backgrounds but they are all so smart and so entertaining. There is something about people who are routinely used to rolling with whatever is thrown at them, The only routine is that there isn’t one. Hence lots of lively chatter and a little less time for chopping. Thanks Mark.
The PC Cooking school is set up on the second floor, tucked beside an LCBO (how handy) and a Joe Fresh (you never know if you show up 5 minutes early – which we did – always time to shop a little). It is equipped with large screens so you can easily watch the preparation (when we aren’t talking).
Our hostesses Minnu and Heather couldn’t have been more gracious, keeping our glasses filled and serving up the courses.
And what courses!
The menu prepared for us after assuring that there were no allergies:
Butternut Squash Soup served with Brie Beignets and Spiced Aioli
Pan-Seared Scallops served on a Cauliflower Puree with a Herb Oil to finish
Slow Roasted Beef Tenderloin sliced on a Crisp Parsnip Potato Rosti with Glazed Shallots Red Wine Jus
White Chocolate and Gingerbreak Parfait served with Caramel Sauce and Quennel of Coffee Mascarpone.
The soup was so creamy and the beignet exploded with cheese inside the crispy exterior. I thought Jen – our senior producer also known as Producer Jen to her Twitter followers – was going to have an out of body experience. She has made getting the recipe part of her benefits package.
After each course was served, we peppered (no pun intended) Mark with questions. The preparation of scallops and how they are seared just perfectly – some tips – don’t crowd them in the pan and dry them off before you cook them so they don’t get watery. They were simply delicious! (And special thanks to Mark – when he heard one of the eight was not a fan of scallops – he sent Minou downstairs to replace the scallop[s with salmon).
These two courses were served with a delicious Pouilly Fuisse 2010 which drew raves from Bev and the rest of us. A perfect pairing.
Then there was the beef. Slow roasted for 2 hours at 250 degrees with just a bit of sage and garlic. It was so tender. Dawn carefully savoured each bite separately – witness her plate mid-course.
I had mentioned when I approved the menu that one of the 8 was not a fan of parsnips – but sure enough – there was one Rosti –just potato.
And another perfect pairing with a 2008 Sicilian Syrah – called Spadina (which made one of my weekend wine picks – at an exceptional value of $14.95 at the LCBO).
The meal was capped off with a cappuccino, espresso and tea along with the parfait – that included all the best dessert taste sensations – chocolate, gingerbread, caramel, coffee. Just spectacular.
What an incredible meal and such a fun evening. Sue said that would have been the dream menu she would have picked if asked for a favourite meal. We all had such a great time, and while we didn’t put in any of the hard labour – I am definitely going to try that beef again. And I am also going to find out about their other cooking courses.
The other important lesson, make the effort to spend some time together. if you are as lucky as I am, it only makes your life richer.
All in all a spectacular evening was had by all. Many thanks Minnu, Heather and Mark (by the way – I will have to get that soup recipe).