Back Burner 2018-11-122019-01-07T11:20:49-07:00


by Allan Shewchuk

2018 Nov/Dec

City Palate, guide to the good life in Calgary Back Burner 2018 11 12 Allen Shewchuk Profile image

This year, I’m celebrating 22 years of teaching Italian cooking. For my classes, I always try to find some interesting dish that I’ve discovered in my travels to prepare along with the classic recipes of la cucina Italiana. Given that I teach at least two classes a year, and that I always
do five or six completely different dishes each time, I now have more than 250 typed recipes in my repertoire. Many, like spaghetti cacio e pepe (which is just three ingredients – spaghetti, sheep’s milk cheese and black pepper), are crowd-pleasers that are also simple to make. So, armed with all these recipes and all that experience, you’d think that if I threw a dinner party, the cooking part would be as easy as falling off a log. But it always turns out to be the exact opposite,
because, like almost every cook I know – professional or novice – when it comes to feeding people at home, I suffer from a condition
I call “Dinner Party Dummy Brain” or DPDB for short.

DPDB commences on the eve of a dinner party, when the host/cook decides to abandon all his or her fail-safe, or tried-and-true, recipes, in favour of something he or she has never, ever prepared, or even tasted, before. The hallmark of DPDB is that the recipe ultimately chosen has to be (a) extremely complicated and demanding; (b) horribly long to prepare; and (c) chock-full of hard-to-find ingredients, or requiring expensive but necessary kitchen gadgets that the cook does not possess. This combination ensures that the DPDB sufferer will embark on an inevitable comedy of errors with a build-up of stress that increases exponentially as the time before the guests arrive shrinks.
Perhaps the best illustration of novice DPDB was in the film Bridget Jones’s Diary, wherein the hapless heroine, who can’t even boil water, decides to celebrate her birthday by making a ridiculously complex French dinner for friends, which a potential beau winds up crashing just before they arrive. In the middle of preparation, she realizes she doesn’t have butcher twine to tie together the leeks in her potato-leek soup, and the only substitute she has resembling string is blue dental floss. To the horror of her potential beau, asked to check on the soup, the dental floss has turned the dish the colour of aquamarine toothpaste. This epic fail is a classic DPDB outcome.

My personal DPDB downfall is that I’m constantly buying new cookbooks, which means that I see professionally shot photos of really interesting recipes, to which I am attracted like a moth to a flame. I decide to make the dish based on how it looks, and not on any detailed review of the recipe. This once led me to try an artichoke ravioli from Chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry that appeared short and simple, but once I got into cooking it, I realized that every constituent part of it had its own separate recipe. So every short paragraph of the recipe said, “See page 189 for artichoke reduction,” or “See page 217 for extremely complicated ravioli stuffing.” It should have also said “Seek professional mental health help for choosing this recipe.” Nine hours into slaving over a hot stove and pouring pot after pot into progressively smaller strainers, I still hadn’t finished the first reduction and I had to abandon the full preparation or I still would have been cooking at midnight while my guests starved. The only positive thing I can say about my choice of recipe was at least the ravioli weren’t aquamarine.

I can’t explain why most of us fall into this dummy-dumb trap. Perhaps by watching cooking channel chefs who have all their prep work done for them, we are duped into believing that it’s all easy, when it’s definitely not. Or maybe it’s the competitive instincts of human beings – we are driven to DPDB madness thinking we have to outdo a friend who has hosted a truly wonderful dinner party that looked seamless but probably also involved significant DPDB learning curves, days of shopping and hours of straining reduced sauces. Probably the reason we do this is just hubris, and a desire to impress others with our culinary prowess, especially when we don’t have any. But we know from Icarus what happens when we try to fly too close to the sun. This dinner party dummy needs to smarten up and stick to three ingredients – and the spaghetti in the pot should count as one of them.

Allan Shewchuk is a lawyer, food writer and sought-after Italian food and wine guru. He currently has kitchens in both Calgary and Florence, Italy, but will drink wine pretty much anywhere.