Growing up in a Caribbean household means learning how to appreciate and prepare a good curry. While typically served over rice, the addition of coconut milk to my go-to curry recipe makes this shrimp dish hearty enough to eat on its own.
Chef Jennifer Dewasha is the Executive Chef of Colette Grand Café in Toronto. Colette is a picture-perfect French bistro serving updated classic dishes, found on the ground level of the Thompson Hotel. Joining the team in 2016, Chef Jennifer is a passionate supporter of local agriculture and sustainable products. Her impressive culinary experience kicked off in her teenage years where she spent weekends farming, gardening and expanding her knowledge and passion for food through hosting local, community-focused events.
From attending George Brown College to working for famed Chef Daniel Boulud at DB Brasserie, to working at the three star Michelin rated restaurant, Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas - her remarkable journey landed her back in Canada, opening Café Boulud at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto before moving to Colette in 2016.
We were thrilled to chat with Chef Jennifer about her favourite go-to meal, most under-rated spice, and advice she’d give women wanting to follow in her footsteps today.
What, in your opinion, is the most underrated or underused spice?
Mace. I love the summer cherry season and preserve both sweet and sour cherries with mace, simple syrup and long peppercorns. At Colette, we use these mace-infused cherries on ice cream, vanilla cake, and cocktails. The mace is the inner layer of the nutmeg skin. The peel is a bright red, lacy skin covering the nutmeg seed. Mace adds a subtle nutmeg flavour in savory sauces, sausages, soup, and charcuterie.
You’re a member of the Wahta Mohawks First Nation and studied Aboriginal Cuisine at George Brown. Is there a particular food or dish from your culture you would like to see on more menus across the city?
Wild game meats and fowl. The government has certain restrictions on restaurants serving wild meats in Ontario. These regulations limit exposing First Nation culinary experiences in the city. If hunting is monitored in a sustainable manner and protocols put in place so that these products are being handled and stored properly, we should celebrate these gifts of food at our tables. The flavour in wild game meat is incredible and nutritionally rich. Garnishes of local berries, tree bark essences, wild mushrooms and plants that grow in the Canadian Shield area accent these meats. There also needs to be an understanding that these products are special, unique to this terroir, and should be celebrated. I would like to see us giving thanks in ceremonies and on menus to share the First Nation culture with guests.
What’s your ‘go-to’ meal to cook at home, either for yourself and for when you're entertaining?
During the winter months, it is braising. While working for Chef Daniel Boulud in Las Vegas, there were a lot of short ribs and veal cheeks. For me, there is nothing quite like putting a pot of short ribs in the oven with some red wine, garlic, herbs, and vegetables. Sit back and let the magic happen. Turn on a movie and let the oven heat your house. The aroma of the garlic, wine, beef, and vegetables will tell your senses when dinner is ready because cooking is about using your senses; smelling the food, listening for a slow simmer, feeling the temperature of the oven rise, and of course, tasting. Robuchon pommes purée with French-style butter matches perfectly with the braise.
What dish on Colette’s menu do you enjoy making the most?
We have a weekday salad bar for lunch priced at $25. We showcase what is in season. Some of our favourites during this season are eggplant with coco beans, black garlic, and buttermilk; roasted apricot and brie tartines; jade cucumber, dill, and yogurt; roasted cauliflower, vadouvan oil, chickpeas, and labneh; and heirloom carrots, forbidden rice, kale, walnut tarator sauce, and dates.
I like to think of recipes as the distillation of lifetimes of experiences. What dish on Colette’s menu do you think represents your experiences the most and why?
Many dishes hold a lot of memories and experiences for me. The pommes purée I first experienced at Robuchon was silky smooth with a velvety texture that melted on your tongue. Making reduction sauces like Colette's Duck a L’Orange takes great pride; when you see the clarity and taste the intense flavour of the jus. It is about following proper techniques. I like also enjoy dealing with farmers that grow products that speak for themselves. The New Farm in Creemore, Ontario, grows my favourite spicy salad greens that pair well with oven-roasted apricots, fresh sheep’s cheese and just a few drops of olive oil. When people care about what they produce, your menu item can only get better with a few simple and classic steps.
What is the best advice you would give to young women who want to follow your footsteps in this industry?
Put yourself out there and do things you don’t always feel comfortable doing. Don’t hide in routine. When I was applying for jobs after George Brown, I had to do a cooking test at the Royal York Hotel. I was terrified to cook for Chef George McNeil at the time. I called the kitchen trying to tell the Sous Chef I didn’t want the job and wasn’t going to come in for the interview. She encouraged me to show up for my cooking interview and offered me guidance with my menu. I always remember her supportive coaching and encouragement to try new things and to do my best. I try to mentor young cooks in the industry. They need to make new dishes, learn new techniques and to not be afraid to fail. You learn from your mistakes and get stronger, not just in the kitchen, but in life.
Life is all about balance. We like wine and spirits but know they can sabotage even the most flexible diet. Our cocktail makeover series will share healthy cocktail recipes inspired by classic drinks, remixed with ingredients that are good for your body. Next time you open your home bar, treat yourself and your guests to some guilt-free libations.
The Moscow Mule turned 75 in 2016 and is consistently one of the most searched recipes on Google. What's not to love about the combination of ginger beer, vodka, lime. My healthier Moscow Mule inspired cocktail swaps out high sugar ginger beer for ginger kombucha. This naturally effervescent tea based drink has been around since 200 BC and there are claims about it's health benefits that vary from liver detoxification to immunity boosting. My liver doesn't feel any different but but I do know that kombucha is a great substitute for soda as it's not made with sugar, and because it's fermented you get the fizz of ginger beer without the chemicals.
Also, it tastes amazing.
Sumac is a spice that, in my opinion, isn't used often enough. Adding a slightly tart, lemony taste to dishes, it was also Mark McEwan's pick for the most underrated or underused spice. It wasn't surprising then, that when I went to visit Mark's restaurant Diwan in the Aga Khan Museum, that this refreshing Sumac Martini was on the menu. I like it so much, I wanted to share the recipe with you.
Cookies for a Cause is a Brooklyn-based cookie company, founded by friends Alex - an Art Director - and Liz - a corporate attorney. Feeling disheartened after the most recent U.S election results, they turned their shared passion for baking and cookie decorating into a business that gives back to the causes they love. Cookies for a Cause started up an impromptu fundraising project, with proceeds from cookie sales going to the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, the Natuaral Resources Defence Council, and the International Refugee Assistance Project. It’s blossomed into a small business, as they sold out consistently and garnered the attention of many sweet-toothed New Yorkers. Cookies for a Cause provides Alex and Liz a platform to engage with their community, while also creating an income stream to continue supporting organizations they care deeply about. And yes, the cookies taste damn good too! We had a chance to connect with them this summer to ask them about female entrepreneurship, social good, and the best places to eat in NYC.
When did you both meet? Was it a baker bond right away?
Liz: I met Alex through my husband, Adam, about four-ish years ago. Alex was actually in Adam's wedding party, and soon he'll be in hers. Our baking bond didn't form until recently. Over the holidays in 2016 we took a cookie decorating class together and that was where it all started. We were both cookie obsessed.
Alex: I actually used to be on an improv comedy team with Liz's husband, Adam. So I knew him for a couple of years before he met Liz. I was delighted when he found her because suddenly I had an awesome new friend. We became closer over the years, and the baker bond actually only formed when Liz invited me to a cookie decorating class last winter, and I was HOOKED.
What prompted you to build your company with social good in mind?
Liz: We originally started CFAC as a fundraising vehicle first and have stumbled into entrepreneurship. We are figuring out the business side as we go along, but being passion-driven helps keep us going as we navigate new territory.
Alex: We both felt a bit defeated after the most recent election, and with the cookie decorating class coinciding with all the anxiety we were feeling, we figured combining the two would be a great way to release some stress while also raising money to combat those feelings. Plus, we had both already donated all we could to these causes, so starting Cookies for a Cause was an easy way to continue to contribute financially without going broke.
The causes you support are varied; can you tell us a bit more about why you chose these organizations to support? Do you have a personal connection to any of them?
Liz: Hope you're ready to get political! CFAC is unapologetically progressive. We chose our causes because they are on the frontlines, protecting our civil liberties and our most marginalized communities.
Alex: We contribute to causes that are politically relevant, and also align with our desire to help others. We want to make sure that our community (and our country) is safe, healthy and welcoming for everyone regardless of race, gender or religious views. I think that because we are both women and also children of immigrants, we felt like the statements being made by the current administration were particularly personal. The causes we chose sprinkle a little bit of that love over everyone.
What has been your most memorable cookie baked to date?
Liz: We did a large order of custom negroni cookies for Love and Victory as part of Negroni Week. It was definitely our most ambitious project, with a large number of cookies and a very labor intensive design. But they turned out great and we were so happy to participate in a small way in Negroni Week and the related charitable efforts. As for expansion, Alex and I both have pretty intense day jobs (Alex works in design and I'm a corporate attorney), so we are baby stepping things with CFAC.
You both live and work in New York City, one the world's great food cities. For our readers taking a trip to NYC soon, any favourite spots for food or drinks to recommend?
Liz: Where to start?! For baked goods, I'm a big fan of The Good Batch and Ovenly. Lucali in Brooklyn for pizza (it's worth the wait!). And for ice cream, Ample Hills (I might be addicted to their Ooey Gooey Butter Cake ice cream).
Alex: This is my favorite topic, i could go on for hours. Brooklyn has some serious gems, and since I live there, I'm a little biased. In Manhattan: San Marzano in the East Village is a delightful and affordable Italian restaurant. You can build your own pasta, enjoy some delicious wine and the desserts are pretty great. Beyoglu, on the Upper East Side is AMAZING Mediterranean food. Grab a seat outside, order the Mezze platter, and enjoy dipping the warm bread into all the yummy goodness while you watch all the people go by. In Brooklyn my favorites are Buttermilk Channel for brunch (you HAVE to try this place-- get the cheddar waffles!) and Palo Santo for Mexican. It's on the first level of a brownstone, and is so warm and cozy and the food feels so welcoming and authentic. One time they got our order totally wrong, but we didn't say anything because the dishes were so amazing and we didn't want them to take them away. It's THAT good.
Speaking from your experience- For young women out there aspiring to be entrepreneurs, what's the one thing they should avoid?
Liz: Competition. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I truly believe that if you want to be successful, you should find like-minded entrepreneurs who can help you learn and grow. There's a wonderful community of bakers in Brooklyn and NYC and lots of "cookiers" on social media. I've been able to learn so much from them, not just in terms of baking skills, but also tips for how to manage and grow a business.
Alex: Avoid hesitation! Starting a new company is scary, but if you have an idea, then you should go for it! Starting out as a side project helped us take the pressure off as we figure out how to grow. If you are truly passionate about something then it's definitely worth giving it a shot.
Do you have a food, wine or cocktail business that's making the world a better place? We want to hear from you! Contact us here.