the Pursuit of Inconsistency
Imagine a world where there is no variety. Imagine going to the grocery store and being presented with a row of immaculately perfect bananas, all identical. Bell peppers, symmetrical and the same shade of colour. Bunches of carrots, all the same width, length and colour. This may be someone's dream. The decision-making process has been simplified with no need to choose which fruit is the ripest, juiciest or sweetest. This is the aspiration of most players in the food industry: to produce identical products time and time again. Nature provides us with an abundance of flavours, textures, patterns and genetically diverse plant and animal life. None of this would be possible without inconsistency. Natural selection and evolution are the cause of, and product of, natural inconsistency. This process has brought about the sweetest tasting and ugliest carrots, buttery rich sea urchin and the beautifully decadent marbling of Wagyu beef. It makes sense to me that the better of these two scenarios is the latter, creating a playground of ingredients to choose from. At the restaurant, because we work with smaller producers, we rarely find products are consistent from one to the next. Sometimes the beef tenderloin will be thinner and more marbled, next time it will be shorter and fatter with less marbling, even though it is from the same herd and raised in the same way. Maybe one cow's appetite was a little less voracious that its friend or their genetic make-up meant that they were unable to put on as much intramuscular fat. These inconsistencies are embraced and celebrated. Inconsistencies make it more challenging to create dishes and push us to think outside the box, always be on our toes, and to appreciate and respect nature. In doing so, the challenges of inconsistency are relished, not feared. Last summer, we received the sweetest Ontario peaches. We used them grilled and fresh. They were so incredibly rich and giving! We ordered more in the hope that we would get the same. These were from the same farmer, same orchard and only days apart. They were totally different. So we were lumped with peaches that were sub par. Or were we? We preserved them in a molasses syrup with bay leaves, rosemary and peppercorns and forgot about them. Six months later, in the pit of winter, they are gracing tasting menus with their incredible flavours and texture, giving our guests an elevated Ontario peach with the weather outside being thirty below zero. Maybe the most notable example of inconsistency is in something that all our food touches at the restaurant: the plates. They are handmade by Dayna Wagner in La Salle, Ontario and no two pieces are the same. Even the width, height and weight of the plates differ. Small bowls have up to an 80g difference in weight and plates have a good half inch diameter variance. They are truly unique, each with a story, their own thumb indentations and irregular speckles. The fact that everything we plate lands on this dinnerware instils the philosophy of embracing the abnormal: the misshapen apple, the under-ripe peach, the fallen immature pear. It helps the cooks to be comfortable with adaptation, problem solving and uncertainty. Yes, the plating for each dish is roughly the same, but with subtle differences as to where the leaves fall or sauce drips, all along with the plate being the conductor of the symphony, shaping the cook's decision as to what looks best. In Canada, each season brings differences in ingredients, along with vast temperature swings. This means that even ingredients that are in season will vary greatly based on what is happening in nature. This is even true in the case of flour. We only use organic stone ground flour at the restaurant. It is unbleached and tastes like wheat. It sounds funny to say but shouldn't all flour taste like wheat, not washed out white dust? This flour is one of the most beautiful, delicious, complex, frustrating, neurotic ingredients we have dealt with. We make a batch of sourdough and let the shaped loaves proof overnight in the fridge before loading into a proofing oven. From one bag to the next, the loaves can take 30 minutes or 4 hours to proof. Once we get used to the characteristics of one bag, we move on to a different bag and have to start the experiments again. But how can we expect to have a consistent product that is organically grown in nature? Temperature, sunlight, humidity, nutrient levels in the soil, pests, wind speed and rainfall all play a part in the wheat's ability to grow and, essentially, replicate. Their end goal is symbiotic with ours. Achieving a consistent product usually means sacrificing another aspect. Is it worth consistency if the product has lost all flavour? But it's consistent, right? I'd rather take a bag of deliciously unwieldy flour any day... Chef Chris Locke
For The Love of Milk
The milk at Marben is special. Until recently, like most restaurants in the city, we were using one of the generic commercial brands of milk. Convenient and cheap. After all, it's just milk right?
Let me introduce myself...
It's been a wild ride since joining Marben back in Spring 2017. Coming on board as the head chef for an established restaurant with a good reputation is tough. Just getting up to speed with the operations takes some time, but, getting a sense for the more intangible aspects of a restaurant is a lot lengthier. To explain myself better, let's use the analogy of moving into a new house. When you first arrived, everything feels different, almost to the point of discomfort. Items are not in the places that you are familiar with and everyday tasks such as getting dressed takes you that little bit longer. Even cooking in a different kitchen takes more time as you have to actually think about what you are doing and where ingredients and equipment are stored. It takes a good amount of time to really make a house 'a home' and for you to feel a symbiotic connection to your shelter. It was much the same for me and the start of my journey at Marben. During my tenure, I have experienced good and bad. 100 hour weeks? Yes. Staffing problems? Yes. Spontaneous catastrophes? Of course. Most chefs will go through these, and luckily for me, they quickly became fewer and fewer. Challenges were in abundance, but grossly outweighing them are the rewards. In the same way that you feel so comfortable at home that you walk around naked, I have come to feel the same freedom of expression. Although my clothes stay firmly on, I have the opportunity to be creative and express my own opinions and philosophy. Marben has always had a 'farm to table' philosophy. This phrase has a great deal of ambiguity. A small Ontario farm who grow organic heritage varieties of beets can technically be classed as a farm the same way that a US intensive cattle operation using steroids and hormones can be called a farm. A restaurant can buy either of these products, have a direct relationship with the farmer, and have the same freshness of product. My opinion is that one of these is bad: bad for the wellbeing of the cattle, bad for the environment, bad for taste and just generally bad for humans to consume. The latter is what some restaurants in Toronto will gravitate towards. Not because they want to support poor farming practices, but because of the demand for cheap food and the rising costs of doing business. Here's my philosophy: buy good ingredients that haven't traveled far, from people who care about what they do. If it is more expensive, it is probably worth it. Farmers who care about their animals and their end product will not give them antibiotics and hormones. They will even go so far as to grow their own feed for their animals to ensure that they know exactly what they are consuming. I have spent the last 18 months building relationships with farmers and suppliers, finding products that fit with this philosophy and we are now at a point where we have changed so much that we can honestly back up everything we say. Each dish on the menu has a story. Each ingredient on a plate has a story. The plates themselves have a story. It is my goal to share these stories here. While it is great to be able to speak to guests about what they are about to eat, not many have the time to listen to a 20-minute diatribe about our single herd non-homogenized milk. This way, I am able to share the wonderful stories about the products we use and the relationships we hold and hopefully help a wider audience to make informed choices about what they put into their bodies. I am very excited to share all these wonderful stories. I assure you, there are many. Chef Chris Locke