Over 288 pages, and 100 plus recipes, True North: Canadian Cooking From Coast to Coast upholds this introductory promise, and makes a case for a culinary sense of Canadianness in the process. The cookbook-as-travelogue tackles the Leviathan task with a kind of regional, and biographical, mise en place. Dammann’s book, deftly co-authored by veteran food and travel writer Chris Johns, is divided into chapters—Atlantic, Forest, Field, Farm, Orchard & Vineyard, Pacific, Home, Fundamentals—that evolved over periodic trips throughout the country while the chef ran Maison Publique, his popular restaurant in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood.
A funny, tender foreword by Jamie Oliver, Dammann's friend, and partner in Maison Publique, sets the mood.
"I knew I wanted to talk about Canadian ingredients," says Dammann. "We don’t have a defined national cuisine. But people celebrate seasonal and regional ingredients in Canada. Especially here in Quebec. People are like, wow, asparagus, and then they go crazy. Tomatoes! And they go nuts."
A subtitle like Canadian Cooking From Coast to Coast hints at something implausibly formidable, or ponderous. Yet True North feels vibrant, intimate, and personal. A funny, tender foreword by Dammann’s friend, and partner in Maison Publique, sets the mood. Jamie Oliver writes that Dammann is "up there with some of the absolute best chefs in the world", before describing their first encounter:
Derek was gracious, grateful, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, kind of cute and eager to pick up as many new tastes and experiences from London and the rest of Europe as possible. He was leaving to head home to Canada the next day, but despite that, he asked whether he could do a stage with me in the kitchen that night, right there and then. I’ll be honest—I thought he was mad wanting to spend his last night in London working in a hot, sweaty kitchen. I was also trying to get to grips with the celebrity chef thing after The Naked Chef, so there were a few alarm bells ringing, because as you’d know if you were a criminal profiler, Derek was showing all the signs of an obsessive stalker. But I’d had good experiences in Canada, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt and put his enthusiasm down to being young, keen and probably still a virgin.
Dammann, of course, missed that transatlantic flight. He would stay on at Oliver’s restaurant, Fifteen, for three years, and depart as head chef. True North, which is interwoven with bright, arresting photographs by Farah Khan, and Alison Slattery, coalesces much of what Dammann absorbed across the pond, and at home—from his childhood in the ‘Salmon Capital of the World’, to celebrated Victoria, B.C. restaurant Zambri's, to Maison Publique. Johns’s engaging first-person essays provide gravitas, and context, whether on wild game and mushrooms, Newfoundland’s cod stocks, or a family dinner at Dammann’s parents’ home in Campbell River. There’s a palpable sense of bonhomie between the co-authors that vaults from the pages.
"I reviewed DNA anonymously, and loved it. I just loved his cooking. So I told HarperCollins, okay, this could work."
"I had been in touch with HarperCollins Canada over the years for different projects," Johns recalls. "The cookbook editor came to me, and said they had an idea for a book, and they had a chef in mind. The chef was Derek. I hadn’t met him. I reviewed DNA [Dammann’s first Montreal restaurant] for The Globe and Mail, anonymously, and loved it. I just loved his cooking. So I told HarperCollins, okay, this could work."
Johns’s 2009 rave of DNA began like this: "I can't say for certain that chef Derek Dammann and his sommelier cohort Alex Cruz [now the co-owner of Société-Orignal, a familiar presence in True North] are evil geniuses bent on world domination, but their restaurant in Old Montreal has all the hallmarks of a mastermind's lair." It’s a review Dammann remembers well. "I really felt like Chris ‘got’ what we were doing. I wasn’t surprised that we hit it off when we finally met. We both grew up on the West Coast. We also share the same birthday, and middle name."
The idea for a DNA book was quickly shelved—the Old Montreal restaurant closed in 2012, and Dammann promptly started to build the gastropub-inflected Maison Publique—in favour of True North’s broader premise. "We’re so big, and so vast," says Johns. "Even in places like Italy, and China, cuisine breaks down into regions. The way it’s going to evolve in Canada is through our ingredients—that’s our real strength. Our ingredients are the envy of the world."
"We have all the resources in Canada to develop regional cuisines like they have in France or Italy or Spain."
Not alarmingly, for a chef whose restaurant runs at the behest of those ingredients, Dammann agrees. "We have all the resources in Canada to develop regional cuisines like they have in France or Italy or Spain. Just look at Canadian wine and how it’s evolved." Ingredients then—and the people behind the ingredients—provide True North with its framework, and heart. We meet characters like seafood man John Bil, Newfoundland chefs Jeremy Charles, and Todd Perrin, fisherman Frank Keitsch, winemaker Heidi Noble, and farmer Richard Semmelhaack.
"We had a pretty good list of who we wanted to work with beforehand," says Johns. "There wasn’t a lot of research involved, to be honest. Derek did his training in B.C., and I lived there myself, so we had that scene covered. I’m based in Toronto, and I know what’s happening here. Derek’s in Montreal. The Maritimes and Newfoundland worked out well, thanks to people like Jeremy Charles."
The cast of characters and ingredients that populates True North unfolds over the course of what Farah Khan calls "perfect little moments." True North marks the first cookbook for the photographer. "The process of making it felt natural. It never felt hard, not for one moment. There was a lot of trust. Derek’s very sincere about what he’s doing. There’s no pretension; especially with his food."
"Family meal was very important in our household. We never had to fend for ourselves."
Full credit to mom and dad, hints Dammann. "It’s just how we grew up. My mom did the whole canning and preserving thing. My mom’s side, and my dad’s side of the family are avid hunters. We used to go moose hunting every year. Deer hunting. My dad sold his boat because he has shoulder problems, but he loved to fish. Almost every day, he’d go salmon fishing. And everyone would come visit us, all the family from the Kootenays. During the summer, they’d catch 40-pound chinooks. So we grew up going out, fishing. We always had salmon. My dad would smoke and can sockeye, he’d do his oysters. His oysters are famous in the family. Family meal was very important in our household. We never had to fend for ourselves. We always sat down and talked about the day."
True North is part of this continuum. The book’s recipes—some ad-libbed on a boat or in a vineyard, some culled from childhood, and kitchen stints past and present—are rooted in technique, but are rustic (Example: "I prefer not to slice wild mushrooms. Instead, tear them into organic shapes so your guests can see the different shapes and sizes.").
There are recipes for salads, sauces, pickles, pastas, fish, and a multitude of animals—hare, caribou, grouse, and a lot of pork. Recipes play, often, on French and Italian classics (Cod à la Nage, Trout au Bleu, Jambon Blanc, Mortadella-Stuffed Squid, Wild Boar and Rosemary Ragù). Several, like Pork and Clams, Bouillabaisse, Boudin Blanc with Sauerkraut and Ham Hock, demand all-day, or multi-day, ministrations; others—Salt and Pepper Squid, Swiss Chard Gratin, Wedge Salad, Bone Marrow and Anchovies—much less so.
There are glimpses of deadpan Canadian, and Dammann, humour. A recipe for Phoque Jésus is a seal meat version of Petit Jésus, a type of fermented sausage. The Old El Paso-inspired Taco Kit, a recipe Dammann acknowledges is perhaps "not Canadian cuisine in its truest form", is explicitly tongue-in-cheek.
The chef’s prefaces often amuse as well: "If you don’t love pepperoni, then we can’t be friends." "This is a boozy pear cocktail, and the only one in the book as I don’t want to be classified as a mixologist of any sort."
A recipe for Phoque Jésus is a seal meat version of Petit Jésus, a type of fermented sausage.
The more complex recipes require some acumen, tools, and acquired skills, but Oliver, in his foreword, encourages readers to "follow what [Derek] says and you’ll get fantastic meals for many good times at home. He tells it like it is." Johns equally reassures in True North’s introduction that "[w]hile the more involved creations might present a challenge to all but the most dedicated of home cooks, we offer shortcuts and detours that make even the most advanced recipes accessible to everyone."
Those who do attempt True North’s recipes will benefit from the services of a good butcher, fishmonger, and vegetable purveyor (and maybe some hunters, and gatherers too). Which is probably the point. Dammann doesn’t expressly voice this in the book—he’s more matter-of-fact than polemical, even when addressing misconceptions about the commercial seal hunt—but it’s clear that he’s advocating for a shortening of the supply chain, and coaxing people, Canadians, above all, to cultivate a greater range of calorie sources, from as close to home as possible.
"There are recipes that are time-consuming. But not hard."
True North’s Fundamentals chapter presents Dammann’s "workhorse" recipes (Aïoli, Brown Butter, Chicken Jus) but more adventurous types can, say, tackle the likes of Moose Tongue Smoked Meat, or Devilled Venison Pluck ("pluck is essentially the mass of innards from the windpipe to the end of the intestines of an animal"). There are opt-outs for those uncomfortable with, or not sufficiently well-connected enough to try, such niche proteins (if squeamish, just sub in chicken thighs for the deer guts).
The shortcuts extend to methodology too. A recipe that calls for quail to be cooked in an immersion circulator proposes a bamboo steamer as an alternative. Recipes that seem daunting at first blush are pretty approachable, Dammann affirms confidently. "You can make anything from the book. There’s nothing hard. There are recipes that are time-consuming. But not hard. Look, you can skip some steps on a bouillabaisse, but if you want to make it properly, this is how you do it."
"I want people to cook from this book. There’s cool stuff in here."
"I want people to cook from this book. There’s cool stuff in here. Like this, this is my favourite recipe in the book [points to recipe for Beer-Battered Beans]. The green beans have a red beer batter, and the yellow beans have a blonde beer batter. It’s served with tartar sauce. It’s stupid how delicious it is. When we have this on the menu in the summer, the guy who’s on garde manger just hates life."
True North: Canadian Cooking From Coast to Coast
by Derek Dammann and Chris Johns, foreword by Jamie Oliver, photography by Farah Khan, additional photography by Alison Slattery
HarperCollins, November 2015
SKILL LEVEL: Moderate. Recipes are straightforward, but occasionally involved.
WHO THIS BOOK IS FOR: Lovers of fish, seafood, and game; Canadians, and Canadaphiles; Maison Publique fans.
WHO THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR: Chefs for Seals; vegans; one-pot meal enthusiasts.
True North by Derek Dammann and Chris Johns © 2015 is published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Food photography by Farah Khan; scenic photography by Farah Khan and Alison Slattery. All rights reserved.