Monday, May 14, 2012

The Tortellini Distraction at Absinthe Café Resto Bar

The hours following a private tortellini-making session at Absinthe Café Resto Bar were introspective for me. Many of my food experiences do not end up on the pages of this blog. Sometimes I just want to savour the event by myself. On that afternoon, so many thoughts were swirling through my head. It was utterly distracting.

If I thought there was a story to tell, what would it be? Share insights into one of Ottawa's well-known chefs? Reveal the techniques for making tortellini? Describe the power of social media for matching interests with the interested? Examine the premise that foodies can get so focused on the hobby of food, that they lose their connection with those who have so much less on their plate?

A tip of the hat to Chef Patrick Garland for turning my moment of play and learning into an act of purpose.

That Sunday's tutoring came about when a few days before, I was admiring Chef Garland's many halibut stuffed tortellinis laid out in military formation on an industrial kitchen sized baking sheet. He tweeted a picture of his hard work. Soft, pillowy tortellini is something I would like to learn how to make some day. Chef wasted no time in turning my wishful thinking into an opportunity by offering his teaching services that coming Sunday at Noon. A 'light' lunch would also be provided. In return, he asked that a donation be made to Ottawa's Food Bank. A Twitter handshake and I had a date. He opened the session to others. Same conditions.

There is likely nothing Italian about the name Garland. Chef told his 7 new students right off the top that he was not the 'Don of pasta'. And if any self-respecting nonna saw his tortellini making skills, she would likely eat him alive on Oprah. Despite the humble declaration of his talents, no one left.

A batch of dough was ready for us but he still took us through the paces of his modified Thomas Keller recipe.

As we worked together, the chatter of conversation filled the kitchen. Not too much about tortellinis. More about our inquisitive questions lobbed over to Pat. His beginnings. His influences. His food philosophy. The restaurant.

Chef Garland's own arctic char filling (with heavy cream, tarragon, preserved lemon skin and seasoning) made its way onto the almost perfect pasta squares in almost perfect proportions.

More questions and more disclosures. There are no romantic tales of finding his food passion at the apron strings of a grandma, like some. The ball-busting feminist in his young life had limited to no influence at unearthing an early love of food. He came into the food industry simply because he needed a job. He chose his place of study because it was local and they would feed him.

Then onto making the hat shape. You know your sailor's knots? Well, sailors take note. No 'right over left and under. Left over right and under' here. Pat shared his tricks of folds, turns and tucks.

After many attempts, I pushed my own near perfect 'hat' across the stainless steel counter to join the others already prepared by the teacher.

When the filling ran out and the shapes were made, Garland did sit the seven tortellini protégés down to his promised 'light' lunch.

We started with warm bread and his arugula salad with lemon thyme vinaigrette and a parmesan tuile crisp.

Next came our 'pillowy, soft' tortellinis. Chef looked after cooking them al dente in a beurre blanc sauce with artichoke, tomato concassé, ramps, chervil, fennel seeds, lemon zest, shallots, garlic and pea shoots.

As quickly as we intruded into Chef Garland's quiet Sunday afternoon, 3 hours later we were gone. My homework? Pay up. Time to get my cheque off to the Ottawa Food Bank.

How do you put a value on learning the fine craft of making artisan tortellini from a top chef? How do you put a value on the opportunity to relax with friends, old and new, and enjoy the surroundings and talents of one of the finest restaurants in Hintonburg? How do you put a value on taking precious hours from a hard working chef during his time off?

What lingered with me last Sunday afternoon was the way Chef Garland's deep commitment for helping those less fortunate defines him. His well-known Benevolent Burger converts $1 from each sale to Cornerstone Housing for Women. His restaurant is a destination drop-off for a food bank drive underway now in Hintonburg. Athough he serves the finest of local ingredients for a premium price, he is quick to remind you that a can of prepared food is not to be snubbed. For some, that is all they can afford. Without hesitation he put on our Sunday tortellini 101 session plus lunch, not for himself, but with the hope of putting food on the table of those in need.

As the afternoon waned and the memory of that wonderful afternoon tarried, it was clear to me that Chef's precious gift was large. I knew in that moment, mine needed to be too.


  1. Your words and photos brought the whole afternoon back to life and as if we were doing it all over again. We were so glad you asked the question and created the opportunity. And yes, the contribution to the Food Bank followed as well.


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