Chef of the North: An Interview with Karen Peters

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 Above, Basket of Wild Strawberries, 1761, private collection, and Still Life with Fish (detail),1769, J. Paul Getty Museum, by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin

 All food photography below courtesy of Karen Peters. Use the titles to search her blog for the recipes.

Elatia Harris

Recently, I embarked on one of those side trips that committed foodies can be lucky enough to get an invitation to — I became a designated taster for a line of organic blended spices created and distributed by Winnipeg chef Karen Peters. (Warning: Do not attempt to compete with me for this job! It is mine!

P1020670 My first occasion to be useful came in June. Excitedly, I pried open a 250 mg tin of Karen’s Ras el Hanout and sniffed in delighted reverie for several minutes, enjoying the synergy of more than two dozen spices – cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, peppercorns, among many others. Ras el Hanout is a discretionary blend, with ingredients and proportions varying from kitchen to kitchen.  Sometimes, it’s nothing special; other times, its aroma carries with it a civilization.  My vendor of choice for the spices of the Eastern Mediterranean was Maison Hediard, in Paris. But Maison Hediard fell – that’s the only way to put it – and now that it’s been propped up, it’s all different. That was a big loss, for my own efforts to blend those spices – not only Ras el Hanout, but Baharat, Berbere, Mitmita and Za’atar – produced only tragic results. In one whiff, I ceased to worry about all that. Next to Ras el Hanout in my pantry now is Karen’s Baharat – a Turkish rub for meats with cassia bark, cumin, black pepper, mint – and there’s more to come. I am once again confident that when I prepare the dishes of this region, they will create for diners a civilizational encounter.

I could not help wanting to know more about any chef artful enough to get this stuff right. It’s the equivalent of designing a truly great perfume – one that is definitive and characteristic and slots into your mind all the most precise and coveted associations – instead of one that is vaguely pleasant but will never generate a nanosecond’s notice. Or, like being able to write – and not by accident – a melody that people will remember instead of one they will forget. All I really knew about Karen Peters when I became a designated taster for her product line was that we liked many of the same classic food movies, that she had four Russian grandparents and a Masters Degree in Philosophy from the University of Heidelberg. How did this add up to her taking the Mistress of Spices title?

By coincidence – this does tie in, so bear with me – I had been corresponding with 3QD columnist Justin Smith about the philosophical aspect of food. Justin had put up a new site, Opera Minora, for archiving his professional papers, and had just given a talk at Caltech, “How to Feed a Corporeal Substance: The Metaphysics of Nutrition from Fernel to Leibniz.” In it, I found a line about the “transformation of world into self,” and a fascinating reference to “the process of nutrition within the context of a corporeal-substance metaphysics.” This resonated with my thinking on those immaterial-seeming fragrance molecules that carried with them a civilization – effecting the transformation of world into dish, perhaps – and I made haste to find out if philosophy came into play in Karen’s kitchen.

Kp1 Elatia Harris: Karen, you have an advanced degree in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg. While you are not the only cook I know highly trained to do something entirely other than cooking – there are lots of us – I want to know whether you believe cooking is a vacation from philosophy, or if philosophical ruminations in fact arise from it.

Karen Peters: I first went to Germany in 1989, after the program I had been planning to attend at the Beijing Teacher’s College was canceled. It was a phenomenal experience.  I had Hans-Georg Gadamer as a professor and was keen on studying the philosophy of language, especially examining the ideas of meaning presented by Kant and Wittgenstein. 

EH: What about Food World?  Not yet on your screen?

KP: I was also fortunate to apprentice in a restaurant in Mannheim during my studies.  I find cooking to be very calming, even in the rush of it all for business.  I think about the combinations of ingredients and the anticipated delight of the diner.  From my own philosophical experience, I try to be aware of the good, the true and the beautiful in all endeavors – including cooking.  A lot to ask from an item to be consumed but I hope that I’m paying attention.  I want to be aware of that first sip of good tea, coffee or wine and note that I should pay attention because this is good.  It likely seems like fuzzy philosophy but being open to the ineffable is being open to delight.  Or is that a tautology?  In any case, I don’t see cooking as a vacation from philosophy but the action can put me in a state of mind where thinking is clearer.  In some ways, having the mise en place kind of discipline is very Kantian in that there is a great deal of freedom arising through the discipline.  I can’t have chaos in the kitchen, and I clean as I go.  I hope that because of that discipline that I can make culinary ideological leaps as well.

EH: I should try it your way — every now and then I feel like Mickey in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” I am in control of my result, perhaps not so perfectly in control of my process.  The freedom I experience cooking is a freedom from the claims of the verbal imagination.

KP: Although there is great freedom offered in Nietzsche and great process can be learned from Kant, neither would likely be much good in a kitchen – not to trivialize.  It’s somewhere between the chaos and the control.

EH: Are there systems within thinking about food that you subscribe to? 

KP: The Slow Food movement and Hundred Mile Diet tie in nicely with my other degree, a Masters in Environmental Studies.  I did my field work on small-scale fisheries in Kerala, India.  I was so lucky to have met and worked with so many amazing people.  A group of women took me in as their daughter.  I felt quite honored and humbled.  These women would go into the clean canals without fishing gear and catch shrimp just by sensing their vibrations with their hands.  It was absolutely fantastic.  They would later sell their catch in the local markets.  When we didn’t have a translator, we could communicate about food, family and living in simple terms.  Malayalam, by the way, is the hardest language that I’ve ever come across.

EH: That was the language they spoke in The God of Small Things. There was a Western character so put off by it that she said, “I would have thought you’d call this Keralese…”  At the time I remember thinking it must be awfully hard, if the word for the language was itself a palindrome.

KP: Malayalam is indeed the language of The God of Small Things.  The author, Arundhati Roy, is a Keralite.  She’s very controversial in her home state as she demonstrates for human rights.  When I arrived in Cochin, I looked for a simple language book.  Not that easy to find.  I found one that didn’t help me function in the market, but showed my how I could enroll a child into school and read essays on the importance of the elephant.

Meyer lemon and blood orange marmalade, grilled chicken rubbed with Baharat

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EH: What will the M. Env. do for your life – in and out of the kitchen?

KP: My M. Env. means that I am trained to work with communities around their resources.  I have done a lot of work around food security issues not only in terms of GMOs vs. organic but in terms of charity and dependency models of food banks vs. self-sufficiency models of community kitchens, gardens and buying clubs.  I am hopeful to get out of the kitchen more and work with those ideas with communities or in policy work.

EH: You and your parents traveled a lot. People my parents knew were usually deterred from going off the beaten track by all the really unfamiliar food involved. But your family sounds different. How did traveling lead you to cooking? Or did it?

KP: All of my grandparents came to Canada from Russia in 1925.  My Dad’s parents were farmers and my Mom’s parents and uncles traveled due to work with immigrants and refugees.  My grandmother traveled extensively throughout her life, and her children and my cousins all seem to have wanderlust.  At one reunion, we discovered that in our family, there wasn’t a single country that hadn’t been visited or lived in.  The foods of those countries are part of the discovery, and a door to their cultures. 

In 1983, after I completed high school, my parents and I went to teach at Chongqing Medical College in Sichuan Province, China.   Sharing food, learning and cooking together was a great way to gain understanding.  When I came home from China in 1984, I tried to share some Sichuan foods with friends and family.  Family members all seemed to enjoy Hot Pot and other spicy foods — but friends were quite a bit more than hesitant.

EH: Did that surprise you? I made a Tuscan rabbit dish for a friend I hadn’t seen in decades, and she acted like it was some kind of a test.

KP: I was surprised — I was not expecting people to be hesitant to try foods from another part of the world.

EH: Well, hm — maybe it’s about rabbit or very hot spices. Still, the principle holds — you don’t expect it when you think how diverse Canada and Canadian cuisine already are. That’s something that can be a surprise to us “other” North Americans.

KP: Canadian cuisine has influences from all over the world.  I live in a medium-sized city but can access excellent world cuisines here.  Toronto and Vancouver have that to a much larger degree as well as the fusion of cultures.  Toronto Chef Susur Lee creates wonderfully inspiring food.  His cookbook is accessible and comprehensive.  Vancouver’s Tojo’s is listed in the book, Top 1000 Places to See Before You Die, and is a great experience. I love the Vietnamese restaurant across the river from where I live, Binh An, where I can get a huge portion of soothing sour soup for $10 with the tip.  The owner tells me with pride that the broth is cooked for over 14 hours.  While the food provides enjoyment and nourishment, a few questions and a little interaction provide warmth, insight and possible friendships.  I guess that you can be open or closed where ever you are.

EH: Canada is way ahead of the US in policy encouraging a multicultural society.

KP: Multiculturalism is a difficult concept in many respects.  I think that a Liberal notion of tolerance is not a desirable concept.  That is, if I’m told that I’ll be tolerated, I’d suggest not to bother.  Of course, there isn’t a war or violent situation going on here.  Also, I am Mennonite and would rather leave a situation than be part of violence. I hope that we are growing up when it comes to addressing “the other.”

Acorn squash soup with lemongrass

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EH: You know so much about the food of South Asia — did you learn all that in Kerala?

KP:  For a time, my parents were country reps of a relief and development organization in India based in Calcutta.  They lived there for over 4 years.  I traveled to visit with them for a while with my grandmother. They had a chef, Kasim, who had been a chef for a Maharajah’s family in Kashmir.  I had time to sit and learn from him.  I started to learn about cooking by the sense of smell.  I also learned about biryanis and other north Indian dishes.  I feel very lucky to have these exposures, and I think about the people and places when I cook some dishes.  I taught for a while in South Korea, and came to adore good Korean food.

EH: Then you had more material than most to sort through before deciding what you wanted to be when you grew up…

KP: I really don’t think that I ever knew what I would do when I finally grew up.  I think that I just knew that I would travel. Maybe our language is how we think but the food is how we love.

EH: I’ve heard of getting your chops as a cook in some very unlikely places. But you’re the only one I know who did it on a Turkish boat. Please tell me about that.

KP: I had been home in Canada for a while, kind of floundering as to what to do next. A cousin who set up a thriving tourism business in Bodrum, Turkey, called to say that she needed a chef on her boat right away — and could I come?  A couple of weeks later I was on a boat in the Aegean, learning Turkish and Turkish cuisine, how to be a sailor and a German-speaking tour guide.  Great learning curve, and just a gorgeous place to be.  I learned so much about eggplants, tea, spices, cheeses, lamb, etc.  I learned new cooking techniques as well as different healing properties of foods and herbs. 

EH: When you want to get inspired now, what do you do?

KP: I read, of course. But I really love going to the different markets and trying out unknown ingredients.  We have wonderful fish markets as well as stores for Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Ethiopian, Halal, India and West Indies as well as local foods.  I often go to these markets to see what is new and what could be served in a new way.  I have hundreds of Chinese soup spoons, for example, and I look to how they can be used for delightful purposes.  For one-bite appetizers of cold soba noodles, stuffed pasta shells, sashimi with grilled udon squares, for example. 

EH: If someone wanted to go from being a restaurant habitué type of a foodie to being one who was also a confident cook, would there be a fast lane to that transition?

KP: The economic argument is a great motivator.  I usually ask people what their favorite foods are, and if they would like to learn how to make those.  Then it’s about going back to first principles, just breaking down a recipe to the how and the why with each step. 

I had the pleasure of being a guest chef twice for Les Marmitons, a fine group of gentlemen who gather with the mandate, Gastronomy through Friendship.  No one seems hesitant, and there is a whole range of skill levels.

I don’t want people to get bound up by the recipes always.  I find a lot of grads of the culinary arts programs to be unable to adapt to situations outside of their recipes.  In that regard, the informal learner might have an advantage over the trained chef.  I have done a locally produced public access television cooking show. I want people to be excited about possibilities and not be intimidated by food.  I want people to be brave enough to enjoy making risotto instead of adding water to instant varieties.

EH: I have Heaven knows how many cookbooks, but just a few I really don’t like to be separated from. What about you?

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KP: There are some I even travel with. One book that I’ve enjoyed, and have taken with me is World of the East Vegetarian Cooking, by Madhur Jaffrey.  I found out in traveling just how authentic her recipes are.  They are also great recipes for learning the basics, step by step, such as making yoghurt or paneer. The Larousse Gastronomique offers a great base from which to work.  I use it as a springboard to what I might have locally or could have on hand — wherever I am.  Other great books are Fields of Greens, by Annie Sommerville, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison, Amuse Bouche, by Rick Tramonto, and two books by Jeffrey Alford, Hot Sour Salty Sweet and Mangoes & Curry Leaves. One book of further inspiration that my husband, Desmond Burke – an architect – gave to me is The Architect, the Cook and Good Taste, edited by Petra Hodgson and Rolf Toyka.  It’s a series of essays and photos around the idea of the two disciplines.

Stuffed bison tenderloin, elk moussaka

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EH: I get from reading your blog that elk is good. When you’re looking for local, organic provender in Winnipeg, what else is good?

KP: The gardens here provide so much great local vegetables in a very short season.  To start in early spring with fiddleheads and morels and then all what the garden grows through the season.  Local fish is amazing with sweet pickerel, Arctic char, Manitoba goldeye and golden caviar. Wild rice, blueberries, saskatoons, rhubarb, crabapples are all local products.  There is a growing organic meat production here with beef, bison, elk, lamb, goat, chickens and rabbits.  The Trappist monks make a wonderful local cheese and there is a small artisanal goat cheese producer nearby as well.  Raw milk cheeses face some regulations but I have found them relatively available.  You can find the raw cheeses more in Quebec than where I live.   

University of Manitoba student garden, where Environmental Studies and City Planning students practice permaculture agriculture

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EH: You have an incredible Russian bread recipe. I love the photo of it that Desmond took.

KP: The Russian Easter bread is my grandmother’s recipe, but it was my husband, Desmond, who baked it as well as photographed it.  He’s a gifted amateur baker/pasta maker.  He even takes the Russian Easter bread out and puts it on feather pillows, as per my Großma’s instructions.  Desmond isn’t from my cultural background but he’s really nailed this bread.

EH: When I cook for Russians, I think “mushrooms,” because I remember a scene in Speak, Memory where Nabokov’s mother was made unreasonably happy by them.

KP: There really is something about mushrooms.  Unreasonably happy is quite apposite to how I feel about mushrooms.  I make a porcini mushroom consommé that is reduced and added to and reduced several times.  In the final service, it is a dark and clear mushroom broth with a few porcini slices topped with a drizzle of truffle oil.  I served it for a wonderful birthday party that I felt honored to cater.  When the soup course came out, the formerly boisterous room fell silent.  I asked what was wrong and they said that they were enjoying the soup too much to talk.

Russian Easter bread, shitake mushroom bouches

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EH: Ah, a moment that one lives for! Is the mushrooming pretty good where you are?

KP: I had gone mushroom hunting a few years prior to that event of the mushroom consommé.  We found Chicken of the Woods in autumn on the elm trees in certain neighborhoods.  I love mushroom hunting.  In early spring you can find local morels, later chanterelles and in the autumn, chicken of the woods.  To be invited to go mushroom hunting by regulars is something never to be turned down. With morels, you can get quite giddy in the hunt.  You can be looking directly at the mushroom and then have the experience that it has revealed itself to you.   

Salmon on a cedar plank


EH: We have some favorite movies in common. Mainly Babette’s Feast, Big Night and Tampopo. Those are all between 15 and 20 years old by now – yet even people too young to have seen them first time out know them.

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KP: I’ve always loved “food movies”.  There is so much delight and passion in them.  Babette’s Feast is very inspiring.  I’ve prepared formal dinners based on that inspiration and its been so enjoyable.

EH: I’ve read some of your menus – they’re spectacular. I don’t necessarily think of Babette as a cook, but as an artiste who has, after long exile, given everything to be reunited with her materials.

KP: I absolutely concur.  Babette is an artist.  There is such a celebration when she comes out of isolation from her materials. 

EH: There’s a strain of fanaticism in all these movies too.  The chef in Tampopo undergoes grueling muscle conditioning to be fit enough to make the best noodles.  When she finally succeeds, her lover/trainer leaves her, having boarded up her bedroom window. Well, that’s the price of perfection. Funny that these “food movies” that are so delightful are also quite dark.

KP: I understand – I tend to be a dark thinker but really need the delight and the “Aha” moments.  I had a whole semester with Gadamer just on “Ach so.”  I am keen on the hermeneutical, that quickening moment of understanding, ach so.  Perhaps, then, I have more Romantic views of food and feeding the soul.  What the Romantic German poet, Novalis, gives us is that every thing, every item and construct is a communication and can be understood.

I relate to the fanaticism of the chefs in these movies, too. I used to be much more fanatical with people when I cooked for them.  I wouldn’t allow them to come to the kitchen to taste the food, as it was a pure offering that I was creating for them.  They really got offended, so I have to dance around that one a lot.

EH: I’ve learned to be a good sport about it. But I will never understand why, when I am orchestrating a superb experience for them, people would want to jump the gun to take a bite out of it – half-cooked, yet.

No such interruptions blending spices, I should think.  What made you start your product line with Ras el Hanout?

KP: My cousin was in Morocco and brought me back a tajine and some Ras el Hanout.  When I ran out of the spice blend…I just had to have more.  I researched it and didn’t find much that matched my experience.  I also didn’t find anything commercially available.  So I had to make it myself. With a bit of trial and error, I came up with the blend of 28 spices with which I am happy.

EH: Oh, you should be happy with it. What future plans have you for your blended spices?

KP: At the moment, it’s a cottage industry.  The product is in demand, however. How to get bigger while retaining full creative control over ingredients is an intellectually worthy problem to be solving.

To inquire about blended spices, contact Karen via her site.