Q&A with Chef Karen McAthy

We sat down with Karen McAthy, author of ‘The Art of Plant-Based Cheesemaking’ to discover what inspires her, how we should focus on paying attention to our ingredients and secret ingredients for delicious cooking…

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

There was not a singular, definitive moment. Like a few things that I’ve ended up doing in my life, becoming a chef was an evolution of an area of interest.

I had always been interested in food, in learning new methods or approaches to food, in growing food and making food, but I had always assumed that any professional work with it would end when I eventually went to graduate school. Then, I went to England to meet with a prospective supervisor for my graduate work, and even though the discussion went well, and I left the meeting with the idea that I would indeed be pursuing my graduate degree, there was this other low lying, but really present feeling that “no… no I am not… I am going to keep cooking”.

My entire trip had been focused on my visit with my friend, but also on public markets, street food experiences, wine, making food, and something just seemed obvious, or clear. When I got back to Vancouver, I knew I wouldn’t be going to graduate school…. 

You are stranded on a deserted island, what five foods would you want with you?

1) Asparagus

2) Kelp, (well, wouldn’t really need to bring that with me, given the island and all)

3) Tomatoes

4) Tempeh

5) Red wine (that counts as a food, right?) OR smoked salt (because, you need some seasoning!)

I think it would be interesting discovering what is edible on the island and what could be done with what might be there.  

What is your best food memory?

Oh my, just one? I am supposed to say something about one of my grandmothers and some intimate kitchen moment right? There are many and each is unique, and probably the sum of them are the reasons why I didn’t go to graduate school.

One of them is kind of embarrassing, but I was young, maybe 3 or 4, and I was in our yard and I was, contrary to what my mother later said, not eating grass, but, rather, I was sucking the sap from young grass blades and clover stems… and thinking about the light sweetness and difference in their flavors, and how temporary it was… my thoughts were obviously not so clear, but I remember it feeling like I was trying to capture a moment.

Later as a teenager, I had been very curious about whether or not flowers were edible, and remember trying different ones (lily, rhododenron, roses, violets, dandelion) and pausing to consider how they tasted, if my tongue felt funny or not….

To this day, I still like to linger over an ingredient before I use it in something and when I receive an order of produce or even dry product, always sample and try to really let the flavour and texture stay on my tongue awhile. I feel like it helps me understand an ingredient better. 

What’s your secret ingredient for delicious cooking?

For me there is none at least in the food sense. I think it is about understanding how your ingredients (materials) work. How does something break down, what methods bring out an ingredients, or combination of ingredients, best features. I suppose, I would say, the secret ingredient, I use, is ‘attention’.

Pay attention to your ingredients and what you are doing with them.  

Funniest kitchen incident?

I laughed just reading this. Again, just one? Kitchens are kind of prime stages for a number of forms of comedy, some better for public sharing than others. A couple of years ago, the hood fan in my kitchen (at the time) had broken, and it was during the hot, hot summer of 2015.

My sous Aaron and I, who had been working 70 plus hours a week, were working on the line (short staffed), and the temperature in the kitchen had been riding past 45 C for most of the day. We both had ice packs, in towels, wrapped around our necks, and when this even failed to work, Aaron suggested a psychological trick, that we pretend to be animals from the arctic.

He began making whale sounds, and we spent a good portion of a very busy service communicating to each other using whale sounds, much to the amusement of our dishwasher and the concern/annoyance of our serving staff. At the very least it distracted us, but oddly, we were able to work very effectively with each other this way.

Again, a possibly, very embarrassing story…


The Art of Plant-Based Cheesemaking is in stores from May 14th

Purchase tickets to the book launch events here >>


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