Grant Allen takes us through his food workshops that are informative… and delicious!
Grant Allen. COOK.
Grant Allen’s business card is 100 per cent to the point – it tells you what he does, but it’s also a call to arms. Not only is he a chef with 30 years’ worth of industry experience that goes into providing amazing private, corporate and wedding catering, he’s also an educator who spends many an evening at Auckland’s Cook the Books running workshops that educate people about food.
At first glance, Cook the Books is just a small room packed with culinary literature for you to feast your eyes on. But head out back and you’ll find a kitchen and dining area capable of seating 14 people who regularly feast, for real, with the help of store owner Felicity O’Driscoll and Grant. “We design a range of menus for people to choose from, which are often based around a region or a particular style of food,” says Grant. “When they come in, we’ll cook as they eat and answer any questions they have about the food. They get the space to themselves, it’s quite intimate and special; we’ll talk about the process of cooking as we’re doing it and give people helpful hints for when they try it at home.
“Currently we’re organising a Spanish workshop, a North African workshop and a preserving workshop. We focus on different cuisines because you’ll get flavours that carry their way throughout the evening. With the Spanish cuisine the group will get cinnamon and paprika in lots of dishes. We’ll talk about how they’re used and how different meals and different meats reflect the history of Spain. Everyone who’s been to a workshop has really enjoyed themselves, so we must be onto a good thing!” Self-trained Grant says the menus are made in the interests of helping people cook better at home.
“We focus on dishes that are accessible to the person cooking it, using available ingredients that are cost-effective and seasonal. This can keep costs down without compromising on flavour.” Grant’s food workshop nights aren’t only for purely educational purposes. He says a lot of the time people will come in for a night just to have a bit of fun in a group setting. “We have a women’s book club that comes in here regularly – they’ve already confirmed all their bookings with us for the rest of the year because they love it so much. People also come in here as a bit of a team-building exercise with their office. Communal eating is a great way to interact and build strong bonds with people and it’s different to going out to dinner as a group, or playing a round of paintball!”
Grant has spent an enormous amount of time in the kitchen throughout his life. His food career began as a partner in Wellington’s iconic Pierre’s restaurant. “I worked in Wellington for 25 years, before leaving there to manage the Awhina Centre for the New Zealand AIDS Foundation for four years. “From there I was asked by a friend to move to the Coromandel and help him set up a restaurant. At the time I thought, ‘The Coromandel? No thanks!’ But I ended up there for three-and-a-half years before meeting a guy who lived in Auckland, so I moved up here to be with him.
“I came back to Auckland and started working in cafés and stuff before I decided to get off my ass and do something I’m proud of. I started out with my business card which just said ‘COOK’ and then met Flick [Felicity] at Cook the Books. Cook the Books is a really good window to project your work from.”
Grant says working as a private caterer and running food workshops is much less stressful than working in or running a kitchen. “With the work I do now I have much more control over the scale of my business, the staff, the overheads and the hours… so long as the bills are paid! I really enjoy the work that I do.”
Before Grant stole off to the kitchen to make us some delicious eggplant stacks for lunch (see recipe), he told us a little bit about what he likes to do in the kitchen. “When it comes to making a recipe, the big thing is that they’re seasonal, which is a buzzword at the moment, but it’s right on the money. Recipes that use products that are easily available to anyone are going to be more useful to people.
“With my meals you’ll notice that I don’t over-handle food and I don’t over-decorate food – I like keeping it fairly simple and fairly true; I don’t like my food too played with. I like simple cuisine that’s a little rustic with a focus on the ingredients; not too much going on. I think there’s always two streams in food – like right now there’s crazy molecular gastronomy and meanwhile there’s a concern about realness with food; people want to cook food like their families used to make. It’s wholesome and real – not to mention really nice to eat!”
| Article by Hannah JV
RECIPE: Eggplant Stack
3 average-sized eggplants
1 med onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 dessertspoon tomato paste
1 kg ripe tomatoes or 2 x 400gm cans of chopped tomatoes
8 slices of cheese – depending on your taste and budget – mozzarella, provolone or tasty
Cut the eggplants lengthwise into 2cm thick slices. Layer in a baking dish, then add half cup of water and 6 tablespoons olive oil.
Season well with salt and pepper, then bake in a med oven until tender and just colouring, turning the slices a couple of times to prevent sticking.
Soft boil the eggs and slice into rounds.
Fine dice the onion, crush the garlic, cook gently in a pan with 3 tabs olive oil, adding the tomato paste after a few mins.
When all this has softened add the tomatoes and simmer until you have a sauce-like consistency. Remove from the heat, season and add a good amount of chopped basil.
Layer the above in this order (in the baking dish the eggplants were cooked in): eggplant slices, tomato sauce, egg slices, cheese. Repeat and top with another eggplant slice and sauce.
Return to the med oven and bake for 15-20 minutes.