For many of us, last week was The Week the World Changed. I had, however, been looking forward to that time as The Best Week of My Life for the past year. This was the week that would hold both my first child’s first birthday and the first event for the new collective I co-founded, Atelier Etta. These two significant occasions were very long in the making, but for me as well as the rest of you, those plans suddenly turned upside down in a matter of days.
Though we were certainly looking forward to those events, we were both rocked as our entire concept dissipated before we had fully launched.
Zoë and I had been working on Etta for months, building our vision on the foundation we had as chef buddies since I moved to Montreal in 2012. We were busy selling tickets for our inaugural event, an immersive pop up where we were not only doing the food and drinks, but building the environment with floral sculptures and handmade dishware. Even more encouraging, we were booked not just in Montreal, but in other cities, throughout the season. However, as the reality of COVID-19 settled, we saw a week of cancellations due to the important social distancing measures. Though we were certainly looking forward to those events, we were both rocked as our entire concept dissipated before we had fully launched. How could we build a platform based on events and development contracts in an industry that was shutting down indefinitely? How could we position ourselves in a field that was experiencing an unprecedented shift? We reeled a bit as we admitted to ourselves and each other that we were launching a business in the midst of a literal global pandemic. No denial, posi thoughts, or kitchen work ethic were going to solve this problem. I sank into the realization that life would be on hold for the foreseeable future.
Frustrated and deflated as I stared at my newly blank calendar and honed in on the only day that really mattered - my son’s 1st birthday. In my sentimental Cancerian way, my plans for his day had been forming since his first few weeks of life. I was especially stoked to introduce him to the concept of dessert. My wife and I had decided to avoid any sweets other than fresh fruit until his first birthday. So, for this Stoner Dad, taking him out for a day of sweet treats was high on my list of milestones. Sushi and teppanyaki, Hong Kong waffles, and his first donut - I had written and rewritten our Papa/Son food tour for months. But like Etta, everything went awry when my new task became how to celebrate his day without risking our health. Trying to hold onto the magic and joy of life as everything around us shifted, I was getting a lesson in the hard part of parenting: creating a bubble in a tornado. Pandemic or no, this day had to be just as special as the one I had been planning all year.
I poured the energy of all those carefully curated menus from our season of cancelled events into making the most magical culinary adventure I could deliver without going to the grocery store. Building my son’s palate is something I take as a responsibility. It’s important to me that we can share good meals and that he appreciates fresh veggies and bold flavours. We actually call him Umami Baby because he will devour anything savoury with voracity. While I’m happy to not have to dull our food or coax him into eating, desserts and pastries are important, too! So, it was time for his initiation. I decided to base his first dessert on his favourite fruits, blueberries and oranges. It had to be bangin’ on level 10 for me to feel like I did my Dad Job.
I started two days before his birthday with juicy wild blueberries we froze last summer, roasted down with a bit of sorghum syrup and churned into a creamy gelato base made with vanilla beans we have been preserving in sugar since 2014. To that, I added minced clementines candied in blood orange juice and maple. The smooth, bright lavender gelato spread into a container, I finished it off with a layer of shaved 80% dark chocolate. Too complex for a baby to appreciate? Absolutely. But really, what else was I doing with my day?
Besides, long cooking processes calm me, this was therapeutic work. Though the blueberry & candied clementine gelato was vibrant and delicious, it was not yet a proper and complete introduction to the world of dessert. A sundae seemed an appropriate vehicle, plus, I needed to stay busy to keep the Bummertown spiral at bay. So, I baked up a batch of dense brownies and turned the leftover clementine/blood orange reduction liquid into candies to stud all over the ice cream.
As my little guy took his afternoon nap on the big day, I made a warm blueberry compote to top his sundae. I then quietly set up a photo backdrop for his requisite messy baby birthday shots with bonne fête balloons and a bucket of another of his faves, undressed popcorn. When he awoke, I filled his belly with a layer of snap peas and tamari-almond chicken, a base to soak up all the sugar he was about to ingest. I then led him to the surprise Birthday Boy Zone and set to plating his dessert while my wife played with him.
That was the plan, anyway.
First off, he hated the balloons, he wouldn’t get close to them - and he had NO idea they could pop! That obviously would have etched that fear into stone. So, we moved a few feet away from the decor and presented him with a dramatic brownie sundae with his bespoke gelato and handmade candies and crushed Oreos. We expected the classic cake smash reaction, instead he stared at the plate with suspicion, and at us in confusion. My wife and I tried every tool parents use to convince kids to eat brussels sprouts. Tasting it ourselves, overstating the MMMmmmm’s, trying to entice him to let us feed it to him. No dice. He finally caught a taste when he licked his hands after crawling across the plate to escape the scene. My wife and I watched his face...does he like it? Will he finally dive in and give us some GD cute pictures?!? Of course not. He feigned interest for a few bites and then flashed the “all done” sign.
I got the reminder that life is not always what we want it to be, but always as it should be.
Comically deflated, I clean him up and release him to toddle around the house as usual.
A few minutes later, as my wife and I nibble on his refused dessert and pick up the mess from our anti-climactic photoshoot, we notice the kid is eerily quiet. We peek across the room and don’t see him. The sofa obstructs the full view from Birthday Boy Zone, so I walk over to see what he’s up to. As I get closer, I hear him. He’s found a straggler snap pea from his pre-sundae snack and is crunch, crunch, crunching away on the floor. Contented hum, enjoying the familiarity of his cherished legume, so engrossed that he was surprised by my sudden outburst of laughter. I collapsed into true ROFL and scooped him into my arms.
My wife and I joked that he would have been happier with a mountain of lamb shoulder, chicken bones, and of course, snap peas. A pile of blueberries in their natural state would have positively blown his mind. Far more than my days of handcrafting destined to be upstaged by the verdant crisp of a scavenged pois mange-tout. The irony not lost, I got the reminder that life is not always what we want it to be, but always as it should be. Coincidentally, I may also be making the kid that requests thyme-roasted carrots and sparkling water at birthday parties instead of cake. My early apologies.
And so, the calendar is cleared until June and here we are, unsure of how long this blip will be. Will this time be just a blur we recall with a shudder? Or did we just leave “The Before”? Am I really raising a kid and launching Etta in this confusing climate? Hell yeah. I’m all in.
I am still going to make the best of it for my son. I’ll still be cooking with an inordinate level of detail for him or anyone I’m lucky to place a plate in front of. We all will, that’s the beautifully fucked part of this. Our cheffy masochistic ways, our resourceful creativity, our need to push even when we can’t anymore, that is what feeds our communities - literally and figuratively. This time will be no different. I have to believe the vision for Etta will shift just as the world. Not likely be what it was, but surely as it should be.