Though Derek Dammann was born and raised in B.C., it was a stroke of luck in London that led him to his current lot in life as one of Canada's hottest chefs — and business partner to world-renowned chef Jamie Oliver.
Dammann was living in London and running out of money when he decided to spend his precious, remaining cash on some fine dining.
"(Oliver's restaurant Fifteen) had just opened maybe 10 days before, so I went in for lunch," Dammann said.
The place was packed, but a chance cancellation got Dammann a table. Before long he was chatting up the sous chef.
"They said 'when can you do a trial?' and I said 'as soon as I'm done my risotto,'" Dammann said.
"They were kind of surprised by that, and then it just sort of happened from there."
It wasn't long before Dammann was made sous chef himself, and not long after that he had worked his way up to head chef. Dammann has stayed in touch with Oliver, helping with his catering company and other projects.
These days Dammann can be found running his own restaurant/bar, the Maison Publique in Montreal. He'll be in Whistler this week for two events at Cornucopia.
"I really liked eating at a bar or in a pub setting... unfortunately they're not all zingers as far as food goes, but I really liked that atmosphere," Dammann said, of the inspiration behind Maison Publique.
"Living in London I really liked the idea of a gastro pub and stuff like this, where you can go in and have people sitting next to you reading the newspaper and having a coffee or a beer, and people down at the other end of the bar having a really great meal."
The menu at the Maison Publique is an ever-changing concept, he said.
"We change the menu a lot, but the one we sort of maintain all the time is the baked oyster," Dammann said.
"We get these huge oysters, they're between nine and 11 years old, from Quadra Island, and then we bake them with marmite and mushrooms and stuff like that. That's a popular one."
Born in Trail but raised in Campbell River, Dammann said food was a big part of his upbringing.
"We came from a family where the meal was very important. We always took time to sit down and share our day," he said. "I just found it interesting; it was kind of a coin flip to figure out what I was going to do when I got out of school. It was that or go into Fisheries Canada, and I chose cooking."
Judging by the success he's found, it's safe to say Dammann made the right choice. What advice would he offer to aspiring chefs?
"It's a restaurant, so there's a lot of moving parts. Every time you get ahead, something breaks. So maybe my advice is just learn how to fix things on your own," he said with a laugh. "It will save you a lot of money."
Dammann will be hitting Cornucopia with food writer Chris Johns. The pair has spent much of the last three years working on a book together, titled True North: Canadian Cuisine From Coast to Coast. Check out this week's Epicurious to read more about it.
Dammann and Johns will be hosting a Q&A event on Friday, Nov. 6 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Whistler Public Library and a culinary stage series on Saturday, Nov. 7 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. at the Whistler Conference Centre.
Tickets for the events are $49 and $40 respectively, and can be purchased online at www.whistlercornucopia.com/eventList.cfm or by calling 1-800-944-7853.Dungeness crab tart
For the tart:
1 pound Dungeness crab meat, cooked and picked over for shells
3 tbsp canola oil
1 onion, julienned
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 fresh cayenne (or jalapeno) pepper, deseeded and finely chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice
¼ cup cilantro, finely chopped
3 tbsp parmesan cheese, grated
2 egg yolks (reserve one egg white)
2/3 cup whole milk
2/3 cup heavy cream
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
Enough pie pastry for one large tart
1 egg white (from above), lightly beaten for tart
Preheat oven to 350F
Roll the pastry out on a floured work surface until it is the thickness of a nickel, and line a 10" tart shell with a removable bottom. Transfer the tart shell to a baking sheet and place it in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
Remove the shell from the fridge and prick the shell several times with a fork, line the tart with parchment paper and fill the shell with baking beans to weigh the pastry down and bake it for 25 minutes, rotating it half way through. After 25 minutes, remove the beans and the parchment and return the shell to the oven and continue to bake for an additional 10 to 12 minutes, until the pastry shell is starting to go golden.
While the shell is still hot, brush the base with the lightly beaten egg white, to prevent any filling from leaking out.
In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, add the olive oil until it is almost smoking. Add the onions and sauté until they are soft and starting to turn golden brown. Add the garlic and the chili and quickly saute to take the edge off the garlic. Remove the pan from the heat and add the crab meat, tossing to combine.
Transfer the mixture to a metal bowl and add the lemon juice, cilantro, parmesan, salt and pepper.
Place the onion/crab mixture into the baked shell and gently even it out without pressing down on it.
Whisk together the eggs, yolks, cream and milk and pour this mixture over the crab meat, making sure that it fills in all the cracks and crevices.
Bake the tart in the 350F oven for 7 minutes, then open the oven and top the shell with any remaining custard mixture so the filling is flush with the crust. Cook for 40 to 45 minutes, rotating the tart halfway through to ensure even cooking.
Remove the tart from the oven and allow to rest for at least an hour before slicing.