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Chef's Choice: Joanna Runciman

Simple is often better and this chef-turned-writer likes turning back the clock



It quickly becomes apparent that Joanna Runciman is on a constant search for simplification.

It's a busy late Saturday morning at Pure Bread's village location. The store is packed, but Runciman has staked out the quietest corner of the bakery café. It's a cold morning with a bitter wind biting at exposed skin while light snow falls. Layered-up Whistler visitors and residents who pass by outside are moving at a faster-than-normal pace, while inside Runciman somehow creates a distinctly slower oasis in her quiet corner.

The falling snow outside is what attracted Runciman to Whistler for a holiday in 2006. Like so many others who now call Whistler home the vacation never really ended. In 2008 she moved to the resort and started calling it home.

Most people who know Runciman, or know of her, think of her first as a writer. She's a newspaper columnist, the author of "The Radiant Woman's Handbook" and she blogs at Before the book and before the blog there was cooking.

She explains that she's been cooking for as long as she can remember. Her mom taught her to cook at a very young age.

"There's a classic photo of me standing on a chair stirring a little children's pot of I'm not quite sure what," says Runciman.

After finishing boarding school Runciman went to cookery school at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London for a year.

"The best thing of it was Fridays we would be given free run of the fridge," Runciman says after sipping her coffee. "There might be a bit of steak left or there might be butter, there might be some fennel or if we'd done lobster there might a few lobsters.

"Our goal was to create something out of nothing," says Runciman.

"I'm now an incredibly lazy chef, but I'm not a wasteful chef. I'm happy to have one or two ingredients and then use staples; be it butter, flour or milk or whatever it is to work around it."

It is all very simple to her. She explains that food waste is a major problem here in Canada. She's doing her part by using everything and only tossing out that which truly can't be used.

Her frugal ways were passed down from her grandmother and her mother. Growing up Runciman heard tales of food rationing during the war and how her grandmother and her mother just didn't have access to the abundance of food we have today.

"Now we live in this plentiful supply of food," Runciman says.

"We've become so divorced from where our food comes from. I think we need to make that connection."

In addition to that connection she also believes in balance. And, she says, we put too much pressure on ourselves.

"We don't need to do it all," she explains. "Just because we see amazing recipes in a magazine doesn't mean we need to make that every night."

Runciman put her chef training into practice after her schooling by doing private chef work for a short time in the U.K. and France.

Runciman next enrolled into university to study applied consumer science. Her frugal views were further fueled in courses on consumer psychology, human nutrition and home economics.

With the ingredients all in place — a strong family upbringing on a farm in the United Kingdom, boarding school, followed by chefs training, work experience as a chef then a university education — her true calling finally surfaced.

She says her desire to write didn't really kick in until after university when her interest in reading was sparked.

"It was when we moved here that I started," Runciman says of her desire to write.

Once in Canada Runciman set up her blog and started sharing her ideas. A newspaper column followed and her ideas flowed into her first book. In August of last year the book was published. Another is underway.

Consistent with the rest of Runciman's life and philosophies, in addition to communicating with her family by email, she likes to hand write three letters a week. One goes to her grandmother, one to her parents and one to her sister.

"I still use a fountain pen," she says of her old-school ways. "I enjoy the process of writing. I think it is slower. It's simplifying, isn't it?"

She's seeking agreement — approval, even. Simplifying in a mostly complicated world with little patience for simple ways isn't easy.

"A letter is quite special," she says.

Indeed, and so is a thoughtfully prepared Friday meal crafted mindfully using whatever happens to be in the refrigerator.

Fridge Soup

Serves: four

Fridge soup epitomizes simple, nourishing, frugal cooking.   

Choose matching colours of vegetables, for example: red peppers, tomatoes, carrots, sweet potato and ginger. My current favourite is lettuce, watercress, leek, potato and dill. 


  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil or butter
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 400 grams of finely diced vegetables, depending on fridge contents!
  • 750 millilitres of homemade chicken stock or vegetable bouillon
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried mixed herbs, or ginger/dill, as applicable 


  1. Soften the onion in the fat over a low heat for a few minutes. Add the vegetables and stir well cooking for five minutes, stirring regularly. Add two tablespoons of stock if the vegetables start sticking, stir well. 
  2. Then add the remainder of stock and bring to the boil for a minute or two. Stir well. Add garlic, salt, fresh pepper and the mixed herbs or ginger etc.
  3. Simmer your soup for 45 minutes, stirring regularly. Taste occasionally; soup is cooked when vegetables are tender. Adjust seasoning if necessary. 
  4. Serve with a chunky slice of buttered Disfunction Ale from Pure Bread.
  5. You can blend (puree) the soup, but I'm a lazy chef and rarely do! 

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