Chef Spotlight: Jason W. (the.culinary.pickpocket)
Private chef Jason Waschkowski says one of his favorite things to do is to shop for an eclectic array of specialty spices and oils that few people buy. His approach is to constantly experiment, and he recommends that aspiring chefs approach their food like an artist. He sat down with Dalstrong to talk about his new experiment with kangaroo, how to make meals personal, and why he’d love to cook for the queen.
You don’t seem to have just one specialty. Tell me about your background and the nature of your cooking.
For me, it started a long time ago. I’m 51 now, I’ve been cooking since I was 18. I’ve worked with some excellent chefs over the years. There was a world class restaurant called The Church in a place called Stratford, Ontario that’s famous for a Shakespearean festival that would recruit French chefs every year, and I was very fortunate to train with them. It began for me there. Throughout my career, I ran some restaurants in other cities. My background really was self taught, no chef school. I just trained and learned my craft with these incredible people. I’ve had a company for a while now, I’m a private chef in Oakville outside of Toronto. I’ve got great clients here. I offer private chef services and events. I do a lot of charitable stuff, too. Things have changed so much since Covid, but it’s picking up again. My cooking is very diverse. I love BBQ, all types of cuisine. Clients ask for a variety of things, so I love to go down different paths.
What are your driving philosophies about cooking?
There's a couple. I do a lot of teaching, and there’s always this notion that it’s really difficult. If you do something froufrou everyone is really impressed. But cooking is something that everybody does every day. Everybody actually can do it. A lot of people think they can’t and they need guidance and we all do. That is the idea behind The Culinary Pickpocket: we all borrow, steal and share tips, methods and ideas. That is how every cook and every chef has learned. Even standing with your grandmother in the kitchen. When people understand this beautiful collaborative process, they see that they have the ability to make something amazing, and they surprise themselves. There's a lot that’s changed about how people look at chefs and cooking with all the shows, social media, etc. One of the things people should know is this is something that you can do. You really can. You do it every day. The second thing is the deep connection we have with memories. Everyone has a memory attached to food, some experience they had. You don’t need to be in the industry to know you have moments and events where it can have such an impact — and create a memory you will have for the rest of your life. That’s powerful. It can be very artistic, how it looks and tastes with layers, but also very simple. It can conjure up a smell or taste from a moment in time. I love those connections, that’s what I’m attached to. For me, I remember walking through the market as a kid, memories of my grandma’s cooking. Most people have those stories. I’m fortunate enough to be a part of that, even with small weddings, quiet celebrations — there’s always something special. It is just so powerful how personal it can be aside from just a dish.
What’s your favorite new recipe discovery?
Well, this is something that I haven’t done yet. There’s a place up north that sells kangaroo. I just posted to my Instagram. I was inspired after trying a kangaroo loin at a fine dining restaurant once. I had never tried it before. It was very different. So I decided to prepare some. It’s a lean meat, so I braised it with juniper, blue grapes and blueberry. I made a Ragu and it was fantastic. I love to try things that are unusual. One of the first places I ever worked, they had an incredible grilled rabbit salad. They were tiny charred grilled loins and it was stunning.
When you’re not in the kitchen, where are you?
I love to write. I’ve written a few books, which have been self-published, including eight books of poetry. I also play a few instruments. Family time though is the most important — especially now where we all have more of an opportunity. My kids are thirteen and sixteen. The window on our time together is closing, and honestly, the Covid quarantine has been great for spending more quality time together. I also love artistic stuff. It was ingrained in me at an early age. Particularly with everything food related. It all kind of culminates into the same place. Artistic pursuits, music pursuits, culinary pursuits and trying hard to work those palates at the dinner table.
What’s your best kitchen hack?
This would be the most recent, I was promoting this yesterday. When cooking a variety of different proteins, it’s good to make an herb butter and just keep it in the fridge to have it ready to go. It’s pretty versatile. I try to be pretty practical. Also when cooking proteins, people are afraid to let them come to room temperature and after the cook let proteins rest. So make sure you do that too — it is critical to success.
Is there a spice you secretly hate?
I’m not a huge star anise fan. I know there are some great applications, but it can be too overwhelming. Similarly, I don’t like cloves. Probably because I ate it in rice as a kid and hated it. (Sorry, Mom!) You’d bite down on one and taste it for days. Bad memories.
What is the one tool you can’t live without?
A great chef knife, for sure. Before I ever started working with Dalstrong, I got the Shogun series chef knife. It was a must. I got it because of Bruno Albouse. I love to pickpocket some of his ideas, he is so outstanding. I saw him using these knives, so I ordered one. I’ve probably honed it twenty times in six or seven years. Now I promote Dalstrong to my students and clients. I’ve always believed they’re the best before we ever started working together. My advice is to pick one that’s right for your hand, and completely personal to you. It has to be your go-to. I use mine every day. The tool of the trade. I have more knives, but that's the main one, that original chef knife. I have the most experience with the Shogun series, it’s so terrific in keeping their edge. I've used every knife in the world, the most expensive knives out there. Nothing has performed better. I really mean that. I know it’s true because of what I hear from others, too.
What are other must-haves in the kitchen?
You really have to have a great stainless steel pan, different from a T-fal pan. You get more versatility, more flavor out of it. If you’re pan frying in cast iron, stainless, T-fal it’ll all have different flavor depending on what you use. Stainless can cook hotter than T-fal and there’s a learning curve. Everybody should have one simply because you want a good crust on proteins, a must in terms of flavor.
What’s your best advice for how to stay inspired in the kitchen?
I’m really big into experimenting. If you saw my setup beside my stove, I have a trillion spices, oils, and vinegars. I’d have a stocked-up spice cabinet with a lot of things that don’t make sense. Dive into that. Whenever I go somewhere new, I ask them what nobody buys. I was in Calgary two years ago and explored a small specialty shop and asked them the same question. I left with Urfa Biber, a Turkish chile pepper with a tobacco-like, salty, sweet, smoky flavor. It has a tiny bit of heat if you use it as a rub. I also got nigella seeds. They look like a small black sesame seed. Terrific in salads, poke, or ceviche for a crunch and texture. I use these special finds all the time, and build meals around them. Really dig into spices, oils, and vinegars. My latest adventure was in this olive oil shop downtown Oakville. I just met the owner two weeks ago, and asked her the same question about what was amazing and flying under the radar. She showed me a white apricot balsamic from California. I bought it and made a drink with it. I used a pomegranate liqueur, vodka, this new balsamic, fresh thyme, and shook it over ice. It was incredible. Think of your ingredients like a palette of colors and the wheels start turning. Look at it like an artist would.
Who are your cooking heroes?
I have several. Canadian celebrity Chef Michael Smith comes to mind. We did an event for epilepsy in the fall. It was an incredible experience, he’s an amazing chef. Chef Bruno Albrouse, another Dalstrong ambassador — he’s definitely at the top for me. A modern chef and an amazing talent. I also admire Raymond Blanc and Pierre Kaufman, the first Michelin chef in the UK. Kaufman is the real deal. He’s taught so many people and is true salt of the earth. We chat over Instagram. He’s a very humble man, I love his cooking and his approach to food on the table.
If you could cook a meal for one person, who would it be?
The queen. I feel so cheesy saying that. I do cook for a prince and his amazing family every year. He’s 160th in line for the British throne. I’ve cooked for them for years, all three princesses' weddings, including one this summer. They are amazing people. It was a thrill to cook for someone who’s had the full gamut of experience with everyone from Michelin star restaurants to eating in castles. That is why I would love to cook for the queen. It would stress me out like crazy, but it would be such a great challenge. They loved my cooking, so it is always a high point and it pushes me to go further and push the limits.
What is the one dish that everyone seems to screw up?
Mostly overcooking beef. Everyone I’ve ever known that cooks roasts ends up boiling them. They usually blow it. Also pork, people are afraid to undercook so they go too far. There’s a sweet spot. If you go past it, you’ve wrecked it. This past Christmas, I went to an event and when the host opened the oven, there were two roasts in half a pan of liquid that were boiling, and I thought “here we go again.” No one likes boiled meat!
What would your last meal be?
Probably one of the best meals I ever had was the first chef I ever worked for. This isn’t going to sound great, but it was basically a roasted rack of lamb with sweetbreads -- which I normally don’t like -- mixed with parsley, spices, and horseradish. He packed them against the rack and wrapped in haggis, which sounds even worse! The Chef served it with lobster and drawn butter with a small citrus salad. It doesn’t even sound like it would work, but it was a complete sensory experience because it went through every flavor profile on one plate. I’d love to have that again! Those flavors! But for my last meal, it would have to be shared. That is what always makes a meal just perfect — and what we are always striving for — smiling faces and those memories we never forget.