There are many different types of nerds out there. You’ve got your classic book nerd, gaming nerd or comic nerd. As for Carolyn Fuller she has obtained a new grade of nerdness and has been famously hailed as Toronto’s foodNURD.
For Carolyn, food is not only an obsession, it’s a way of life. Besides watching The Food Network religiously, she loves to prepare and serve her delicious dishes to her friends and family. After growing up in a food hearty household, she was fed only the best comfort foods; homemade roasts, lamb chops and her dad’s famous Mac n’ Cheese (dare to ask her for the recipe). Her endeavour into the Toronto restaurant scene came after meeting her husband J, a food nut himself, yet Caroyln’s homemade meals always seemed to impress him more and more.
Her blog, FoodNURD is dedicated to all things food with tons of recipes, ideas, photos, successes and even the rare nightmare! As a contributor to TOFoodReviews, she strives to review the best (and sometimes worse) of Toronto’s food scene.
This gal is getting me hungry, let’s learn more…
When and why did you start writing about food?
I started writing about food in 2010 at the urging of a couple of friends who saw my clear passion for it. I was already maintaining another blog but it had become apparent that food was what I really wanted to write about. So I started up foodNURD and ran with it!
What do you love most about food?
I love that food gives people a way to relate to each other. It doesn’t matter your background, age, race, religious beliefs… everyone eats. Everyone has an opinion about their favourite food, their most despised ingredient, the best meal they had, why their mom or dad is the best cook. You can walk into a room full of strangers with nothing in common and start up a lively conversation about food within a few minutes.
What do you do when you aren’t writing about or eating food?
And not cooking food? There’s a pretty good chance I’m with my friends or my family, discussing movies, sports or books. Saturday mornings, you can often find me at a farmer’s market in the city after walking the beloved family pooch, Marley.
Do you cook? If so, what’s your specialty? If not, why?
I cook now. I started cooking in earnest a few years ago, when I met my now-husband. I played sous-chef for him when we first met until I gained the confidence to get in front of the stove myself. Now we have all manner of awesome kitchen gadgets (including a counter-top rotisserie that we haven’t yet busted out), my favourite of which is the slow cooker. I have been making all sorts of pulled pork in it for years and it’s always a hit.
What’s your favourite type of food(s) and where do you go to get it?
I love Latin American flavours. I’ve always enjoyed them, but since eating my Belizean mother-in-law’s food, I’ve really grown to appreciate the balance of complex and simple flavours. If I’m going to be cooking with them, I head out to Perola or La Tortilleria in Kensington (or LT’s second location on St. Clair West). If I’m craving Mexican food that I don’t feel like cooking, I usually head over to Dos Amigos, or if I want to stay closer to home, La Mexicana.
In all honesty, though, I am up for eating all sorts of cuisines: Indian, Thai, Italian, Japanese, Lebanese or any mash-up creative chefs can make.
What’s your favourite hidden gem?
Bar none, my fave little place that people don’t seem to know about — but should! — is La Cascina on Avenue, just north of Lawrence. Chef Luca is extraordinarily talented and Sharifa runs the front of house with charm, care and knowledge. The menu changes nearly every day, depending on what is fresh. It features wonderful Italian food from the Abruzzo region. The fish and pasta dishes are particular stand-outs: the trout is succulent; the linguine vongole features lovely, briny clams and perfectly-created pasta. Go, sit, eat, enjoy. You will love it.
What’s your go-to restaurant?
So many! La Cascina aside, Amaya, Salt, Tabule and Pan always deliver what I want. The food and service are consistently great and I never hesitate to recommend them.
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?
In 2004, my husband (then boyfriend), his cousin, his cousin’s girlfriend and I booked an all-inclusive vacation to Cuba. The food was not great: it was badly under-seasoned, often over-cooked and generally pedestrian. We weren’t expecting four-star meals, but we found that to eat consistently well we had to head to the snack bar and order the shockingly good chicken salad sandwiches. On our last evening there, we booked the seafood-themed restaurant and anticipated some yummy food. I mean…we could see the water. How bad could it be?
First up: seafood bisque. My husband instinctively reached for the salt and found six hands slapping him away. All of the salt that had been missing in the 15+ meals we’d already had could be located in the four bowls in front of us. Totally inedible. I do my best never to waste food, but there was no way a second bite was passing my lips. The waiter looked very, very unamused. We ordered another round of rum & Cokes and a small child then attempted to steal one of the Coke cans off the table while his father — clearly an employee — laughed nearby. Oh-kay.
Course two: Mystery salad. Lettuce, pink tomato and what we eventually figured out was calamari. Said calamari, however, bore a striking resemblance to a soggy piece of fettucini and thus the term “noodacle” was born. Needless to say, not much on these plates was eaten, either. The waiter became less and less friendly; fortunately, our rum & Cokes just got more and more delicious.
Course three: The girls ordered shrimp, the guys ordered surf and turf. It never occurred to any of us that they would serve prawns, head and all. Now, I can shell and de-vein shrimp with the best of them; however, prawns, with their beady eyes staring at me, freak me out. Clearly, this was not the kitchen’s problem nor its fault. My prawn-eating companion felt similarly and we implored our boyfriends to behead our food once and for all. We were likely on our fourth round of rum & Cokes and as the prawn carcasses piled up so, too, did the hysterics.
Course four: Dessert. By this time, we were fairly convinced that the entire waitstaff had spat — or worse — in our food, but we didn’t care. We were having so much fun at this ridiculously terrible dinner that nothing could ruin it. Our options for dessert were tres leches, flan, ice cream or pie. My husband ordered ice cream. The rest of us, one by one, order the ice cream. Each order ended with, “Ice cream. Very good.” After the last order for ice cream was placed, the waiter announced, “Unfortunately, we have no ice cream.” Well, that was that. We sat dumbfounded for five seconds and then erupted in semi-drunken, totally disbelieving laughter. We re-ordered and raised a glass to the worst — but best — meal we’d ever had.
Five years later, my husband and I went to a resort in cottage country to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. We went not only because the resort looked beautiful, but had a reputation for excellent food. We reserved two spots at the Culinary Theatre where the chef entertained a group of 18 while preparing an absolutely delicious tasting menu. We ordered wine with each course and found that my parents had been kind enough to purchase a small bottle of champagne for us. It became clear very quickly that my husband and I were the most knowledgeable people at dinner with respect to food and it was fun watching the reactions of everyone else to the meal we were served. Some were very excited; most were pretty stymied by the array of ingredients and their preparation.
The menu was as follows:
1: Yellowfin tuna rolls; caramelized sweet potato sticks; fresh mozzarella and tomato slice; tomato mousse w/ balsamic vinegar cube.
2. Japanese soup w/ hamachi, mussels, and poached shrimp served with eel, avocado and roe spring roll, with eel juice.
3. Halibut w/ black bean sauce w/ ginger & chive garnish on a daikon carpet w/ sesame oil.
4. Sea bass encrusted in crostini in bouillabaisse sauce.
5. Seared duck, rhubarb chutney w/ pea puree, pea shoots and fresh peas.
6. Bison w/ foie gras, parsnip puree and brussels sprout leaves. (nb: the hubby *loathes* brussels sprouts, but had to admit that these were awesome)
7. Pumpkin crème brulee, pulled sugar, soft pumpkin cookie and vanilla ice cream.
8. Apricot roll and mango truffle.
Needless to say, we were stuffed after this three-hour marathon of food. But what made this meal so memorable was not just the exquisite food, but watching the preparation and interacting with the chef and his sous chef. As mentioned above, many of the other guests looked somewhat perplexed by the ingredients and some were clearly hesitant to try new things. We, however, were incredibly stoked to try foie gras and maybe slightly less excited by the eel and its “juice.” (Not an appealing phrase, “eel juice.”) Our curiosity was rewarded, though, with one of the most tasty and interesting meals we’d ever eaten. There is no doubt that this was a top quality meal made with not just excellent ingredients but with care and talent. The chef spoke to us at length about the food we were about to eat and food he’d prepared elsewhere in his long career. His enthusiasm for cooking — and eating — rubbed off on us and made the meal that much better.
So there you have it. Two of my favourite meals. They are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of food quality but what they share is an unforgettable, fantastically entertaining and memorable context. As far as I’m concerned, this is what makes any meal great. Ideally, eating is a shared experience and I can’t wait for my next great one.
What’s one restaurant you have to try before you die?
The French Laundry.
What’s your biggest restaurant pet peeve? (Play nice.)
Bad service. I just don’t think there is any excuse for it. I have endured rude, incompetent, pushy and aloof servers and I never understand it. I have been outright lied to; I’ve had eyes rolled at me or my companions; I’ve had my table forgotten about for what seemed like an eternity. Great service can make up for bad food; but, I don’t think anything can overcome poor service. It ruins my meal.