If there’s one book we know we will be pre-ordering, it’s Toronto-based writer Val Howes’ upcoming literary debut. We’ve been following Howes’ beautiful and insightful writing since she moved to Canada from Scotland over a decade ago. When we found out the former Reader’s Digest food editor is currently working on a book about Newfoundland’s food culture, we started looking into flights to St. John’s immediately. If Howes is obsessed, we know it’s just a matter of time before we are too. We already follow her every culinary move on valsopenkitchen.com, a blog she began while at Reader’s Digest and relaunched independently with the help of an Indiegogo campaign. Visiting the site is like hanging out with your really cool friend who can whip up an impossibly delicious but perfectly casual meal with ease, knows the latest trends on the food scene without sounding remotely pretentious, and has the kind of house parties that never seem to leave the kitchen (the best people are “kitchen people,” after all). We caught up with Howes to find out more about her upcoming book and site, her favourite chefs and cookbooks of all time, and what she considers her signature dish.
Give us a snippet about you. What should people know?
I moved to Canada from Scotland 14 years ago – a decision I only regret when it’s minus 20 outside. I was managing editor at Maisonneuve, a culture magazine in Montreal, before becoming a travel editor for Spafax (the publisher of Air Canada’s enRoute), then a food editor at Reader’s Digest. Last month I made the switch to full-time food, travel and health writer, and I started work on my first book, which explores the food culture on a remote, romantically and wildly beautiful island in Newfoundland.
What made you start ValsOpenKitchen.com and what kind of stuff can readers find on it?
I had a blog at Reader’s Digest called Open Kitchen, when I was the food editor there. I traveled all over the country meeting chefs, food and drink artisans, and people running cool community projects. The blog was doing well – last year it won gold for best blog at two magazine industry awards events – and it was a labour of love. I had the opportunity to take over Open Kitchen after leaving Reader’s Digest, so I ran an Indiegogo campaign to relaunch it. The blog’s at valsopenkitchen.com now. You can go there for original recipes, news about new artisanal products, contests, food and drink ideas, nutritional advice, and stories about exciting culinary destinations around the world.
What’s your signature dish?
I make a fine Sunday dinner: roast chicken with a crispy, garlic-and-lemon-butter-rubbed skin; roast potatoes; steamed kale; and slightly caramelized roasted root veggies. I sometimes go next-level with hasselback potatoes, too. They look like baby armadillos when they’re roasted – so cute. And for my son’s birthday every year, I make Nigella Lawson’s frosted Coca Cola Cake, with mini candy bottles of coca cola for decoration.
What cookbooks have been influential in your own cooking?
My all-time fave is How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson. I like her reverence for full-flavour ingredients like butter, dark chocolate and cream. I used that one, Happy Days with the Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver, and Taste by Nigel Slater to get me started, when I was learning to cook.
Who are some of your favourite chefs of all time and why?
All-time: Nigella! I love her tasty food and her sass. She told me I had nice legs after I interviewed her a few years ago. It was the highlight of my career, possibly my life. In Canada, Derek Dammann from Montreal blew my mind with his cooking on a trip I did to Scotland last year with a group of Canadian chefs. His restaurant is Maison Publique, and he’s a big talent. I love John and Connie from CHARCUT in Calgary, not just for their amazing meaty creations, but also for their amazing work building community among chefs in their city and across Canada. And there are a couple of guys in London, Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, who do Willy-Wonka-like artistic culinary projects. They recently developed flavoured fireworks for a big New Year’s Eve bash in London; they made glow-in-the-dark funeral jelly installations for MOMA in San Francisco; and they flooded an entire floor of an architectural school with 4,000 litres of a Courvoisier Cognac-based cocktail, to be consumed while floating on a raft in the giant “punch bowl.”
What is your favourite restaurant and why?
In Toronto, I love Ursa. They offer a creative fine-dining menu, with lots of wild ingredients from the forest and lakes, so it’s the ultimate Canadian dining experience. It’s also healthy and balanced; the chef-owners used to cater for pro atheletes. If you have food allergies (which I do), you have plenty of beautiful options on the menu, without having to ask for things to be specially adapted.
Let’s get social for a mo’. How can people stay up-to-date with your busy life?
On Twitter and Instagram. And my blog addy is valsopenkitchen.com. You can subscribe on the homepage to get updates when the newest posts are up. Come visit!