Tuesday, 20 January 2015

How to Prepare a Chef

Who knew that an evening of mindless channel cruising could've led me to gain 6 pounds in mere two months... Damn cable TV!

Season 2 starts Feb 8 @7 pm EST
Thanks to Netflix and programming on demand, I haven't entertained the regular sit down evening in front of our ever growing TV screen in quite a while. Life is busy, kids are really small and really loud and usually, by the time we have them wrestled down to bed and could actually drop on the comfy couch to watch something, all that is offered is the grim recap of the worst news from around the world. If it's CNN we also get why they knew about the bad news all along coupled with why it will never get better. As the turquoise-eyed and tight lipped anchor keeps questioning the two opposing parties in the latest conflict, they yell, bark and interrupt each other leaving me with an upset stomach, a fluttering heart and an uncomfortable feeling I wasn't smart to bring three lives into this unhappy planet. As if none of any opinions even matter, the blood red ticker line at the bottom of the HD screen keeps counting the dead, measuring disasters, ramping up warnings. Exactly what full time employed busy mother of three needs at the end of the day. Yeah right.

But then, I remember the super-power of pressing the channel up button and I rip through a few dozens of channels. Click. A powerful car commercial. Click. A must have mop for our home. Click. Cereal commercial portraying a family just like mine starting their day happy, organized and serene. Shut up! Click. A guy getting eaten by a snake. Click. Dermatologist recommended face cream that is proven to take away my early signs of aging. Click. A history lesson showing how Holocaust was ignored for the first three years of the WWII. Click. Vitamix infomercial. I stay here longer as a very eloquent dude that clearly abused some self tanning product, throws in a half of a green cabbage with some frozen berries, making a delicious vegan ice-cream. The attractive brunette is licking the spoon tossing her hair back. Simultaneously I restrain myself from agreeing to four simple payments -- I have already bought the mighty machine and note to self I must try this mix, since it's promising pleasure. A lot of pleasure. Click.

On the next channel, a guy is sweating while peaking through the oven window. A girl is vigorously chopping parsley nervously glancing at the clock. Another woman is contemplating a disaster - the dough might still be raw in the middle. Three men in sleek suits are circling around them like sharks, asking somewhat uncomfortable questions as if these people, handling both hot and sharp objects while counting seconds are in any position to be chatting. The tune that accompanies them is something from a heart-stopping thriller. Or the "JAWS" movie, hence the shark analogy. Nevertheless my eyes are glued to the TV. When the show ends in some 15 minutes, a woman has been eliminated in a "Survivor" like fashion; instead of her torch being extinguished she is told to take her apron off, her kitchen war flag with her name embroidered on it. She has been defeated and she sheds a few tears.

"Join us next week to find out who will get 100 000.00$ and the title of the first MasterChef Canada!"

Without hesitation, I hop on Google, find out when and on which channel the show runs, so I don't have to chase it on the West Coast schedule and I put it in my calendar. That's how much I needed to know what happens next! Then I realize, I am starving...

Family treasure written in Serbian Cyrillic
Strong women, fearless, educated and opinionated have always been a point of pride of our family. As a girl, I enjoyed hearing about my great grandmother Milena Tubić, who was in mid 1800's one of the first woman teachers having to acquire her higher education in Thessaloniki, Greece as there was none for women at that time in Serbia. Milena survived four wars, lost three homes and mourned two children, somehow still keeping her spirit bright and empowering. Everything she knew she taught her one surviving daughter, my grandmother Tomira. Milena died peacefully four months after the birth of her last great-grandchild: me. The most incredible woman on my grandfather's side of the family was his mother Ljubica Čemerikić "Maka" who crossed the Atlantic on a ship back and forth ten times, so that she can live with her daughter's family after they immigrated as well as stay close to her sons. In March of 1972 she was hit by a car and suffered a fracture, then got transported to a Belgrade hospital where she shared the room in the ER, divided by only a curtain with the index case of the major strain of Variola Vera. The male patient from Kosovo contracted the deadly virus while on a pilgrimage in Mecca, bringing it to Serbia where the last case of the disease was reported in 1923 and it was considered extinct. 10 000 people have been quarantined, 175 patients contracted the disease, 35 died. Within the following two weeks 18 million citizens of then Yugoslavia, had to be vaccinated to prevent the spread. My extraordinarily feisty great-grandmother spent the maximum number of days in the hospital quarantine, watching people around her get sick and die, helping the decimated hospital staff as much as she could. When the quarantine ended, she walked out of the hospital walking with canes, never even contracting the disease. She died here, in Canada at a tender age of 102.
Our Grandmother's Cookbook
Both women and all of their daughters have been extraordinarily gifted in the kitchen. Despite the times of wars, scarcity and the lack of the essentials in the kitchen, such as a fridge, these women got known for their culinary skills. My grandmother Tomira, who held a degree in Ethnography, wrote it all down, in several tomes of handwritten manuscripts. When she finally got two granddaughters after two grandsons, she was determined to transfer her amazing skills onto us.
I'm not sure what came first, me being a tomboy or the need for the pots and pans to be washed so that the baking and cooking can move on at lightening speed - these were the pre-dishwasher years - but I personally never acquired any of that training. Although I truly enjoyed hanging out in the kitchen, being seduced by my grandmother's stories laced with a whiff of vanilla and the opportunity to lick every bowl, I never got even close to making dough, seeing the yeast rise, bundling the future loaf of delicious bread in a warm kitchen towel. Or handling the big cut of meat, skillfully removing skins and tendons off only to inject it with garlic and almonds then rub it with freshly-ground spices. But my sister... Oh goodness! From a very early age, she was all into it, wrapping herself in our grandmother's apron - her favourite dress-up - and mimicking her every move. Asking questions. Measuring. Sprinkling. Decorating. Tasting all along. Then proudly serving, basking in reactions of people who have seen it and tried it.

Forty years later and my sister Mina is still at her counter, cooking and baking. The dough simply loves this woman! Her kitchen is her sanctuary. Whether seeking relaxation or just plain fun, she always ends up elbow deep in the flour preparing old recipes and inventing twists and turns that make our family favourites more modern, worldly. Can there be a higher endorsement than that she picked a new stove instead of a ring for her 15th wedding anniversary? That stove is her jewel. Our entire family gathers around her table, for holidays and special occasions as that sense of major accomplishment and pride still accompanies the extraordinary love she pours into dishes that look great and taste out of this world!

So when a week later, the first ever MasterChef Canada trophy got awarded together with a hefty dollar prize and showers of confetti, I knew my sister Mina belonged in that kitchen.
Guess who's the finalist on MasterChef Canada Season 2?!
Strong, slender and competitive, our family's "foodie" finally had an arena for where to showcase her passion.
The following two summer months, as any good coach does, I watched and re-watched the entire Season 1, living through every tough scenario of the pressure cooker and surprise challenge. Somehow I wanted to make sure that the flavours of the Balkans make it to the show for the world to see, try and taste. While at work in colourful Scarborough, I went crazy exploring the local favourites of Indian, Korean, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Malaysian and Japanese cuisines - we shall not be niched! I took photos of every plate, then savoured that first bite, acting as a judge! At home, I cooked for my own family, throwing butter left, right and centre (calorie count doesn't seem to matter in this competition) making sure all was done within one hour. Needless to say we dined really well last summer in our very own kitchen! My sister and I got really close - I dare say closer then ever - experimenting, calling each other many times a day, exchanging kitchen tricks. My waistline soon climbed another size - oh well, I will walk it off! We became so MCC-obsessed that even my 6 years old son started counting seconds for me as I poured milk into his morning cereal: "10 seconds left, mama, you'd better be plating!"

The MasterChef Canada Season 2 is starting in two weeks. To say I am suffocating with excitement is an understatement. However, it is not the proximity to the reality TV fame that is the most exciting thing to me. What is so monumentally great is that my sister Mina, a woman with a husband and teenage kids, an aging parent and lot of friends, a successful professional career and a busy schedule as a fitness maven,  someone with important deadlines and to-do lists like the rest of us, has decided to bravely press the pause button on all that and take some serious time to play kitchen, just like when she was a kid.

So you want to know the best recipe for how to prepare a Chef? 

Take equal parts of skill, passion and creativity, preferably with long roots (do not remove!), seasoned with discipline of a black belt karate master and spiked with wicked measuring skills only a pharmacist might have; marinate in love for a decade or so. Then let her loose and let her play!


  1. Amazing story!!

    1. This is a short novel not a story !! I cannot wait for the next chapter! I must admit to feeling a bit insignificant in the face of all of these amazing women - I am going to go and do something amazing RIGHT NOW!!!

  2. It is actually more important to find the AMAZING in everyday, small and ordinary things - like an unexpected gesture of kindness, smiling at the person who cut you off in traffic, etc. From personal experience: it is quite easy to do 'brave' or 'amazing' when cornered in in life, it's the obvious choice then. The trick is to do amazing when life is good but ordinary. Would love to know what happened at 15:28 today :-)