Summer is coming to an end here in Winnipeg, but for chef Eraj Jayawickreme, this September is all about new beginnings... and arrivals.
Jayawickreme is the executive chef at the Fairmont Hotel and is in charge of, among other things, the VG Restaurant (formerly the Velvet Glove). He is personable and accessible, the sanguine man personified (think Dickens' Spirit of Christmas Present), and these days, his smile is on high-beam.
To start, he and his wife Rachael are celebrating the birth of their daughter Charlotte, who arrived in mid-August. He's marking his first anniversary at the Fairmont, having come from Toronto's Hilton Worldwide, and he's in the middle of re-branding the VG Restaurant.
The 37-year-old Sri Lankan-born chef credits his parents, who brought him and his sister to Canada in 1989, for laying the groundwork for his success.
"I grew up in Scarborough, and I came from a very open, well-educated family with parents who were well-travelled with a great understanding of how this world works," says Jayawickreme.
His parents were both high-profile business people in Sri Lanka, with his mother in advertising and his father in finance but he says that, like many immigrant families, they had to start over when they came to Canada.
"They successfully worked their way back up the corporate ladder, so they actually started life twice, which was a huge motivation and inspiration for me," he says.
At 11 years old, Jayawickreme was enlisted to get his four-year old sister to and from school. It was during those times that they would watch TV, but it wasn't cartoons that engaged him — it was Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr and Wok With Yan and The Urban Peasant.
"At one point, I asked my parents if I could cook and they said, 'Well, we can't have you burn the house down.' So for Christmas, they actually bought me a skillet — one of the old-school ones — the square ones you can plug in," he says.
And a chef was born.
TV chefs weren't his only early influence. He had an uncle working at a high-end hotel in London who used to share his "war stories."
"I was awed by it and finally, one day, I told my parents this is what I want to do — at 13 years old."
His parents did what good parents do: they supported him by helping to find work with a caterer and encouraging him to set goals to become the best chef possible by age 25. His high school home-ec teacher recognized his talent and organized a co-op placement at Toronto's King Edward Hotel.
That turned out to be a huge break as Jayawickreme came under the tutelage of the renowned chef John Higgins, the director at George Brown Chef School who is also a judge on Food Network Canada's Chopped Canada.
"I used to go at five in the morning and I would stay until late at night," he says.
"He was a big-shot chef in this world-class hotel and the fact that he took that time just to show me what else is possible — and then drive me home at night — you know, the executive chef of the hotel teaching a co-op student, it blew my mind," he says.
From there, he moved on to the George Brown school and worked his way through a number of restaurants before joining a partnership to start his own place at 21.
After the partnership dissolved, he went back into running other trendier restaurants, working in various demographics and styles.
A year ago, he moved to Winnipeg to head the Fairmont, and Jayawickreme is working to change the concept of what a hotel restaurant is.
"Our standards are corporately mandated, but the menus are completely carte-blanche, so I get to run it like a really cool independent," he says.
That means he has the freedom to engage Manitoba producers such as Harm's Farms, run by Paul and Arda Harms, who can provide food that he has specified for his kitchen.
"We're taking all the vegetables they've grown and we are preserving, salting, pickling, curing, and brining to use over the winter just like our ancestors did, following the seasons."
Although he is making changes, Jayawickreme is keeping one aspect of the restaurant open. The VG has the last dedicated kosher kitchen in a hotel in Winnipeg. It's a specialty service that he honed while working in Toronto as the executive sous and the chief steward at the Sutton Place hotel, where kosher events were common.
Jayawickreme says his goal is to make the VG a more accessible restaurant, where guests can be as comfortable in their jeans as they would be in more formal wear.
"We'll stay on trends on a global scale and I do a lot of research to see what's going on in the best restaurants in the world," he says.
All of these are recipes that have been made in the Fairmont's dedicated kosher kitchen. You can find chef at www.erajjay.com.
Jayawickreme presents the salmon and potato latkes as a "garden," to be shared among diners. It includes cylinder beets, candy cane beets, black radish, indigo and heirloom cherry tomatoes, pickled beet purée, puffed Manitoba grains, popcorn powder, a bit of olive oil, sprouts, herbs, zucchini flowers, marigold flowers and more. Home cooks can do individual plates using any of the ingredients listed.
NOTE: The salmon will take two days to cure before serving. It is not cooked.
1 salmon fillet, skin on and bones removed, cut in half
125 ml (1/2 cup) maple syrup
375 ml (11/2 cup) coarse sea salt
375 ml (11/2 cup) light brown sugar
125 ml (1/2 cup) finely chopped fennel fronds
zest of 2 lemons
3/4 of a fennel bulb, thinly sliced
125 ml (1/2 cup) fennel seeds, lightly toasted
20 ml (4 tsp) ground black pepper
Baste the fish with the maple syrup and store in the refrigerator.
Whisk the salt, sugar, fennel fronds and lemon zest in a bowl.
Place a piece of plastic wrap that's three times the width of the salmon fillet on your work surface.
Spread half the cure across the plastic evenly. Place the salmon, skin side down, on the cure.
Cover the exposed flesh with the rest of the cure, pressing down firmly.
Toss the fennel slices, fennel seeds, and pepper in a bowl. Sprinkle evenly across the top of the fish.
Wrap the fish tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for two days.
When it's ready, rinse the fish with cold water to remove excess salt.
Pat it dry, cut lengthwise, de-skin and portion into 0.5-cm (1/4-inch) slices.
Serve with the potato latkes.
Yield: 6 servings
1 litre (4 cups) Yukon gold potatoes, grated
4 whole eggs
30 ml (2 tbsp) baking powder
15 ml (1 tbsp) kosher salt
30 ml (2 tbsp) flour
2 shallots, brunoise (finely diced and cooked in butter)
1/2 bunch chives, brunoise
clarified butter for brushing rosti pans (small pans for cooking potato pancakes, a good frying pan with oven-proof handle will do)
Preheat the oven to 180 C (350 F).
Using a clean cloth, squeeze all the starch out of the grated potato.
In a medium bowl, mix the potato with all the other ingredients until well incorporated.
Warm the rosti pans over medium heat and brush with clarified butter.
Over medium heat, gently colour the latkes to a nice golden brown on both sides and finish off for 10 minutes in the oven.
As you plate and serve, reheat each serving of latke for 2 minutes.
NOTE: The coconut milk for the whipped coconut cream (below) must be refrigerated in advance.
200 g (7 oz) dark chocolate (70 per cent cacao or higher), finely chopped
400 ml (1 X 14 oz) can full-fat coconut milk
2 large egg yolks
1 ml (1/4 tsp) Ancho chili powder
0.5 ml (1/8 tsp) kosher salt
1 cinnamon stick
15 ml (1 tbsp) vanilla extract
Place the chocolate in a bowl and set aside.
In a saucepan, whisk to combine the coconut milk, egg yolks, chili powder and salt. Drop in the cinnamon stick.
Heat the mixture over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until it thickens and forms a smooth custard that coats the back of a spoon, 10-15 minutes.
When the custard is ready, take the pot off the heat, and remove the cinnamon stick.
Position a fine-mesh sieve over the bowl of chocolate, and pour the custard through to catch any lumps.
Let the chocolate and custard mixture sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.
Once five minutes has elapsed, use a spatula and stir ever so gently to mix the melted chocolate into the custard base. If you over-stir quickly, the temperature will drop too quickly, and you'll end up with grainy chocolate. Steady, slow stirring is essential for ensuring a stable emulsion.
Once you've achieved a smooth mixture, stir in the vanilla extract.
Divide the mixture evenly among eight 2-oz espresso cups or ramekins, and cool to room temperature.
Cover the cups with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
When you're ready to serve, remove the pots de creme from the fridge and spoon a dollop of the whipped coconut cream into each cup.
400 ml (1 X 14 oz) can of coconut milk, refrigerated for several hours
30 ml (2 tbsp) Grade A maple syrup or honey
5 ml (1 tsp) vanilla extract
Open can of coconut milk, taking care not to shake it.
Scoop coconut cream solids into cold mixing bowl.
Reserve remaining liquid for another use.
Beat coconut cream using electric mixer with chilled beaters on medium speed; turn to high speed.
Beat until stiff peaks form, 7 to 8 minutes.
Add the maple syrup and vanilla extract to coconut cream. Beat 1 minute more. Ready for use.