The dinner roller coaster is a ride Kyle Lew and Kristen Chemerika-Lew have ridden many times since becoming parents.
"They’re adventurous, yet somehow incredibly picky," Kyle says of their kids, Oliver, 5, and Charlie, 8. "They like spicy, bold flavours, but if it has too much green it’s just out of the question."
Greens aren’t the only challenging ingredient for the husband-and-wife team behind Lark, an Exchange District restaurant and bakery, and Chew Catering, a business styled after their first restaurant in River Heights.
"They love Indian cuisine, they love Chinese food, they’re very excited for Vietnamese food, they love sushi," Kristen, 36, says. "But a salad is still gonna get a turned-up nose from them… and a cherry tomato is maybe the biggest point of contention in our house."
Spaghetti and meatballs, however, is a surefire crowd pleaser — even in the blistering heat of the summer.
"We make it on a weekly basis," says Kyle, 34. "To the point that we started making it as a retail product in the storefront at Lark."
"If we eat it this much, somebody else might want to as well," Kristen adds.
Their take on the classic dish involves a low-maintenance tomato sauce and beef meatballs made with creamy ricotta, salty Pecorino cheese, fresh basil and a hit of spicy red pepper flakes.
Dinner has always been a favourite meal for the chef couple, although these days, speed is more important than a lavish spread.
Kyle and Kristen met 15 years ago in culinary school at Toronto’s George Brown College, where they made dinner a daily priority.
"Despite the time of day, we have always had dinner together," Kyle says, adding that a 3 a.m. meal after getting off work was a common occurrence. "In 15 years we’ve probably only missed a handful when we were both working nights."
For Kristen, it’s a moment to pause and take stock.
"Cooking together has always been fun, and sitting down and eating together… is that moment to connect and share and debrief," she says. "All of those things you want to do with your partner."
The couple returned to Winnipeg from Toronto in 2012 to be closer to Kristen’s family and open their own restaurant. Charlie was born in June the following year and they opened Chew several months later. "Full chaos" is how Kristen describes that period of their lives — finding childcare to fit their schedule was a challenge and Charlie would often accompany his parents to work at the restaurant.
"We had to be fairly creative about it," she says. "People primarily want to eat dinner and the average daycare isn’t open (in the evenings), but between friends, family and neighbours, we made it work."
Opening Lark, which caters to a daytime lunch crowd, in the summer of 2019 allowed for a better work-life balance — though the pendulum has swung in the other direction amid the pandemic.
"It’s given us a lot more free time," Kyle says with a chuckle. "We’re only open a couple of days at this point because the clientele isn’t quite back in the area yet."
That surplus free time has been spent finishing home renovation projects, expanding their backyard vegetable garden and cooking as a family. Both boys like helping out in the kitchen — Charlie has mastered making scrambled eggs on his own and Oliver takes pancake-flipping very seriously. Chaos still reigns supreme in their home kitchen, but Kyle and Kristen wouldn’t have it any other way.
"It’s messy and that’s fine," Kristen says, adding that their dog Huney has become an integral part of the clean-up crew. "I don’t know how people live without dogs; that blows my mind."
by Kyle Lew and Kristen Chemerika-Lew of Lark
- 250 ml (1 cup) shallots, peeled (approximately 1 medium shallot)
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 500 g (1 lb) ground beef (ideally an 80/20 mix)
- 60 ml (1/4 cup) whole milk ricotta
- 250 ml (1 cup) Pecorino cheese
- 250 ml (1 cup) fresh basil
- 706 ml canned whole tomatoes, puréed
- 10 ml (2 tsp) kosher salt
- 5 ml (1 tsp) red pepper flakes
- 450 g (1 lb) dry spaghetti or linguini
Finely dice the shallot and mince the garlic.
Stack and roll the basil into a cigar shape and finely slice into fine ribbons.
Combine half of the basil with the shallots, garlic, ground beef, ricotta, 125 ml (1/2 cup) pecorino cheese, salt and red pepper flakes. Divide mixture into 60 g portions and, with wet hands, rolls those portions into round balls.
Heat a large non-stick pan with 15 ml (1 tbsp) canola oil over medium high heat. When the oil is hot (you will see it shimmer), add the meatballs and brown on all sides, as evenly as possible. When brown, deglaze with the tomatoes. Turn the heat down to low and simmer for 60-75 minutes, when the meatballs become fork tender. If you would like a thicker sauce, with a slotted spoon, remove the meatballs to a plate and reduce the sauce to your desired thickness. When achieved, add the meatballs back into the sauce.
Cook your preferred pasta al dente and add directly into the sauce. Toss to combine.
Portion onto four plates, starting with the pasta on the bottom and three meatballs on each plate. Top with the rest of the fresh basil, Pecorino cheese and red pepper flakes, if you’d like a little more heat.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.