Considering cooking knowledge

Not too long ago, Kendall Gustavson was faced with a unique culinary challenge

A bucket of cow's blood sat in her fridge, and she was tasked with using that blood to create a dessert. Gustavson was at a culinary school in Italy at the time, and had to create a dish for a visiting food author.

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"I was so overwhelmed I had no idea what to even think about doing," recalls Gustavson.

She managed to whip up a Chocolate Blood Pudding and something she called a Blood Orange Cake (word play intended). The dessert was well received.

"Turns out you can use blood just like eggs," she says with a laugh, noting that the blood had a deep, rich flavour and tasted "iron-y."

This experience was a seminal one, and it sparked her interest in helping people become less intimidated by the thought of working with raw ingredients.

Faced with a bucket of blood and no idea what to do with it, Gustavson says she realized this is how so many people feel in their own kitchens staring at the fridge and wondering what to do for dinner. She admits, however, that most people are working with a collection of less exotic ingredients.

Gustavson is now the owner of The Modern Pantry, an artisan food shop in West Vancouver that also hosts various cooking classes.

Classes have included full pig butchery, sausage making, pasta making and baking with olive oil, along with tastings for cheese and chocolate, all with the intention of bringing people back to the basics of cooking. Gustavson says more and more people are turning to prepackaged foods and while convenience has its place, she would like to see more people gain the knowledge necessary to know what they are buying.

"I don't really expect people to go out and buy a whole pig and butcher it themselves. But by doing a class like that then they can go to the butcher shop and say, 'OK, well I actually know what the shoulder looks like and I know how to cut it and I know how to prepare it' and so it's making that jump from there's this whole unknown world to there's something I can do that is a practical skill."

Gustavson recalls a trip to England a couple of years ago when she visited a high-end organic farm that also had a shop and cooking school. The store had a proper meat counter and a section of packaged meat just across the aisle from it. When she asked about the packaged meat, Gustavson was told that it was there because many people who visited the shop were too intimidated to talk to the butcher.

"They don't have that knowledge base or that comfort level to start asking questions and engage with somebody," says Gustavson. "That's really interesting to me because it means that people aren't going to learn anything because they're too afraid that they don't have enough knowledge to have a conversation."

Gustavson says it's important for people to feel confident going into a cheese store, talking to a butcher or buying from a fishmonger.

"I feel like you only have to have a very small amount of knowledge to feel like you can then go get more knowledge."

Gustavson says food has become somewhat of a celebrity in recent years, and cooking has become more intimidating for many.

She gets her own knowledge from her parents, who were both formally trained in culinary arts.

Her education background includes an undergraduate degree in international development with a focus on food security issues in developing countries, and a master's degree in food culture and communications, which she describes as studying everything about food except how to cook it. Along the way, Gustavson has helped friends get comfortable cooking basics.

"I would say the very best thing you can do is start playing with things. Get a recipe book that doesn't scare you and do something exactly by the book and then do it again but make your own changes," she recommends for beginners.

"I think that's the best way to learn because then you start to see if you go off the beaten path a little bit nothing bad happens and you build a little bit of confidence and allow yourself to start making some good and bad mistakes."

This story originally appeared in the North Shore News special section called Dish, which focuses on food-related stories.

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