Just in time for the holidays, Vancouver chef Rob Feenie shares his secrets to stress-free home entertaining
Burnaby-born celebrity chef Rob Feenie’s professional accolades read like a career-dream resumé to any budding chef, but these days, what really matters most to Feenie is family. Having recently published his fourth cookbook, Rob Feenie’s Casual Classics: Everyday Recipes for Family and Friends, just in time for the holidays.
Feenie has assembled a set of recipes that have been thoroughly family tested and many times enjoyed by wife Michelle, plus kids Devon, Jordan and Brooklyn.
Recently, the executive chef of Cactus Club Restaurants, first Canadian winner of Iron Chef America and former Food Network Canada star sat down with TVW to share his home entertaining secrets.
Rob Feenie's Holiday Traditions
You’ve mentioned your mom a lot in your new cookbook. Are there any family food traditions you still have now?
My mom’s stuffing. It was my grandmother’s stuffing recipe and was passed on to mom and her three sisters. I mean, turkey is turkey, mashed potatoes are mashed potatoes, gravy is gravy, but as a kid, all I cared about was eating the stuffing — my plate was probably 75 per cent stuffing. Oddly enough, even though my mom has told me the recipe, and this likely makes me sound sort of inferior as a chef [chuckles], I’ve never been able to master it. It’s not in my repertoire and I’ve left it to my mom, but I’m going to have to learn it so I can pass it on to my kids. Those are the kinds of things that are really cool: the kids won’t want “the chef’s version,” they want Nana’s version.
Is there a special ingredient in her stuffing?
Pineapple. And apple, plus sage and sausage.
Does your mom have a secret weapon, a special cooking tool you covet?
Her mother passed on the pan she roasts the turkey in to her, and my mom still, to this day, cooks in it. If I could have that pan from her one day . . . that’d be great.
That’s a big hint to mom — now here in print no less. Did you come from a big family?
Growing up, it was myself and my two brothers and my sister. My parents came from very large families. Christmas was always really hectic. All the cousins, everyone was there. We’d usually have 30 to 40 people. Mayhem. And always a kids’ table at dinner.
What is Christmas Day like for you now — do you cook?
What I’ve always really loved about cooking, is that sort of sharing factor. l really love food, so to be able to do it for family is a lot of fun. We don’t necessarily make turkey every Christmas. I look at turkey like it’s my mom’s thing, so I’ll leave it with her, and I’ll do something else.
So now as a husband and dad of three kids, what are your own traditions?
Our big deal with our kids is the Elf on the Shelf. That was very cool last year, especially since Elf was in a different place every morning. That, and chocolate advent calendars. Those are things we’ll do again this year. On Christmas Eve, the kids are able to open one present, like I did when I was a kid. Christmas for us — it’s such a great time to bring people together, and I love how my wife and I are starting to develop our own things with our three kids. It’s really important and the kids absolutely love it. Buying the Christmas tree, putting it up — my wife and I are both so looking forward to that because it’s the first Christmas we’ve had back in Vancouver in three years. We’re so excited about it.
How do you handle Christmas breakfast?
My wife likes to be in charge of breakfast, because according to her, I don’t cook eggs properly. My wife can’t do anything first thing in the morning without her David’s tea. Without it — forget it — don’t ask her to do anything. So we have a nice leisurely breakfast, and after the gifts are all done, take a big walk and have people over mid-afternoon for dinner.
Chef Rob Feenie and wife Michelle prepare a holiday meal (Image: Venturi + Karpa)
Any tips on entertaining during the holiday season? People stress about it, don’t they?
People do stress. One of the cool things I like about the new book are a couple hors d’oeuvres that are seasonal, and we all think seasonally being on the West Coast. Like the crostinis, the one with sausage and mascarpone cheese, which is a great one for Christmas, plus the mushroom and goat cheese, and the tomato and Parmesan, are very simple. If people were to serve those three, they’re pretty much set.
I think people stress enough just with the turkey, so even just serve a cheese platter; that’s something my wife and I do a lot. There are some beautiful cheese shops here in Vancouver, and to be able to pick up a nice selection of local cheeses, some great crusty bread, a couple different marmalades, and its kinda like, Bob’s your uncle. A place like Oyama Sausage Company down at Granville Island has all kinds of great local charcuterie and cheese, and that’s one stop to keep it simple, and then you can focus on your dinner.
I love the sound of the osso bucco from your cookbook. How about that for Christmas Eve dinner?
You just called it. My kids are osso bucco freaks. It’s the perfect dish for Christmas Eve, and great for leftovers. Or, try the game hen with dried fruit recipe, the Moroccan version, and you can always sub in chicken. Make either dish the night before, because they all revolve around braising, and this time of year it’s the perfect time to braise.
How do you feel about the ol’ slow cooker? Are you into that?
It’s funny you said that, because those are two great recipes you could use your slow cooker for — set it and forget it. Do your searing, throw everything in, cover the lid, put the timer on for four to five hours, and done. Serve it with whatever starch or vegetables you want.
Any tips for cooking a great turkey?
Well, one trick I have always talked about, whether it’s me or any Canadian chef on the Food Network right now, one thing I’d like to see people do is to learn how to brine. It’s very important; you don’t want to overcook your turkey. I always brine mine; it gives it a lot more flavour. Brine is basically salt, sugar and water, and that gives the turkey the opportunity to stay moist and not dry out.
Suggestions on how to make it easier during the hectic holidays?
Get your shopping done a couple days ahead; don’t wait until the last minute. For instance, Brussels sprouts keep for a couple days, and a turkey you can get a couple days ahead and let it thaw. Don’t rush, take your time. On the last day, get your cheese and charcuterie, do the bulk of your shopping at least two days before you need it.
Is there a B.C. bubbly you like during the holiday season?
For years I have been drinking Sumac Ridge’s Steller’s Jay, I love their sparkling [wine] — always have. I’ve enjoyed many a bottle with Harry McWatters [founder of Sumac Ridge], who I’ve known for a long time. It’s always consistent and always delicious.