Derek Dammann is becoming a well-recognized chef on the Canadian culinary scene. He brings together a simple approach to using high-quality ingredients, grown by farmers he trusts with the culinary skills he gained working in the U.K.and Canada (including a stint working with Jamie Oliver) to create flavourful food that showcases the work the farmers put into growing the products.
Canada's Chefs Interviewed: Derek Dammann, Montreal QC
Derek Dammann says he believes in treating high-quality ingredients with respect and cooking them to bring out their flavours.
Chef Derek Dammann
Growing up in a family that valued good food and family meals was the start of a fascination with food for Dammann. He says that his grandmother was an exceptional Italian cook and the atmosphere she created by working all day with the family around her inspired him. He explains, "I like it when people pass things, share, talk and have a good time."
There are two formative experiences that Dammann says helped shape him as a chef. The first was working for Chef Peter Zambri at Zambri's in Victoria B.C. The chef says that Zambri's stripped down approach to regional Italian cuisine showed him how to, "appreciate ingredients for what they're worth without any manipulation" and how to approach working with farmers.
His experience working with Jamie Oliver in the U.K. was another formative experience. Dammann calls Oliver, "passionate and very generous" and says that spending time touring farms and working with farmers helped him understand the importance of dealing directly with purveyors.
In terms of approaching food, Dammann points out that he started out as one type of cook and has evolved into, "the polar opposite." Now he says that he's, "okay with putting some nicely cooked asparagus on a plate and getting people to eat it." He says that he likes a stripped down approach to food and wants to focus on people sharing food and enjoying an experience.
Dammann says that, in the past, while working in fine dining restaurants he's noticed that, "when people get their plate in front of them they hover over it like someone's cheating off of them on a math test in high school, they're really closed up" but that when he promotes sharing by serving family-style, people start to open up and relax.
In terms of the cooking itself, Dammann says that he likes to serve dishes that come from "a thoughtful place and a good source." He adds that even if dishes have many steps that go into their creation, the finished product looks simple and straightforward.
Qualis, Foie Gras and Aiöil
There are two essential qualities that Dammann says he looks for in his ingredients. The first is that they have to be Canadian and the second is that they have to come from good people. The chef says that many of the farmers whom he uses might produce "pretty mainstream" ingredients but, " they're good people so I buy from them."
He says that he has a pool of thirty different farming families with whom he does business so he has a wide range of products to choose from. In terms of fish, he works with a fisherman and buys his bycatch to be more responsible and sustainable. Dammann also adds that he buys whole animals and whole vegetables and uses everything he can from them. This is why he uses offal on his menu and explains, "we don't buy ingredients to shock people. If we have brains on the menu, we'll have one because we got one pig in that day."
Dammann says that his creative process starts by combining ideas taken from Canada's widely varied cultural, regional and historical culinary traditions with inspiration that he finds from visiting farms, traveling and reading. Dammann tells a story to illustrate one way in which a dish might come about. He says that everyone is taught to think of a thick-cut pork chop as the best kind of pork chop, but he was talking with his other cooks in the kitchen and, "Someone said, 'Remember your mom cooked 'em super thin and would just cook the hell out of them 'til they'd curl.' So we decided to do a plate of thin chops. Nobody does that!"
The chef also takes input from all of the cooks on his staff. He says that he'd be "like a dictator" if he came up with every dish and adds that he's blown away when one of his young cooks comes up with a dish on their own initiative and presents it to him.
Humboldt squid with smoked ham beurre blanc
His kitchen team, says Dammann, is comprised of people with whom he has a connection. He adds that someone can be taught to cook, but they can't be taught the right attitude. He says that he looks for enthusiasm, punctuality and a positive attitude. He explains, "You're a family, you spend enough time together so you might as well get along."
The idea of balancing the business side and the creative side of being a chef is one that Dammann says isn't possible. He says that every day there's a new challenge from one side or the other. He points out that as a chef, there is no "stamping tickets" for eight hours a day, because there's always something happening. He says, "There's a lot of late nights and lack of sleep. That's how you come up with ideas and manage everything. You just stay later to get it done."
The major motivating factor for Dammann as a chef is passion. He says that he loves what he does, he enjoys seeing people happy and adds that he can't get enough of the environment. He says, "There's a lot of sacrifices. You become a cook and you lose all your social skills. There's a lot of love you need to stick with it."
*stage - An apprenticeship where young cooks learn new culinary skills and techniques in restaurant kitchens.