If music is food for the soul, then Steven Page has been serving creative sustenance to Canadians for thirty years. He is best known as the former frontman for the iconic Canadian rock band the Barenaked Ladies, but his creative interests also extend into that other form of sustenance: Food for the belly.
In late 2016, Page cooked his way to victory on Chopped Canada’s Celebrity episode, and he hosted the reality-TV series Illegal Eater in 2013. I had an opportunity to talk with Steven Page about his culinary interests between back-to-back shows at Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre, July 2-3rd.
Page claims to be mostly a home cook. He received his basic training from a friend and eventual business partner, who “would come over to my place on Mondays, his day off. We’d hang out during the day, and then I’d cook something, and he’d show me stuff. He had a French-Belgian restaurant in Toronto, so it was not fancy, he wanted simple things. He showed me all the basics: how to properly roast a chicken, to properly make a ragu pasta. Life skills. I’m still a klutz. I’ve got endless badges of honour, hacked up hands, and dropped knives. It’s no fun, cooking just for yourself. For myself, I open a can, sardines or something like that. I’ll have an egg and a piece of toast. For other people, then I want to be more elaborate.”
AR: “How does a home cook get onto Chopped Canada?”
SP: “It was a surprise. It’s just as stressful as it looks. It is not your kitchen, and the stuff—ingredients, equipment—is way over there. And they reveal the (key) ingredients. Mind you, the celebrity show is not nearly as challenging as for real chefs, but it’s trying to figure out what you’re going to make, and have time to make it, and find all the parts. I’m pretty good at finding what I have, what I can make, or approximate. My mind kind of works that way. I can use these flavours, this protein, these vegetables, and that’s what I’m going to make. I try not to think about cleaning, because that makes me depressed and doesn’t make me want to do the work, so I think of something else. So my eyes glazed over and I went ‘I’m going to make exactly what I made for dinner this week,’ and I went looking for ingredients and took the same stuff that I’d just made two day before. I knew how to do it.”
AR: “Is there a dish at which you consistently fail?”
SP: “I’m a lousy baker, especially bread. I’ve had a couple of successes, but never regular. I think you’re really good when you’re basically good all the time. I like to blame my oven, but it’s not my oven’s fault, it’s mine. Actually, I took a baking course at George Brown College in Toronto just because I knew A: I didn’t like it (to bake), and B: I wasn’t good at it. It didn’t help.”
AR: “What is your finest dish?”
SP: “I started, several years ago, buying a cow. I don’t butcher it, but I grind it myself to make really awesome hamburgers and meatballs. My wife and I got married about six years ago. I did all of the food for our wedding, so about a hundred people, and I did sausages and hamburgers. That was a lot of work, but it worked very well, so that was one of my most proud moments.”
AR: “What are your most vivid memories from filming Illegal Eater?”
SR: “Well, I was asked to eat Balut, which is this Filipino duck egg with the duck still inside. I didn’t want to be culturally insensitive, so I just went for it, but as I started to eat it, then the woman is laughing, telling me that she hates it too, so I didn’t feel bad spitting it out. I couldn’t do it. Once I felt the feathers and the beak…”
On the other hand, Page had many great experiences while filming the show. “New Orleans,” he said.” There are a lot of bars and most of them have a restaurant kitchen in the back that aren’t used anymore. So people will rent them out for one or two weeks and create pop-up restaurants inside the bar: Dive Bombers, but amazing chefs. We went to one. It was all southern Creole inspired stuff. Local ingredients, but served on paper plates. At the end of the night, he had these guys come and help clean up, and those guys took all of the unused leftovers. So the next night, he took me out and they (the guys) were set up on the street corner making tacos, pressing the tortillas fresh, and using last night’s ingredients as the fillings. That was a good night: Food primary, really friendly and delicious and harmless.”
“One of the really cool ones was at a couple’s apartment in Chicago. A very small group of people. I couldn’t understand at first why these illegal restauranteurs didn’t mind being on the show. Wouldn’t you want to hide this? Couldn’t you get caught? Most of them are trying to get caught, cause what they want is to open their own restaurant. You want others to test you out and to get the buzz going and the investments. So this one was amazing. Really top level modern stuff, which is not normally my thing, but they did such a good job of it. Not long after, they ended up opening a bricks and mortar, and they were the first restaurant in Chicago to have gotten two Michelin stars in their first year, and then they suddenly just closed. I think it was a personal thing. I can’t say that for sure. We were really lucky to have been a part of that.”
AR: “What foods do you love?”
“I love breakfast food. I love stuff that is thoughtful. It doesn’t have to be authentic. I don’t like to use authentic, I find it can mean a lot of different things. It (what he loves) can be soulful, soul-food. It’s unpretentious, and I’ve had some artistic meals. I’d rather have things that have elements of comfort. Something that really sticks to your ribs, but the joy of cooking is evident, and really, that’s a big thing to share.