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Chef School, Pt. 1: Life-Changing Meal Inspired Cutrara's Cowbell

A new generation of chefs is making its mark on Toronto cuisine, inspired by a love of food and a wealth of experience. In part one of CityNews.ca‘s four-part series on Toronto chefs we speak with Cowbell’s Mark Cutrara, who learned to butcher his own meat before opening his west-end bistro.

In the immaculate, brightly-lit lower level at Cowbell, Chef Mark Cutrara stands beside the butcher block table where he cuts his meat, espousing the benefits of eating local, seasonal food.

While we’re talking he motions to the doorway and one of his suppliers enters the room with a cellophane-wrapped side of New Zealand red deer slung over his shoulder. The animal has been skinned, cleaned, and is ready for preparation into the various cuts that will make their way onto Cutrara’s menu in the coming days.

Cutrara butchers all his own meat at Cowbell, which has earned rave reviews and a spot on Toronto Life’s annual Best New Restaurants list since opening in early 2007. The chalkboard menu at the cozy Parkdale bistro changes daily, based on what’s fresh and available.

Trained at Stratford Chefs School, Cutrara believes in respecting food and supporting local growers and farmers. He was inspired to open Cowbell after a family trip to Salt Spring Island, B.C. in 2006, where he says he had one of the best meals of his life.

“I chartered a fishing boat that was captained by an organic farmer. At the end of the day I’d caught five sockeye salmon and traded three for some of his produce and the lamb he raised on his farm,” Cutrara recalls. “When I cooked the meal, with everything harvested by him, I thought, ‘I may never have another meal like this again.’ Straight from the farm. I wanted to bring that idea to Toronto.”

But, as Cutrara discovered when he returned to the city, bringing in naturally-raised, organic meat and pesticide-free produce was fraught with challenges.

“I found it difficult to get good quality product to me,” he admits. “There are farmers that produce with these methods – organic, non-pesticides – but the infrastructure for getting that product to me isn’t available.”

In fact CityNews.ca learns that the man delivering the deer to Cowbell is the farmer who raised the animal. John Kroezen took over his father’s farm in Hepworth, On. 22 years ago and concedes it’s tough to make a living.

“There are so many regulations and they seem to cater to large-scale farms,” he notes, adding that his animals are fed free-range hay from his extensive acreage. “At the end of the day there’s only so much you can charge. (But) it’s nice to have a healthy product that you can be proud of and that your family can eat without worry.”

Kroezen is one of a handful of Ontario farmers and growers Cutrara works with, and they themselves are quite close-knit. Cutrara explains that the pigs he brings in are fed whey from the dairy where he orders his cheese.

Aside from butchering, which he learned by interning at The Healthy Butcher on Queen St. West, he also cures and smokes his own meat on the premises. (To see Cutrara divide the side of deer into its various cuts, click the video link.)

“It’s been a steep learning curve. I had to go back and learn butchery. I was trained as a cook but most restaurants don’t use whole animals. I wasn’t able to identify each individual cut from a hind-quarter of beef. So I trained from a traditional butcher that does dry-aging and rail cut, which is a traditional form of butchery where you hang pieces of meat on a rail and use gravity (in making the cuts). I knew I wouldn’t be doing more than one side of beef in a week, and I wanted to learn the traditional method,” he explains.

“(Besides) we had to bring in whole pieces. Farmers aren’t willing to separate the animals they’ve raised for two years into commonly used (cuts such as) strip loin, prime rib. So with our philosophy we use the entirety of it – which ends up being a lot of meat. We have a rotating menu and it’s our job as chefs to treat each cut the way it should be treated, whether it’s braised meat, different cooking methods like sous-vide, smoking, curing, charcuterie. All kinds of different methods of processing meat that are traditional when you think back to how a restaurant would have had to operate, post-WWII.”

Cutrara cites Toronto chef Jamie Kennedy, whom he trained under at JK ROM, as his mentor, and it’s no surprise given Kennedy and fellow chef Michael Stadtlander have been instrumental over the past 20 years in bringing together local farmers, restaurateurs and consumers.

“Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtlander fronted the movement in Canada. It makes sense: approach food with respect, support local industry, and seasonality,” he says.

“I think Toronto can definitely have (its own) cuisine if we look at what we’re producing locally. I think it won’t even be a question 15 years from now – I think it’s the only answer.”

Cowbell
1564 Queen Street West
Toronto, Ontarion
Tel: (416) 849-1095
Cowbell’s site