Good food needs marinating, and chef David Watt thinks putting together a good book does, too.
At least that was Watt’s outlook on his two-year-long passion project, which finally hit shelves last month, a cookbook titled “Feast of Friends.”
The owner of The Garrison House pub and restaurant began this project alongside friend Mike McColl during the pandemic when many restaurants were forced to close their doors.
Watt explained that the term “marinating” is his favourite: during the making of the cookbook, there were lots of decisions to be made that were unlike what he does on a day-to-day basis — working on a long-term project, rather than serving hundreds of tables in one day.
“If this was in a restaurant fashion, we would’ve made like 1,000 cookbooks because we need to get going,” he said. “So that kind of pace is foreign to me.”
Instead of arguing over certain details, Watt said he and McColl would simply “let it marinate” and come back to things a few days later.
Slow pace and dedication were overarching themes for the duo when putting the book together, along with hopes of creating something that’s usable and accessible.
“We want people to get it stained,” Watt explained. “It doesn’t belong in the library, it belongs in the kitchen.”
The book features 30 recipes from 30 chefs who have made their way into Watt’s life, including recipes that were hand-picked and tested so that the average home cook can pull them off.
“We asked the chefs for recipes that they would pass on to their mom or neighbour or something like that, rather than a recipe from their kitchen work,” Watt said.
When the average Canadian opens a cookbook and sees a recipe with 60 ingredients, they will be unlikely to try it out, he added.
“We want the book to be ‘What am I going to make this weekend? I guess I’ll pull something from here,’ because there’s a variety.”
The recipes themselves do not follow a particular theme. Instead of being sectioned under breakfast, lunch and dinner, the recipes and their correlating creators enter the book in order of their entrance into Watt’s life.
Each recipe also features a short biography of each contributor, along with directions and ingredients written in an authentic style.
“We kept the recipes in the chef’s words as much as possible,” McColl said, adding that they had been corrected for language but will still “have their own sort of tongue.”
Chef Braeden Mann works at The Garrison House along with Watt and helped test and plate every dish in the book over three months.
He also contributed his own recipe: ricotta gnocchi.
“During the pandemic, I was kind of stuck in Thailand,” Mann said. “I had nothing to do but I didn’t want to lose my feet so I just went into the kitchen every day for ten hours and made pasta.”
Many of the recipes in the book have personal touches like this, which Watt attributes to working on it throughout the pandemic.
“I cooked more during COVID than I had in a long time. I had been an executive chef for 20, 25 years, so I was going to retire before COVID,” he said.
Watt also ran cooking classes throughout the pandemic, and he said that this helped him rediscover the rudimentary techniques of cooking and reminded him how therapeutic it can be as an art form.
“I think people kind of came back to that, where you do have enough time to do it,” Watt said.
McColl, who shot all of the photos for the book and also contributed a recipe, said that he found joy in the happy accidents along the way while creating the project.
“Again, there was no food styling. We may have garnished around a little bit. But we just put it on the plate in a way that it doesn’t look like shit,” he joked. “It’s natural.”
At the end of the day, Watt said the book came out as something “better than I could have possibly imagined.”
“Feast of Friends” is currently available to purchase at spots around Niagara-on-the-Lake including The Garrison House, Barbea, Bella Terra, Cheese Secrets, Jackson Triggs, Megalomaniac Wines, Oast House, The Pie Plate, Ravine, the Sandtrap Pub and Grill and Tide and Vine for $45 plus tax.
Going forward, Watt plans to donate a percentage of proceeds to the Burnt Chef Project, a mental health support organization for the hospitality industry.