Olivier Jansen-Reynaud wasn't born in a kitchen, but he might as well have been.
Growing up in the Champagne region of France as a young boy, Jansen-Reynaud's family was so busy cooking or working at their small cafe they kept his crib in the kitchen. You could say he absorbed a love of food by proximity. Since then, he's worked at seafood joints in B.C. (with his father who separated from his mom), as a gardener, as an Air Canada flight attendant and even as a bell boy; but today, the 48-year-old Toronto resident has just two things on his mind, and they both involve baking: Oreos and croissants.
Creator of the so-called "cronut of Toronto", Jansen-Reynaud's crookie — Oreo cookies stuffed in a croissant — started as a last-minute challenge from The Grid magazine.
"They had chefs lined up for an article and one of them backed out. They asked me to make something and said 'please don't make a cronut.' I just thought of a croissant and stuffing it with something. It was just a fluke."
His fluke turned into a media-attention parade; international news outlets like The Daily Mail, ABC and Fox News were on the hunt for a chef to rival Dominique Ansel. (In just two months, Ansel's cronuts (a doughnut-croissant hybrid) created huge lineups, a long list of knock-offs and even several lawsuits).
But Jansen-Reynaud isn't so worried about being the next big thing.
The Clafouti Cafe owner talked to The Huffington Post Canada about his love for street meat, his reaction to over 79 people getting sick at the Canadian National Exhibition after eating cronut burgers, and the time one of his chefs went downstairs for an ingredient and never came back.
What does 'Canadian' food mean to you?
The diversity of the cuisine we have here, especially in Toronto. With all of the different cultures melted into the city, it’s amazing how many flavours are being intergraded in local restaurants. You can have great Chinese in Chinatown or find a different pocket with good food. I find chefs are also pushing the envelope and they're are not just particularly making one type of cuisine.
When you think Canadian cuisine you may think Quebec’s traditional French influence or B.C. for their fresh local seafood. But I don’t think there is a specific Canadian food that is defined.
What is one of the first things you crave when you come back to Toronto from a trip?
Great pizza from Toronto. Especially thin ones from Terroni’s or Libretto. I think they make the best pizza outside of Italy — I've been going there for 25 years.
Since you grew up in France, what are some things you miss culinary wise?
I miss the diversity of ingredients we have in France. The fish market in Paris you have 15 different type of oysters, 20 different types of fish and they can tell you which regions they are all from. The same thing with fruits and vegetables, you just don’t have a cantoloupe, you have one from here and one from there. But it’s starting to come here, I go to Buffalo and get French butter — a richer and creamier butter.
What’s your favorite food to make for yourself at home after a boozy night out?
Probably something to soak up the alcohol. A good crisp baguette with some French butter and thick slices of ham and Swiss cheese. This will put you in a good night’s sleep.
When you’re having a lot of booze the last thing you want to do is turn on the stove. When I was in my 20s, I burnt macaroni and cheese. I put the water in a pot and fell asleep and when I woke up the whole pot was burnt.
What's your favourite poison?
Alcohol would be vodka, straight and in a chilled glass.
If you could prepare only one last meal, what would it be?
I would have crabs with my dad on the beach in B.C.. We get water from the ocean, make a fire, put crabs into a bucket and eat them with a good wine.
What would be in your emergency "survival pantry"?
Probably a good wine cellar. My usual stuff like a baguette, sea salt, olive oil, butter — simple things.
What is the wildest thing you’ve done in a kitchen, culinary or otherwise?
I think we do a lot of wild things in the kitchen as chefs. Sometimes you improvise or cut corners and it ends up working. The crookie was kind of a last minute decision and look what happened. I remember working once with a chef and it was a very intense night and we ran out of mussels. We told the chef to go downstairs and get some and he never came back. He took the back door and couldn't handle the stress.
What is the best restaurant that no one’s ever heard of?
I love Indian food it’s just so flavourful. There’s a place called the Bar-Be-Que Hut and its kind of a hole in the wall with a guy playing a sitar. There's nothing better than fresh naan with garlic.
What is your favourite cheap food thrill?
Apart from Oreos, I like a good hot dog on the street. I usually get it with ketchup and hot peppers, if it's well done, it's good.
What would you be doing if you couldn't be a chef?
I would be painting, I paint has a hobby to relieve stress...and I like the smell of paint.
What is the most memorable food city in the world?
Amalfi, in the southern coast of Italy. They have the best seafood I’ve ever had. They have the so many types of fish like sardines and fresh mussels. I went to a restaurant once and the man just said, "Okay today I have one fish, how do you want it?" That was it, the meal of the day.
What's the most unusual and delicious food that you would suggest people try?
My mom used to make cow heart when we were kids. In France, we would eat the entire animal — like a whole veal head.
So what do you think of this whole cronut burger disaster and the craze in general?
Well it's fantastic what he (Ansel) did...New York is always doing the new thing.
I feel bad for him after what happened at the Ex. People who are copying the cronut are in for the money. They want the line-ups and the media attention he received and even what we received here.
What if someone copied your crookie?
Well it's already been done in a few places around the world and I think it's fine. Being imitated is the greatest form of flattery. It's just food at the end of the day, you can't own it.
'Grilled' is a new regular chef interview that runs every other week. Who would you like to hear from next? Let us know at email@example.com.
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