08/06/2012 10:00 EDT | Updated 10/06/2012 05:12 EDT

Ontario truck mechanic's passion for food fuels recipe experimentation

LONDON, Ont. - Gary Fordham is more than a mechanic who likes to cook. He studies recipes, deconstructing them to look at their individual components, much like he might tear down a truck engine, then putting them back together again to create dishes even better than the originals or with his unique mark.

Fordham, 59, and his wife Cheryl live in Dorchester, Ont., and own a truck repair firm about 20 minutes west in London. He has loved cooking since he was a kid and even considered a career in it, but figured the odds of getting to the elite level he would want were too remote. But he never lost his passion for food.

He has close to 500 cookbooks and reference works. He watches cooking shows on television when he can but says he had to give up the Internet because he was staying up half the night reading recipes.

"I can almost tell by looking at a recipe whether I would like it and whether it's going to turn out," Fordham says.

"So what I do is look for ideas. I try to combine different things. I see how people do things and I'll think, 'Well, that would work on something else.' And that's how I'm building my recipes."

He would like to be able to bake bread and make desserts, but there just isn't enough time. So he concentrates on meat and vegetables, particularly dishes he can make on the barbecue or using a smoker.

One of his specialties is pigtails. "People just don't know about them, but I like them better than ribs because they're tenderer and sweeter."

Another is stuffed peppers, what he calls "a work in progress."

"A lot of people just don't seem to have the proper technique for cooking them; they're all mushy. Mine are solid, firm."

And there's no end to the variety of stuffing. One might have shredded pigtail meat with various vegetables, another layered with smoked sausage, rice and three cheeses. "I can make an Italian-flavoured stuffed pepper, a sweet-and-sour stuffed pepper."

Sometimes he will get a case of 30 or 40 peppers and make them all up at once.

Cooking is a constant experiment with Fordham. "I would never serve a dish until it's the way I like it." For example, his wife is a fan of deep-fried chicken wings. "I went through six or seven different kinds of flour to see what would work the best for the coating."

"The same with spices. I'll try a spice in a dish and it may not be a good match. But there are a lot of spices out there that are underestimated." One, he says, is cloves, the secret ingredient in his cabbage rolls, a recipe developed by his mother.

Fordham considers flavour, texture and leanness (of meat) when he's creating a dish and what he strives for is a complexity of taste, meaning "you can taste a bit of everything the deeper you taste it." He doesn't like it when one flavour overpowers, such as the saltiness of many meat rubs or the sweetness of most barbecue sauces. "I can't see the point of putting 15 ingredients in when you can only taste one."

His quest for better barbecue sauce led to what he calls his biggest disaster when he and his daughter tried to incorporate cauliflower into their concoction. "We worked at it for four hours and we didn't use very much, but it was overpowering. We just couldn't get that cauliflower taste out. It was terrible." They finally tossed a whole gallon of sauce.

Fordham says his ideal dinner party would be to invite guests early and have them cook along with him. "Everybody knows something and they can learn from you and you can learn from them. You can still talk and you're doing something together." But so far he's just done that with family.

Instead, when he cooks up a big batch of one of his specialties, he gives a lot of it away to family, friends and neighbours. He always takes a gift of food when he goes for a medical appointment. He and his wife also supply daily lunches and one dinner a week for the employees at their truck shop. "I like sharing," he says.

Despite the obvious benefits of having a husband who likes to cook, Cheryl Fordham says their tastes don't always coincide. Gary likes food very spicy; Cheryl doesn't. Gary likes his steak rare; Cheryl likes hers well-done.

Also, she has the role of cook's assistant when he's creating since "he doesn't know where a lot of the spices and utensils are because we have a very small kitchen and I keep a lot of stuff in the basement. So when he's in the mood for cooking, I'm usually around to do the running to get what he needs." She also gets to do the clean-up.

The next challenge Fordham would like to tackle is Chinese cooking and he's already experimenting with stir-fries on the barbecue. Lucky friends and family when he gets it perfected.