Concordia University Magazine

Foodphilia

Alumni Stephen Homer, Laura Damiano and Peter McAuslan make our world a bit healthier and happier with (pitch)forks, spatulas and very large vats

Stephen Homer


Stephen Homer at his Senneville, Quebec, organic farm. His sugar snap peas are his favourite. “It’s like a regular pea but you can eat the pod. It’s not all that well known, but absolutely delicious.”

“If music be the food of love, play on,” commands Shakespeare’s Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night. But the Duke was distracted by his desire for metaphor. History and experience reveal the truth: food is the food of love. How else could the term “romantic dinner” exist? And the food that nourishes desire best is also that which is grown, prepared and presented by people who care about their raw materials and the process that transforms them into sustenance.

Concordia has no program in agriculture or food preparation, yet some graduates still venture into the vast and beautiful world of culinary and gustatory delights. For these three alumni, the common factor is their love in the growth and the preparation, as much as in the sharing, of their food and beverages.

Homer grown

Good eating requires good ingredients, yet while no one would build a home out of cardboard, we persist in making meals with something very similar. If you’ve ever bitten into a supermarket tomato and wondered where the flavour went, consider that it is bred for storage and transportation, not eating. However, if you wish to supply your table and taste buds with fresh, flavourful and organic vegetables, Stephen Homer, fine arts 83, would be happy to oblige.

Homer is an organic farmer, growing produce on land in Senneville, Quebec, but he hasn’t always led the green-acres lifestyle. His professional odyssey began with an undergraduate biology degree from the University of New Brunswick and subsequent work in that discipline. He found himself falling under the influence of science and nature photographers, though, and in 1981 enrolled in Concordia’s MFA photography program. He left in 1983 after completing all his course work but only part of his final project, because of the lure of freelance work. He enjoyed a lengthy professional photography career before he began tilling and hoeing.

But the seed was always there. “Much of my photography went to illustrate biological stories and problems,” he explains. Homer’s work was published in magazines such as Equinox, Harrowsmith and Audubon, and took him to exotic locales like James Bay, Paraguay and Costa Rica. “While doing a story about craftspeople in Nova Scotia,” Homer recalls, “I met a couple making money from herbal jams and jellies. I thought, ‘That’s great – I’d like to do that.’ ”

A little investigation showed that there was a market for organic produce, and six years ago he planted himself in his current field. Homer began growing unusual vegetables like tripolini onions, baby squashes, different coloured beans, fingerling potatoes, arugula and pea shoots. Restaurants gobbled them up, and he expanded into vegetable baskets for individuals. Now Homer supplies people their organic fix through Co-op la Maison Verte in Montreal’s NDG district.

“Healthy soil makes healthy plants,” Homer explains, “so I feed the soil organically.” But he also has to protect plants from bothersome pests and parasites. “I love eating arugula, but it’s a pain to grow because it’s also well loved by a particular very small insect that likes to bite holes in it,” he says. “ So I cover the plants with a white blanket – a row cover – that lets light and rain through but blocks insects.” Homer has become well known for his distinctive arugula, which is fairly small and not too spicy. He has also reaped a reputation for heirloom tomatoes of all colours, and all sorts of cherry tomatoes. He may have left behind the photography, but the photogenic still appeals.

Farmers rarely find wealth in the land, but there are other rewards. “I like trying to figure out how to make things grow and keep them from being eaten by pests,” Homer says. “And I really love the pride of picking something that has been grown healthily, bringing home and eating it, or giving it to people who then tell you how great it tastes. I’ve received far more feedback about food than I ever did about my photographs or writing.”

A Quebecer in New York

In New York City, alternative eateries abound. But Laura Damiano, BCom 87, is a rarity, a chef specializing in Québécois cuisine. And what do those most cosmopolitan of people think of it? “New Yorkers are intrigued,” Damiano says, “but they don’t know much about it. They even think most maple syrup comes from Vermont.” It comes mainly from Quebec, as she tells the participants in master classes where she enlightens them on its various applications, like maple candy or butter.

Laura Damiano

Laura Damiano, executive chef at Quebec House in New York City, displaying some of her skills.

Damiano is an authority. As executive chef at Quebec House in the Big Apple, she is responsible for the receptions given at the official residence of the province’s delegate general and the Quebec delegation: planning the menu, purchasing and preparing the meals, choosing the wine and, afterwards, writing a follow-up report. In effect, she embodies the official presence of Quebec cooking in the city of a million restaurants.

Her route south was circuitous. After graduating with a Concordia commerce degree in 1987, Damiano worked four years at Montreal retailers Reitmans and Le Château in loss prevention, but eventually felt that she would rather be doing something else. “So I quit my job, travelled for a year in Asia and Australia, and taught English in Tokyo for another year,” she says. Damiano had long wanted to be a cook but had not considered it a “real career.” In 1994, though, she gave in to her culinary inclinations and began two and a half years of study at L’institut du tourisme et de l’hôtellerie du Québec; after graduating, she worked at the Montreal Casino and various restaurants. Through her professional apprenticeship, she kept in contact with her teachers, one of whom referred her for the New York job. That was almost two years ago.

While Damiano’s interest in cookery is longstanding, she denies coming from a family with any particular culinary awareness. “When I told my mom I was going to go into cooking,” Damiano says, “I’ll never forget her comment: ‘In my generation we got married and had kids and cooked because we had to – you don’t!’ It took my mom a long time to realize that you could enjoy cooking.” Still, if asked to identify a favourite meal, Damiano defers to her mother’s pasta. “It’s the ultimate comfort food.”

If the wellspring of Damiano’s interest is difficult to divine, more recent influences are apparent. Working at Montreal’s Restaurant Toqué under Normand Laprise – “He’s really one of the best,” she says – Damiano learned the importance of the cook’s relationship to the ingredients. “You can tell if a chef respects the ingredients,” she maintains – much the way a painter respects colour or a choreographer cares about dancers. Her favourite ingredient is fish. “Especially halibut. I find fish so much more interesting than meat – I even enjoy cleaning them.”

What’s Brewing

One cannot live by bread, or fish, alone – as Woody Allen once observed, sometimes there must be a beverage. Peter McAuslan, S BA 72, knows this well. As a student at Sir George in the early 1970s, he brewed ale for himself and his six roomies in the bathroom of their shared apartment. “People would drink my beer because it was free,” he claims, “not because they liked it.”

Peter McAuslan


Peter McAuslan at the McAuslan Brewing facilities in Montreal. McAuslan, who’s also the president of the Concordia University Alumni Association, remembers evenings at Sir George “drinking home-made beer, eating piles of oysters and having a hilariously good time.”

Home brewing is erratic at best: the quality of yeast and the fermentation temperature are difficult to control, and the brewer is usually guided by more enthusiasm than knowledge. But wisdom comes with years, even in the world of ales. “People started to like my home brew – either their palates had weakened or their tolerance increased,” McAuslan jokes.

By the 1980s, he had become secretary general at Montreal’s Dawson College, a job that brought McAuslan considerably less pleasure than brewing. Why not share the joy of a fine ale and make himself happy in the bargain? He researched small brewing industries and visited some in Europe. Armed with that knowledge and a desire for a career change, McAuslan hired a brewing consultant to supplement his own canny taste buds, founded McAuslan Brewing in 1988 and developed an ale in a style he liked. “Our philosophy was to make a product distinctive in flavour and appearance, which consumers would not be blasé about. They would either like it or not,” he says. St. Ambroise Pale Ale, which hit depanneur shelves in 1989, was the result. “It’s a filling beer, one to taste and enjoy,” he says.

“Beer is terribly underestimated,” McAuslan continues. “People believe that it’s something you drink after you cut the lawn. They don’t want flavour, and have forgotten that beer is food, not just something to scarf back.” But, he argues, beer is critical to human existence. “Think of the 1500s – could you ever drink the water in any urban setting in Europe without dying?” he asks. “But beer, in its natural fermentation process, kills pathogenic bacteria.” People lived on it, and because of it.

Beer is also an expression of its milieu. “Quebec beers – from all the local small breweries – are considered outstanding internationally,” McAuslan points out. “That’s partly because they represent the culture in which we live.” Still, McAuslan laments that Labatt and Molson sell 92 per cent of beer quaffed in Canada. “People should try something new,” he suggests. “You know the way you select wine for different meals? Beer really deserves that sort of treatment.”

Many have been selecting his wares, repeatedly and faithfully. McAuslan Brewing produces about 10 different beers, including Griffon pale and dark ales, an oatmeal stout, a cream ale, an apricot beer and a few seasonal products. The business is still growing at double-digit numbers, and this spring the brewery is moving down the block from its current digs on Montreal’s St. Ambroise Street. The new building will still be on St. Ambroise – the name of the flagship beer will not have to be changed – and will also open onto the Lachine Canal. “People will be able to have beer on the terrasse and tour the brewery,” McAuslan says. And the operation itself will be much larger. The current brewery pumps out batches of 10,000 litres a day; the new facility will allow five times that.

The brewer’s life is a good fit for McAuslan. “Of every batch of beer we brew, I taste at least one helping,” he states. “We’ve brewed 6,000 single batches, and I’ve had one from each, so I’m very much in contact.” He is, understandably, a happy man.

Patrick McDonagh, PhD 98, is a Montreal freelance journalist.

Do you know of a Concordia alumnus or alumna who’d make an interesting profile? Contact Howard Bokser, (514) 848-4856, Howard.Bokser@concordia.ca.



Concordia food masters offer these recipe ideas

Peter McAuslan’s oatmeal stout serving hints

Beers with a sweet malty flavour go well with many desserts — think of our oatmeal stout served with dark chocolate cake and raspberry sauce: it makes a phenomenal mix. Or throw a couple of balls of chocolate and vanilla ice cream into an oatmeal stout, and you have a flavour that comes from a totally different place in the universe.


Laura Damiano’s gin-marinated trout

– 1 trout fillet (about 2 lbs or 1 kg)
– 1 tablespoon gin
– 1/3 cup coarse sea salt
– 1/4 cup coarsely ground black pepper
– 1/4 cup sugar
– 1/2 cup dill or fennel fronds, coarsely chopped
Using your fingers or a pastry brush, dab the gin over the entire trout fillet. Place the trout fillet on a rack over a baking sheet. Thoroughly mix the salt, pepper and sugar together; spread over the trout fillet, making sure it is entirely and evenly covered with the mixture. Spread the dill or fennel fronds over the fillet; refrigerate for 24 hours. Remove the salt mixture and herbs; wash the trout under very cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Using a very sharp knife, slice as thinly as possible and serve as one would serve smoked salmon.


Stephen Homer’s arugula with Romano and toasted walnuts

– four large handfuls (approximately 8-10 cups) of arugula, without stems. If the arugula is small, you can use full leaves; otherwise, you may need to rip or cut them
– walnut oil and vinegar dressing
– a healthy pinch of sea salt
– 1/2 cup (more or less) grated Romano cheese (ideally pecorino Romano)
– chopped walnuts, toasted (in a toaster oven) or fried, if you feel ambitious
Toss all the ingredients together, and serve.



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