Chef West de Castro has spent years cooking for everyone from vegans to omnivores, so she understands the need to keep things simple while offering variety. As summer cooking starts to leave the kitchen and hit the outdoor grill, West shares her thoughts about summertime menu planning to make your backyard entertaining appealing and flexible for varying appetites.
YOU'VE BECOME WELL KNOWN FOR YOUR INNOVATIVE DISHES - HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN INTERESTED IN FOOD? I lived in the Philippines until I was eleven and, believe it or not, I was a really picky eater. Food was not on my radar at all. I just remember eating rice three times a day! When we moved to Ottawa, it definitely took some time for me to adjust to North American food. In my early twenties I started to explore various ethnic restaurants here and that fuelled a desire to learn how to cook.
SO YOU'RE MOSTLY SELF-TAUGHT? Yes, I just started playing around and cooking for my friends. My first big dinner party was a Pan-Asian menu, nine courses, which took me days to shop for and prepare. I was actually working in kitchen design before I attended Algonquin's culinary program to get industry accreditation and then became a cook.
YOUR REPUTATION HAS GROWN SINCE YOU OPENED CLOVER LAST YEAR. ARE THE DISHES YOU COOK AT RESTAURANTS SIMILAR TO WHAT YOU'D SERVE AT HOME? My partner Danielle was a vegetarian when we met, so for a long time I'd cook two different meals - meat for me, other proteins for her. We realized this was not sensible, so we switched things up a little. We'll eat vegetarian or vegan most nights, but with some fish or sustainably sourced meats occasionally. I guess you could say we're flexitarians.
WHAT WOULD A BACKYARD BUFFET LOOK LIKE AT YOUR HOME? It would definitely include a couple of salads but not necessarily green ones. I like hearty combinations, featuring ingredients like quinoa, grilled vegetables, pasta or sweet potato. I enjoy keeping things raw if I can; I'm also a big fan of slaws. Usually I go to the market and walk around to see what's beautiful and bountiful and let the ingredients drive the combinations. I also enjoy serving dishes that are different temperatures and have different textures. Nuts and seeds are great for crunch, and things like feta cheese and pickled onions can be great for salty and briny touches. If I want some grilled protein, I'll usually choose fish and I'll marinate it for a while then cook it on a cedar plank for extra flavour.
WHAT ABOUT A LIGHTER MEAL, IF YOU JUST WANT TO SERVE A FEW NIBBLES? I love to prepare an antipasto platter - Ottawa has some great Italian stores where you can get fantastic olives, peppers, cured meats and more. Charcuterie is so popular and there are some wonderful local sources now. I might also make a bean dip and grill up some flatbreads to tear apart and serve with it. It's so easy and tasty.
ANY SUGGESTIONS FOR DESSERT? I love a nice refreshing, flavoured semifreddo, which you can make ahead. For something quick, you can grill just about any fruit, drizzle a little honey on it and it tastes fantastic.