The August Jack's chef puts a barley twist on leek risotto
Few chefs make the jump from rolling pastry dough to chopping onions, but it’s a move that Benjamin Curtis made six years ago—and he hasn’t looked back. The executive chef at the August Jack (2042 West 4th Avenue) trained as a pastry chef in his hometown of Halifax and made chocolates and elaborate sweets for hotels in Atlantic Canada before moving to the West Coast in 2006.
“In Vancouver, I started working as a pastry chef in restaurants, but I quickly realized that most restaurants don’t need a full-time pastry chef and don’t really have the business to support it. So I made myself useful by learning to cook,” Curtis tells the Georgia Straight during an interview at the Kitsilano restaurant. “I learned entirely on the job, and eventually I worked my way up through kitchens and I became a chef.”
Curtis learned to cook while working for five years at Main Street’s now-closed Public Lounge Eatery. He took a break to travel around Central America before helping to open the August Jack in July of last year. The restaurant’s menu focuses on tapas-style dishes and craft beer—another of Curtis’s passions. As a teenager, he helped his dad make home-brew, and for a few months, he worked at East Vancouver’s Storm Brewing.
As a tribute to barley—his favourite drinkable grain—Curtis makes a leek and barley risotto at the restaurant and at home; he considers it his signature dish.
“I made it the first time I ever cooked for my girlfriend, Jill,” he says. “I was looking through what she had in her fridge and there were leeks, garlic, and barley. I had some smoked Cheddar, and that’s how the dish was born.”
While risotto is traditionally made with rice, Curtis explains that using barley is much more foolproof for home cooks.
“If you keep cooking rice, it gets mushier, but barley doesn’t cook the same way,” he says. “As you cook it, you go through that al dente phase, but because barley is a much more fibrous grain, especially compared to rice, it will take a lot of water and a lot of cooking before it goes from al dente to mushy and overcooked.”
Curtis says he prefers to use leeks rather than onions because they’re more flavourful and stand up to the texture of the barley.
To pair with the risotto, Curtis recommends a dark, malty beer such as Hoyne Brewing Co.’s Dark Matter. “It’s quite a rich dish,” he says of the risotto. “I find the heavier characteristic of the beer not only accentuates the flavour of the cheese and those heavy, creamy flavours, but it does a better job at cleansing your palate for the next bite.”
Benjamin Curtis’s leek and barley risotto with smoked cheddar
3 cups (750 mL) chicken stock
¼ cup (60 mL) butter
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 Tbsp (15 mL) fresh thyme leaves
½ tsp (2 mL) smoked paprika
1 cup (250 mL) pearl barley
½ cup (125 mL) dry white wine
2 bay leaves
2 cups (500 mL) smoked Cheddar, grated
Salt and pepper to taste
- In a medium saucepan, bring stock to a boil. Reduce heat and keep warm on low heat.
- Slice off and discard the bottom end of leeks, and trim the tops. Carefully slice outermost layer of each leek lengthwise. Peel off and discard. Slice leeks thinly at about a 45-degree angle. Place leeks in a colander, and rinse thoroughly under running water to remove dirt. Shake to dry and set aside.
- Add butter to a large pot or risotto pan over medium heat, melt, then add and slowly sweat leeks. Once leeks start to brown, mix in garlic, thyme, and paprika.
- Stir in barley and toast for 1 minute. Add wine and deglaze the pan by scraping down the sides and bottom.
- When the wine has mostly evaporated, lower heat slightly and add enough hot stock to cover the barley mixture. Add bay leaves. Stir barley continuously, and when stock has mostly evaporated, add more and continue to simmer. Repeat step for 20 minutes or until barley is cooked.
- Remove bay leaves. Fold in cheese and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Yield: 4 side-dish servings or 3 main-course servings.
Recipe has not been tested by the Georgia Straight.