Flip through Rob Feenie’s new cookbook and you’ll see something you likely haven’t before: mini Feenies. Photos of his three kids in the kitchen, as well as his wife, Michelle, run throughout Rob Feenie’s Casual Classics: Everyday Recipes for Family and Friends (Douglas & McIntyre). That’s because this cookbook isn’t full of complex recipes suited to fine dining, or even Cactus Club Cafe favourites. The vast majority of the dishes are staples that Feenie and his family make at home.
On the line with the Georgia Straight, Feenie acknowledges that this is the first time he’s put his kids out there—son Devon, 8; daughter Jordan, who’s almost 7; and Brooklyn, 4, who perhaps resembles him the most with her adorable wire-rimmed glasses.
“What I’m really proud of the most about this book is it’s got my family in there,” Feenie says. “People get a chance for the very first time…to really get a piece of who I am at home. This isn’t about foie gras and truffles and caviar…this is all about simplicity.”
In the book’s foreword, chef Mark McEwan points out that “people always want to know what chefs eat at home.” Feenie’s book—his first in seven years—answers this question with accessible recipes such as cream of chicken soup, cod tacos, a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich, and sloppy joes. These may sound standard, but the ingredients show the Feenie touch: prosciutto, Brie, and oven-dried tomatoes for the sandwich, and ground pork, hoisin sauce, and a cabbage-cilantro slaw for an Asian take on sloppy joes. (Find the latter recipe here) More sophisticated dishes also appear, such as steak tartare, braised osso buco, and grainy-mustard spaetzle. But these are not intimidating recipes; rather, they’re ones that get you thinking, “Hmm, I could make that.”
Some of the dishes stem from Feenie’s own childhood. For example, there’s an adaptation of his mother’s recipe for “the best chicken pot pie on the planet”, which inspired him to be a chef. “My mom was and still is a very basic cook,” he explains on the phone. “She taught me about keeping things simple.” She also insisted that the family sit down to dinner together every night.
So now that Feenie is a chef, who does the cooking in his household? Both he and his wife, Feenie answers. While he takes the lead with dinner, his wife is “unbelievably good at breakfast….She made my kid a steak omelette this morning.” His job as executive chef at Cactus Club Cafe allows him time to stop at the market and prepare dinner every night.
For the last two years, however, his wife has been making most of the family meals. That’s because, until a few weeks ago, the family was living in Winnipeg while Feenie continued to work for Cactus in Vancouver weekdays and commute to Manitoba roughly every other weekend. “It was really a move we made for the kids and for my wife to be around her family more,” he explains. The clan just relocated permanently to White Rock, bringing Feenie’s sister-in-law and her family with them.
Having everyone sit down to dinner together is important to Feenie, he says, adding that he cooked dinner whenever he flew home. “Dinner became even a bigger deal when I was in Winnipeg. That kind of thing just brings everyone together.”
His kids eat almost anything, he says, and they like to cook. “They’re always involved somewhere…trying to help out.” They also appreciate farm-fresh ingredients. He describes how the night before, his daughter Jordan asked where he had bought the carrots he served for dinner. “If they weren’t from a farm she probably wouldn’t have eaten them.” For that meal, Feenie made grilled chicken, carrots, green beans, quinoa, and “beautiful new potatoes” that he boiled and then fork-mashed with olive oil and cheese.
When asked what he’d say to those who claim to be too busy to cook, he gives this answer. “What’s that line in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?” he asks, running off a version of “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” For his family, he says, “We never look at food as rushing it. We look at food as taking our time.”
He also emphasizes that good meals don’t have to be time-consuming; the one above took 15 minutes to prepare. “I was up at 6:30 yesterday morning; I got to work at 9:30. I got home just before 7 and I cooked dinner. Now if I can do it—and I live in the business where I’m ‘go, go, go’—there’s no reason why someone else can’t.”
It helps that he enjoys cooking at home. “It’s a stress release. I know that’s kind of crazy for me to say. But people should look at it the same way.” He adds that cooking for the family “is worth so much because of the stories that get told around the table”.
Feenie hopes that people will find his recipes accessible enough to take to the stove. “If you’re going to share something with someone, you really want people to try it.”