Chef Stew Wadden and students Elin Waagen of Vermont and Melanie Martin of St. John’s in the Trouty Brook kitchen. —Photo by Laura Button/The Packet
Steel on a cutting board, a spoon scraping a pot, the cracking of a lobster shell: all sounds you’ll hear in Stew Wadden’s Trouty kitchen. And here’s another: “Taste everything as you go.”
That’s a refrain oft repeated by the professional private chef turned culinary tutor in the small kitchen on the edge of Trouty Brook.
Wadden is a summer resident of Trinity Bight. He spends eight months a year preparing meals for the rich and famous of New York — artists, royalty, diplomats and businesspeople.
Wadden was born in Cape Breton and grew up in Ottawa. He attended the National Ballet School of Canada, but after a year of apprenticing with the company he realized he wasn’t going to make a career out of dance.
He worked in several restaurants in Toronto and Ottawa, and would often muse about going to cooking school.
“All my buddies were chef and restaurant people, and I wanted to go to cooking school, but everybody would say, ‘No, it’s a miserable horrible life. You don’t want to do this.’”
So he didn’t. Instead, he took a job with a computer company. The job moved to Montreal a year later, but Wadden stayed behind and enrolled in the culinary program at Algonquin College.
After stints in several Ottawa restaurants, his culinary education continued with a pastry course from Le Cordon Bleu in France, and the chance to work and study under that country’s top seafood chefs.
A chance meeting in Ottawa with Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations (Wadden served him lunch) led him to a posting as Canada’s chef at the United Nations. He left the job after five years to pursue a freelance career as a private chef. UN officials still number among his top clients. He often caters for the New Zealand and Danish embassies, and many others.
But this year, he’s turned his summer retreat into a classroom.
“It’s different, it’s neat and fun. I never thought I could talk this long about anything,” he says with a laugh.
Wadden is teaching private groups the secrets of hosting dinners for friends, and how to cook fresh seafood.
“This interests people who are interested in cooking, so most people have some knowledge already,” Wadden says of his students.
“Nobody seems in a rush to get out.”
Some of the dishes on the menu — which varies depending on the fresh ingredients that are available — are smoked trout salad, oven-roasted cod with cumin, coriander and lemon zest, salmon with green apple and horseradish sauce, and sautéed scallops with lentils, scallop sauce and field greens salad.
Each class will also prepare a desert and Wadden’s lobster chowder.
The chowder is a recipe of his own creation. He began mixing flavours in the kitchen in childhood.
“Growing up, I was one of six kids. The day after the grocery store (run), all the good stuff was gone. If you didn’t get creative, you didn’t get much.”
In fact, his first foray into following a recipe he remembers clearly is when he and his brother tried their hands at molasses candy from the “Fat Back and Molasses” Newfoundland cookbook. He has roots on the west coast of Newfoundland — his mother was from Bonne Bay.
He’s constantly getting ideas and inspiration from cookbooks.
“Because it’s my job, I read a lot of cookbooks,” he said.
His collection numbers between 600 and 700.
“Some I can quote from, some I just glance at.”
In September, he’ll return to New York and spend a few weeks in the kitchen of a friend’s restaurant.
“It’s important to spend time in other restaurants. You can’t learn in a vacuum.”
Despite what TV shows like “Top Chef” or “Hell’s Kitchen” would have you believe, Wadden says the world of haute cuisine is not competitive in the least.
“There’s room for everyone, because everyone makes good food, and everyone makes different food.”
In his Trouty Brook kitchen, the students are making good food, under Wadden’s careful guidance. He strives for a balance between demonstrating and giving students the reins.
“I’ve done sessions in front of people with a microphone attached to my head, but that’s more of a demonstration than a class. It’s not my job here, it’s a little more relaxed.”
While conversations roll from gardening to politics to tourism and beyond, it always comes back to the kitchen.
“Taste as you go. This is a big thing for cooking — just taste it.”