Recipe for success

Karl Wells
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Professional foodie serves up cooking suggestions in latest book

In 1984, Dana McCauley told her high school guidance counsellor that she wanted to become a professional chef. His response was swift and firm. "Oh no, no. You're a university candidate!"

With that, she left his office, feeling university was her only option. Four years later, she entered the job market with an English degree and worked - feeling unfulfilled - for a few years.

Among Dana McCauley's books are (left) "Last Dinner on the Titanic" and "Dana's Top Ten Table."

In 1984, Dana McCauley told her high school guidance counsellor that she wanted to become a professional chef. His response was swift and firm. "Oh no, no. You're a university candidate!"

With that, she left his office, feeling university was her only option. Four years later, she entered the job market with an English degree and worked - feeling unfulfilled - for a few years.

Then, in one of those moments when a bell goes off in your head, she decided to drop everything and go to culinary school. It was where she'd wanted to be in the first place.

Twenty years later, she's never regretted that decision. After culinary school one of her first jobs was working for the food section at Canadian Living. Since then she has made a successful career for herself as a food trends expert, food consultant, food stylist, food writer and cookbook author.

McCauley has also collaborated on books with Letitia Baldrige, Jackie Kennedy's White House social secretary - "In the Kennedy Style" and "Legendary Brides" - and on the bestselling book, "Last Dinner on the Titanic," with Rick Archbold.

The Kennedys

J.F.K. and Jackie Kennedy were the first to install a French chef in the White House - Rene Verdun. (The choice was really Jacqueline Kennedy's.) McCauley believes it had a profound effect on the career of America's beloved television cook, Julia Child.

"Everyone was emulating the Kennedys, style-wise and everything else, and her choice to do that really set the stage. So, when Julia Child's and Simone Beck's book came out - 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' - the reaction was, 'Oh look. We can do what the Kennedys are doing at home ourselves.' I really think that as much as Julia Child was incredible in and of her own accord, she may not have risen in the way she did. Her trajectory was buoyed by that, I think."

As for people's fascination with what passengers on the Titanic ate and experienced, she believes the reason is obvious.

"I looked at the menus and I saw that it was a real microcosm of Edwardian society," she said.

"You had first, second and third class. The food was tailored for each of those classes and I thought that was really interesting. What makes that book work is that for people who are buffs of that era and the ships and that whole 'nautical' thing - they're called Titaniacs by the way - it's a very satisfying book because there's lots of information about the ship, lots of information about the people. But then for any person who's just interested in history it's also very rich because you get to see what it was like to be an Edwardian, rich or poor."

Making recipes

Recipe writing is something McCauley has been doing a lot of within the past few years.

Her latest cookbook - "Dana's Top Ten Table" - features 200 of them. Her approach to recipe creation is very pragmatic.

"I write what I think is going to work first and do a shop. And then I meticulously test it and measure everything 10 different ways and then once I think it's good, I always have someone test it, because you make assumptions. There's no doubt that when I say, 'SautÉ over medium high heat,' that that could confuse somebody who wants to know, 'What size skillet is it? I have four chicken breasts, so I used a medium skillet, but that wasn't written there.' So the tester has to add that. And then I put things away for a day and then I go back and I read them very carefully because it is so easy for people who've never cooked to make mistakes. You really have to be crystal clear.

"Basically, when you're writing a recipe it's technical writing. It's like writing instructions for your VCR. They have to be clear. When I was at Canadian Living we didn't use the word 'sautÉ' because we knew from doing research that most readers didn't understand the word sautÉ. So we'd say, 'Cook in a skillet, turning often, over medium high heat until brown.' It took more words, but that's why people loved that magazine, because we always wrote the way people could understand it."


Her latest assignment is with the giant General Mills, spreading the word about low-cost meals for hard economic times. A number of their products, like Hamburger Helper, have saved non-cooks from a life of beans on toast. I asked McCauley for some tips on preparing economical meals.

"Shopping is a big part of it. I really think that doing what I often do, racing into the supermarket to get something because you have half an hour to get your kid to karate, is wrong. If you can, go online, look at some recipes, and make a shopping list. Go to the store prepared and not hungry. Concentrate on the aisles because that's where the dry goods are and the bargains are in the dry goods. Do the middle aisles first. And the flyers and the coupons, that helps. They're there for a reason; they're trying to entice you to go to their store and they usually do have some good deals. That's why I stock up on the things that you can stock up on, like frozen veggies, which oftentimes are more nutritious than the stuff that's been trucked from Chile and spritzed. Water-soluble vitamins in vegetables dissipate every time they get spritzed. So, you can actually lose a ton of nutrients when you buy fresh veggies from far, far away.

"When it comes to home, I arrange my cupboards with dollar-store bins. I have my Mexican ingredients in one, my Asian ingredients in another, my Italian in another. It makes my shopping so much easier. It means I can call home and ask my sleepy 11-year-old, 'Tell Mummy what's in that container?' And I can say, 'Are there any chipotle peppers and adobe sauce?' He'll say, 'Nope.' I'll say, 'Good. I'll stop and pick those up and we can have burritos.' So, I find that kind of home organizing helps me a lot. Everybody has to have their own system, but just throwing a bunch of stuff in the cupboard is sometimes overwhelming."

It's hard to imagine McCauley doing anything in a haphazard way. She is the consummate professional foodie - curious and organized to a fault.

Double Cheddar Mac and Cheese

This recipe is from "Dana's Top Ten Table" by Dana McCauley (courtesy of Harper Collins).


3 cups (750 mL) dry macaroni

2 tbsp. (30 mL) butter

1/4 cup (50 mL) very finely chopped or coarsely grated onion

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 tsp. (2 mL) each pepper and ground nutmeg

1 tbsp. (15 mL) all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups (375 mL) milk

1 pkg (8 oz/250 g) cold pack Cheddar cheese

1 cup (250 mL) shredded aged Cheddar cheese


Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook for about 6 to 8 minutes, or according to package directions. Drain well.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a deep skillet set over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, pepper and nutmeg.

Sprinkle the flour evenly over the onion mixture and blend well. Add a splash of the milk and blend until well combined.

Gradually add the remaining milk, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently for 5 minutes.

Break up the cold pack cheese and add it a little at a time to the milk mixture. Stir until completely incorporated.

Gradually add the grated cheese, stirring well between additions. When all the cheese has been incorporated into the sauce, remove the pan from the heat.

Blend the macaroni into the sauce mixture, stirring until evenly coated.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

Organizations: Canadian Living, Edwardian society, General Mills

Geographic location: Kennedys, America, Chile

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