According to celebrity chef Christine Cushing‘s mom, the budding cook asked for an oven when she was two years old. Her parents couldn’t afford a kiddie oven, so young Christine imagined herself creating culinary delights that she hand delivered to her parents. That story explains why she says, “I think that cooking chose me.” It didn’t hurt that her love of the subject was fed by her father, whom she calls her biggest inspiration. A great cook himself, he would ask, “What shall we make for dinner?” while the family was eating lunch.
Cushing jokes she was made in Greece (she was born in Athens) and assembled in Canada, where she’s lived with her family since she was a toddler. She was “discovered” by a TV producer when she was live cooking at an event, and went on to host the daily flagship series, Christine Cushing Live on the Food Network Canada, which many refer to as Canada’s answer to American Sara Moulton’s Cooking Live show. I segment produced her Fearless in the Kitchen reality show for the Oprah Winfrey Network and currently, she’s shooting the third season of Confucius Was a Foodie for Nat. Geo in Asia.
Ever practical, Cushing thought she’d be a translator, but after a year and a half of university, she pivoted and went to cooking school at Toronto’s George Brown College. She says she “doubled down” on her dream by enrolling in Paris’ École de Cuisine La Varenne with the capital gains from a condo she bought when she was 20. She’s never looked back since.
With a line of artisan food products available across Canada in select stores, three cookbooks under her belt, and a whirlwind filming schedule, I managed to snag a moment to speak to Christine, right before the biggest food fest on the Greek calendar, Easter! Here’s how she celebrates and what’s on the menu:
Walk us through some of the roads you’ve taken on your culinary path.
I had the entrepreneurial bug as a teenager. I made cakes for the restaurant that I worked at as a bus girl and hostess. I would stay up all night and make black forest cakes and strawberry tarts. My first official job was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto, where I started in the front of the house hostessing, and then moved into the pastry department. I would bounce back and forth from pastry to culinary. After a couple of years, I worked at a very upscale health spa where I made bread and I first taught a cooking class in the dining room. That was a turning point for me, because I realized how much I loved to teach and inspire others to cook.
After running a corporate office kitchen, I went back to pastry and eventually became head pastry chef of a top Toronto restaurant called Scaramouche. In addition to pastry there, I taught cooking classes in their culinary studio and it solidified how much I enjoyed that communication and sharing of the skills I learned, as opposed to the back of a kitchen, which I began to lose enthusiasm for.
How did you break into TV? And is it what every culinary school hopeful thinks it is?
When I went freelance, one of my clients was KitchenAid. While working at their booth at a food festival a so-called “producer” approached me and asked if I wanted to audition for a cooking show. Turned out, he was the real deal. It was and is not quick fame, nor is it quick cash, unless you are one of the very few who really skyrockets. Producers and/or networks want to own you, basically because they feel that they discovered you and there are many candidates to chose from nowadays. So if you won’t work for ‘rock bottom,’ someone else probably will. Because I have had a lasting TV presence here in Canada, and hosted a daily live show for four years, there were some perks. I get great treatment in restaurants and I’ve had clients over the years fly me to Hong Kong , Paris, Dijon, Australia; that was truly a world I could only have imagined from my pastry bench in the back of the kitchen. It also helped me get the profile to write three cookbooks.
I speak at my alma mater often and mentor new students, and I always speak about finding your truth and living that. Today there are so many options for someone who wants to make cooking a career, so they shouldn’t settle for something they are lukewarm about.
How would you describe your culinary style when you’re cooking at home for family or friends?
My style is simple, rooted mostly in the Mediterranean and in great quality ingredients. I maintain all my fussing that I learned in France, like peeling celery and asparagus and taking the germ out of garlic, to name a few. I’m old school that way and think that when you learn proper techniques, you can cook just about anything.
What influenced the development of this style?
I believe chefs are too busy trying to impress with complex techniques, anti-griddles, espumas, sous- vide machines, etc. and many times forget to honor the ingredients. It’s difficult to impress with simplicity and there’s less room for error. I am very visual, and also cook to please the people who will be enjoying it, as well as myself.
Easter has to be one of the biggest food events in the Greek calendar. How does your family celebrate?
Easter is bigger than Christmas for most Greeks, and our family is no exception. For as long as I can remember, we’ve had a spit roasted lamb in Canada. It is the essence of what food means to Greeks: family, celebration, and nourishment. Greek dishes are shared, a tradition that goes back to ancient times. Epicurus, the Greek philosopher said: “We should look for someone to eat and drink with before we find something to eat and drink.” Did I just pull a Big Fat Greek Wedding on you? Can’t help it.
How can home cooks add Grecian flare to their Easter tables?
The braided sweet bread called Tsoureki (like Challah) is a must. Roasting a leg of lamb with lemon Greek potatoes on the side will give you that Greek Easter feeling, even if you don’t want to set a fire in your backyard.
What’s your greatest accomplishment in your career so far?
I would say my live cooking show. I had no cooking live experience for television, and had only three seasons of a taped show prior to that. It was a dynamic time, lots of learning and fun and the most challenging thing I have ever worked on.
My fondest food memory is…
Arriving in Paris and walking for countless hours gazing at the pastry windows and boulangeries and being blown away at how stunning they were. I will never forget that experience.
My favourite ingredient to cook with is…
Again tough to pick one, but I find it hard to cook without lemons.
If I could go anywhere in the world for good food, right now, it would be...
My go-to dish when friends or family are coming over is…
I actually love making something different every time but, I’m known for a mean paella. I also do roast chicken either in oven or butterflied on the BBQ, and a variety of tagines.
If I were a dish, I’d be a…
Something that you don’t have a recipe for. I am always free spirited – my husband would say “messy,” but it would be a dish that you would surprise you each time.