What with all that snow blowing about outside, we felt it as good a day as any to get out the mulled wine and snuggle up with Mika Bareket at Kensington Market’s warm and cosy Good Egg.
Good Food Revolution: For those folks who are unfamiliar with Good Egg, would you mind explaining exactly what and where it is?
Mika Bareket: The Egg, as we like to call it, is a bricks and mortar food-themed shop that goes off on probably too many tangents. Books make up a major of our inventory. We’re located in Kensington Market, the best neighbourhood on the planet.
GFR: And how long has the store been in existence?
MB: Five years! I can hardly believe it… time has flown.
GFR: What inspired you to open such a specialised store, and why in Kensington Market?
MB: Ah, well I was originally planning on opening a general book shop in the area, but This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (RIP) beat me to it. So I quickly changed gears, and decided to focus on my true passion, dog leashes. I jest. Sort of. I’ve been food obsessed since my mother gave me my first whole salted cucumber at age 4 or 5. I was happy as shit in that moment, and have forever since loved food.
People worry about the future of book publishing and the general state of print culture, but if there is one subject that not only remains vibrant in the publishing industry, it is food. In fact, in my 25 years as a bookseller, I have never seen so many gorgeous and well-written cook books being published as I see now.
But back to the dog leashes – I knew that opening a strictly focused cookbook store would not fly. Toronto already has a stellar strictly focused cookbook store, and I did not want to compete with them. So I made Good Egg weird, and ordered all sorts of strange and wonderful non-book items, as well as practical kitchen implements.
As far as location, Kensington was the only option. I grew up near the market, and currently live in the area. I am not a lazy person, but I appreciate convenience. Plus, if you haven’t noticed, Kensington’s culture is largely food focused. No brainer.
GFR: How do you go about selecting the books and items for your store? as I have to say that you curate the offerings expertly.
MB: Well, you don’t HAVE to say that. But thanks. It’s experience, gut instinct, and a visceral reaction that determines what I order. My staff are heavily involved in the selection, as are my customers and friends. I order books from my sofa at home, where I am relaxed and inspired by narcotics and Riesling.
GFR: I’m guessing that you do a fair bit of cooking at home yourself? How many times a week?
MB: I cook daily. Brekkie is almost always enjoyed at home. I loathe lining up for tepid eggs served by tired hipsters. And because I live around the corner from the shop, lunch is often made fresh at home. I make dinner on average four nights a week. I go out for dinner once or twice a week, and order in once or twice a week. My favourite scenario is when friends invite me over for dinner. Hint hint.
GFR: And where do you like to dine when you are eating out?
MB: I feel really at home at Bar Isabel. Edulis is amazing. I should go there more often. Zen is worth the drive to Scarborough for sushi. I try new places all the time, but return to my one or two faves until the owner gets sick of me and tells me to get a life.
I also love Korean food, and go fairly often. Buk Chang is my go-to, but I’m a bit of a tramp when it comes to Koreatown. And yes, I do eat cheap and dirty Chinese food. I live a block away from Chinatown, and am nothing if not a woman of convenience. Swatow and Chinese Traditional Bun are my usual picks.
GFR: What’s your current favourite cookbook? and why?
MB: My answer is always a Nigel Slater book. Any and all. Uncle Nigel is my spirit animal. He loves to eat as much as he loves to cook, and that is why I adore him.
GFR: I’m with you on that one actually.
And your all time favourite cookbook? One that you return to again and again? and why?
MB: See above. Okay, if I must pick a non-Nigel Slater favourite, it’s Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice. She has expanded my repertoire of ingredients and flavour combinations, dare I say, beyond Nigel. I really hope he’s not reading this.
GFR: And is there one particular recipe from that all time favourite book that you have a particular fondness for?
MB: I make sticky ribs with honey, star anise and oyster sauce a few times a year. It’s in Slater’s Kitchen Diaries… the first volume.
GFR: What makes for a good cookbook in your mind?
MB: The tone of writing. Look, one should never use recipes verbatim. For me it’s about suggestions and compelling arguments for why one should make something a certain way. Slater understands this, and speaks to the reader accordingly, almost like a lawyer making a case for a dish. Of course, attractive pictures of food plated simply, are pretty important for cooks like me who already kinda know what they are doing, and just want inspiration. For technique, i.e. if I am doing something for the first time, I turn to recipe writers like Jennifer McLagan who I know tests her recipes thoroughly.
GFR: Would you describe your average customer (if there is such a thing)?
MB: No such thing. Really.
GFR: Since you have your finger directly on the throbbing pulse of the Toronto cookbook market, what’s in vogue right now?
MB: Throbbing pulse? That’s got to be the name of my heavy metal band. Well, visually, it is very on trend these days to use an indigo filter in food photography. It lends an air of cool mystery.
Writing-wise, a conversational tone that reflects the personality of the recipe writer is tres chic, and tres cool. Whether it’s profuse swearing as in David Chang‘s case, or rapturous journalistic observation as in Naomi Duguid‘s case… the cult of personality is where it’s at.
There are other trends, but I don’t like them.
GFR: Are there any titles that you are continually asked for that you’ll never stock? and why?
MB: No comment. Okay one comment, I tend not to order celebrity chef books that are ghostwritten. Or even worse, celebrity non-chef books that are ghostwritten.
GFR: Have you considered writing a book yourself?
GFR: And finally, which books would you recommend for the following (problem) customers:
MB: You mean, every chef in Toronto? River Cottage Meat.
GFR: The Pale-skinned-and-interesting Vegetarian?
MB: How pale? Plenty, Yottam Ottolenghi.
GFR: The Middle-aged-renaissance-man-who-has-discovered-baking?
MB: I’d just give him my number. Okay fine, Valerie Gordon’s Sweet.
GFR: The Crossfit-toughmuddered-smoothie-obsessed-condodweller?
MB: Is that a thing? I’d try to change this person first.
GFR: Mika Bareket, thank you for your time!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he could easily empty his pocketbook in that lovely store.