Interview – Eric Akis

No one could have guessed that working on a military base would have led to a career in fine dining, but that’s exactly what happened to Canadian chef-writer Eric Akis. Born into a military family in Chicoutimi (QB), Eric first got bit by the culinary bug soon after he started working on the base as a civilian kitchen helper. Cooking school eventually led to a red seal certification and a variety of positions within Canada’s food industry; including fine hotels, restaurants and catering companies.

In 1997 Eric saw his dream of becoming a food writer come true after being hired by the Victoria Times newspaper. His recipe-rich columns have earned him a loyal following, and six years later he launched his best-selling Everyone Can Cookseries. Renowned for his accessible approach to cooking, Eric Akis’ latest cookbook is entitled Everyone Can Cook Slow Cooker Meals (Whitecap Books$24.95 CAD), a plethora of recipes for your slow cooker that includes suggested side dishes to complete your meal. Perfect for weekday cooking or special occasions, this book contains a wealth of information on slow cooking 101, what to look for when purchasing a machine, and tips on adapting conventional oven recipes to use in a slow cooker.

A couple of months ago I got an opportunity to chat with Eric about his latest cookbook endeavour.

Slow-Cookers were very trendy in the 1970’s but seemed to fall out of favour. Now it appears as if we’re seeing a sudden resurgence in their popularity. Why do you think this is the case?
I think it’s because everyone’s daily lives are so busy. The slow-cooker has long been professed as the answer to this problem; throw everything into the pot in the morning and by dinnertime there’s a hot meal waiting. But while this concept is appealing to a lot of people the biggest complaint has always been that the food all tastes the same and is consistently overcooked. That’s why so many people will receive a slow-cooker as a gift and use it once or twice, but typically they end up unused in the basement. So the goal with this cookbook was to create recipes that were full of flavour and have you using a slow-cooker two or three times a week!

One of the things that immediately jumped out at me when looking through your book, is that the cooking times are not the stereotypical 12 hours that always seems to result in that nasty slow-cooker food of days gone by.
I did a lot of research and found that because the majority of older machines don’t give you an option for cooking time, people had to simply leave it on until they came home. Most of today’s slow-cookers are programmable, so you can set your timer to start and stop at specific times during the day without needing to turn it on manually.

So now that you’re a slow-cooker convert, what are some of your favourite meals to make using this particular method of cooking?
I recently made a fantastic Moroccan style pork stew, and the week before I tried some short ribs with a mushroom wine sauce. But because this book involved about six months of having two slow-cookers going each day, I needed to take a break. Pretty sure my family have had their fill of slow-cooker meals for the time being!

I love how your book includes a number of side dish options. How important was this element to your overall vision for the book?
When I first started researching slow-cookers, I realized that there are thousands of cookbooks dedicated to this particular genre but most do not include suggested side dishes to serve alongside with the main recipe. So far the response to my inclusion of side dishes has been very positive!

Can someone without a slow-cooker still use the recipes in this book?
Definitely! It all comes down to the liquid component, so a good rule of thumb is to add an additional cup of liquid when using the recipes in a conventional oven.

The way a slow-cooker works is that as the food heats up in the pot steam rises, hits the lid and falls back into the food. So the key in creating a really good slow-cooker recipe lies in the quantity of liquid; whether it happens to be wine, tomato sauce or stock. With slow-cookers you’d probably use about half the amount of liquid you would normally use with a traditional oven-based recipe.

What are the most common mistakes people make when using a slow-cooker?
The number one mistake people make is taking the lid off during the cooking process. People just can’t resist taking a peak! But unfortunately when you break the seal it can take an additional 20-30 minutes for the slow-cooker to return to the correct temperature which will therefore extend your target cooking time. Another misconception people have with slow-cookers is that you are required to stir the contents. Not true! Because of the gentle cooking method you are able to simply leave it alone.

Any advice for someone looking to purchase a slow-cooker for the first time?
The recipes in my book are designed for 4.5-6.5 quarts slow-cookers, and in terms of the shape of the machine I prefer an oval slow-cooker. The oval shape makes it easier to hold different cuts of meat such as lamb shanks, which often end up having to be layered in round machines. Things just fit better with an oval shape.

Having a programmable slow-cooker that allows you to control the cooking times is essential, and another great feature to look for is a warming mode. I’d suggest going online and taking a look at various consumer reports, which will also rank machines according to price range. Very handy.

Are there any recipes you tested for this book that just didn’t work in a slow-cooker?
Yes – there were a couple! Mussels were tricky and in the end they never opened in any of my recipe tests. Chowder was also a flop, as every time it hit the five hour cooking mark the milk separated. Every time! In the end I managed to get around this issue by using cream which I stirred in at the end after the chowder had finished cooking.

This is the sixth book in your series of cookbooks titled Everyone Can Cook. Tell me; can everyone really cook?!
Yes! I like to compare cooking to my handyman skills which aren’t very good, but when I am inspired and put my mind to the task it turns out in the end. My recipes are not overly complicated, the methods required are straightforward, and ingredients are all easy to find items. I try to make my recipes as stress free as possible to inspire people to cook.

What made you decide to write this series?
The readers of my newspaper column kept telling me I should write my own cookbook, but with my culinary training my recipes tended to be a bit more complicated than what the average home cook wants to try. So when a reader specifically asked for recipes that everyone can cook, I knew I had found the concept for my cookbook series!

So is there another Everyone Can Cook book in the works?!
Yes, I’m going to keep going until the very bitter end!

What was the inspiration behind your decision to pursue a career in the food industry?
During summer breaks when I was a kid my parents both worked so I would cook them lunch out of pure boredom. My father – who worked in the military – noticed my interest in cooking and arranged for me to work on the base as a civilian kitchen helper. I was so inspired by cook called Sandy Wong who would make these elaborate seven course Chinese meals on Friday nights. That sealed the deal for me!

Now you are a man who wears a lot of different hats including a food writer, food consultant and of course cookbook author…are you looking to add to your hat collection? Perhaps teaching might be a future possibility?
I would love to host my own Everyone Can Cook television show!

What was the first cookbook you ever owned?
La Technique by Jacques Pepin and of course The Joy of Cooking.

What is your favourite meal to make at home?
Probably short ribs; I’m a big fan of short ribs. I also have a soft spot for making duck confit.

What’s your favourite meal to have someone else make for you?
There’s this restaurant in Victoria (BC) called Deep Cove Chalet, and they make the most amazing rabbit dish with prunes and Armagnac. It’s incredible!

If you were stuck on an island with one cookbook, a single kitchen gadget and the opportunity to eat just one meal, what would you choose?
It would probably have to be The Joy of Cooking, and I’m a big fan of soup so I’d take a soup pot with me and make a big batch of onion soup!