The chef known as the Spicemeister lifts the lid from his fresh stash of crushed cardamom and fenugreek and takes a long, suggestive snort. N"This might look like I'm doing copious amounts of drugs, but I'm not," smirks the culinary junkie. "And if I were, I wouldn't share them with any of you." Dedicated foodies The man putting intoxicating powders up his nose is Greg Couillard, the Toronto cook who, along with a crucial few others, put East-West fusion cooking on the gastro map.
The dozen of us attentively taking notes are a group of dedicated foodies. We've signed up (I pseudonymously) for a four-hour course being held at Dish Cooking Studio (390 Dupont, 920-5559), a recently opened gourmet groceteria-slash-cafe that also hosts classes led by local luminaries like Couillard.
And despite his insistence otherwise, he is sharing his secrets. Each of us has forked over $110 for a Greg-guided tour of Chinatown food shops where he'll show us how to buy the ingredients for a superb pan-Asian dinner.
Following the food-finding mission, he'll demonstrate how to prepare the spread, and then -- oh, rapture! -- we get to devour the results.
It's Saturday morning, and the group has gathered in the drizzle by the AGO's landmark Henry Moore sculpture. Couillard leads us west along Dundas to a tidy grocery (you'll have to take the course to learn the specifics) he rates highly because it's "easy on the nose, well organized and carries a good selection."
Some secret! I shop here all the time, not only because of the merchandise but also because of the bizarre music they blast. Today, Van Morrison's Brown Eyed Girl greets us, but other days you're likely to hear Argentine tangos played on a home organ or brass band renditions of national anthems. Couillard's right, though. It's a great shop.
We follow him down the narrow aisles as he points out his favourite sauces, condiments and pastes. Out front, he shows us Hawaiian ginger, long "stink" beans noted for their nutty flavour and bags of mature chrysanthemum leaves.
Crossing the street with no regard for traffic, Couillard recounts a Chinese saying: "If it moves, eat it. If it doesn't move, push it, then eat it."
On the corner of Spadina, he introduces us to the "Chinese grandmas," elderly women who sell garden-grown shiso, Thai basil and mint leaves as well as chrysanthemum shoots next to shopping carts stacked with bras. Next, we visit a fruit stall where we're familiarized with dragonfruit, an Asian cactus that resembles a psychedelic pink-and-lime-green hand grenade.
Amid the chaos of a subterranean supermarket, Couillard tips us to three types of coriander, fresh turmeric root, kaffir lime leaves, banana blossoms and bags of rice noodles still warm from the factory. By the fish market at the store's rear, we discover medicinal blue chicken and tubs of chili chicken feet -- Couillard admits he has no idea what to do with the hot claws.
Up the street, the gang heads into a restaurant supply store where we're told how to salt and oil a new $12 wok. Forget the expensive Teflon ones with plastic handles, he says. After a last stop at a spice emporium, we cab it back to Dish's sleek TV-set kitchen.
Subtle afterburn While Couillard and three assistants assemble our market purchases, we nibble on Ace baguette slices spread with an Indian-inspired bharta of red peppers, chickpeas and raisins with a subtle afterburn. Now, he's grilling skewers of shrimp and processing an accompanying tart coriander masala.
Comically calling the main course Vietnamese Kraft Dinner, Couillard easily whips up a delicious meal-in-one-pot of rice noodles, cubed coconut chicken and pureed spinach. Garnished with toasted cashews and hot sauce, it's simply sensational.
To finish, we're force-fed dessert, a fabulous wild-blueberry-sauced dwarf banana split layered with tiny spoonfuls of tart mangosteen, papaya and pineapple chunks and wedges of dragonfruit, as well as scoops of lychee ice cream made to order by Gelato Fresco.
My imagination inspired and my taste buds reeling, I stumble out Dish's front door completely exhilarated. If this mind-expanding experience were a ride at the Ex, I'd climb back on in an instant.
Couillard, who's just returned full-time to Sarkis (67 Richmond East, 214-1337) for his fourth year, repeats his Chinatown trek October 21 and gives an advanced class September 7. Michael Potters of Accolades hosts an evening September 20, and sushi-meister Hiro Yoshida holds court October 15.
Check out Dish's full fall lineup at www.dishcookingstudio.com after Labour Day.
ADVANCED EAST-WEST "INFUSION" CLASS WITH GREG COUILLARD, Thursday, September 7, at Dish Cooking Studio (390 Dupont). $95. 920-5559.
GREG COUILLARD'S CHINATOWN TOUR AND COOKING CLASS, a four-hour workshop taught by GREG COUILLARD, October 21. $110. For meeting place and to register, call Dish at 920-5559; www.dishcookingstudio.com.