Apot of pheasant stock is simmering in Eric Akis's kitchen - a sign that everything is as it should be.
"I always say nothing's better than a house with a pot of soup cooking on the stove or something in the oven," the food writer says. "Life's just better."
It's a good thing Akis feels that way. He has published about 750 recipes in six cookbooks in the past decade - in addition to his biweekly food column for the Times Colonist - and he tests most of it in this same space. Last month, he released an anthology of 200-some recipes from his bestselling Everyone Can Cook series, appropriately called Everyone Can Cook Everything. The hardcover brings together the best from more than 10 years of recipe-making, from brandy-laced peppercorn patÃ© to cocoa pavlova.
Writing came to Akis slowly. But he has shown an affinity for cooking since age 10, when he first offered to make his parents' lunches during a summer in Moose Jaw, Sask.
"They were pleased," he says, sitting in his dining room. "I was never that great at school, but here was something I could do."
When the family moved to Sioux Lookout in northwestern Ontario, he got a job in the kitchen at his father's military base. There he met his greatest mentor, another civilian cook, Sandy Wong.
"On Friday, he'd invite all the staff back to his place and have a seven-course Chinese dinner, from black-bean spare ribs ... to these weird pork soups with roots and things," Akis said. "And I was like, 'Wow. Food can taste pretty amazing.' "
That was the turning point for Akis. When Wong suggested that "little Eric" apply to cooking school, he did.
From there, his career has taken him through Red Seal - a form of certification for cooks and chefs - and pastry chef training through studies at Confederation College, Sault College and George Brown College in Ontario. He was turned off the idea of starting his own restaurant when one instructor announced on the first day of class that nine out of 10 restaurants fail in their first year.
But Akis was happy to rise through the kitchen ranks, from apprenticing at a hotel to becoming head chef at a northern Italian restaurant, It's Magic, in Toronto, at only 24. He has run his own catering company, fed the National Ballet School and created more than 2,500 recipes for local grocery empire Thrifty Foods.
Asked how he comes up with that many ideas, he says it's simply a matter of sitting down and brainstorming.
"A good chef, he's always got something tweaking in his brain," he said.
Along the way, Akis has also built a family - beginning with his first flirtation with Cheryl, the garde manger (or cold-food specialist) who would become his wife, when he was an apprentice at a hotel restaurant.
"I offered to peel her shrimp," he said.
The couple chose Victoria as a home in 1992, despite having no connection to the place. Toronto was just too smoggy for their three-year-old son. During a short attempt at importing and exporting food products internationally, a friend asked Akis what he really wanted to do, as they travelled back from a business trip to the Ukraine.
He said he wanted to write about food.
"When I got back, a friend of mine had cut this ad out of the Times Colonist looking for a food writer. I was like, this is too weird," he said. "I was jet-lagged, but I applied right away."
He was hired from hundreds of candidates for the job in 1997, based on his extensive knowledge and cooking talent.
But learning to write was a different challenge.
"It was like jumping in a pool without knowing how to swim," he said. "It didn't go well. I wasn't a writer."
The biggest learning curve was anticipating what readers' questions would be - learning to describe what a roast should look like when done, instead of just writing "roast until done," for example.
His first column was covered in red ink. But the editors helped him along, as did many of the reporters. And as one editor told him, he was hired for his knowledge - his writing skills would grow.
And they did. "I made a mistake in a column about five years in and I said to [former features editor Carolyn Heiman], 'I'm a cook!' And she said, 'No you're not. You're a writer.' And I thought, 'Yeah. She's right. I've been doing it for five years now. Now I'm a writer.' "
Around that time, he also released Everyone Can Cook, the first of the series. Cookbooks were on his mind from the moment he saw the Times Colonist job posting. He wanted to make one that would inspire inexperienced at-home cooks as well as seasoned ones.
Akis has been sure to include everything from basic but delicious chicken wings that require only three ingredients to dishes that require more focus and planning. In selecting the best recipes for Everyone Can Cook Everything, he had three main criteria: He wanted as many photos as possible, he wanted to deliver a wide range of techniques - from roasting lobster tails to baking cookies - and most importantly, he wanted to include the recipes his readers used over and over again, the ones marked by stained pages.
Without prompting, he offers advice to anyone lacking confidence in the kitchen: "Set yourself up for success."
Before you pick up a recipe, take the time to read it, he says. If it says to julienne 12 vegetables, and your knife skills aren't great, start with the recipe that says put fish in a pan, top it with flavoured butter and bake, instead.
"I've got tons of feedback from readers saying, 'You made me look like a superstar,' " he said. "That's happened at least 100 times. So that's pretty cool."
It's also the reason he says he likes cooking in the first place: He likes taking care of people.
The difference between writing and cooking doesn't seem so stark when you put it that way. And 15 years in, he no longer hesitates to call himself a writer.
"Now I feel like I'm definitely a writer. For someone who got 68 [per cent] in Grade 12 English, it was not expected," he said. "But I'm passionate about food and now I'm passionate about writing about food. So that's been pretty freaking awesome."
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