Restaurant work cannot content every culinary professional

People who cook for a living are often asked, What restaurant do you work at? It's an understandable assumption — most professional cooks do indeed provide meals for restaurant patrons. But there are other career paths in the cooking profession, and today I profile two cooks who chose to do something different.

Nikolas Milonas, executive chef, the Cridge Centre for the Family

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After meeting Nikolas Milonas at the Cridge Village Seniors' Centre, part of the diverse Cridge Centre for the Family, I wanted to move in. The surroundings are pleasant, but it was Milonas's cuisine that had me looking for a room.

"My approach is always fresh food, cooked from scratch. Why bother being a chef if you don't do that," Milonas said.

The Greek-born Milonas was nine when his parents brought him to Canada, to Vancouver where other family had already settled.

"My uncle owned restaurants there. When I was 11, I started washing dishes, doing prep. I really enjoyed it," Milonas said.

When he was 17, he and his parents opened a pizza place, which he helped run for eight years. Then he switched careers and sold insurance.

He was searching for his ideal career, but insurance sales wasn't something he could love. "Cooking was always in my blood," Milonas said. "My wife [Donna], when I would cook for her, saw how happy I was and said, 'You have to pursue this.' "

Milonas left the insurance business, went to Victoria's Camosun College and became a certified cook.

He worked in hotels and then in public institutions including the Victoria General Hospital and two assisted-living facilities.

In 2006, he was hired by the Cridge Village Seniors' Centre and became executive chef. His desire to cook for seniors is about respect.

"These people have done a lot for us, I love being able to give back, and we do that by giving them good, wholesome food," Milonas said.

Residents are provided a three-course lunch and a two-course dinner. What's offered changes seasonally, and Milonas is dedicated to using local ingredients, such as seafood and organic vegetables. He insists the stocks, sauces, salad dressings and desserts are made in-house. Nutrition is also a key part of his menu planning, which is why ingredients such as nutrient-rich quinoa are served.

Recent menu items include apricot mustard-glazed pork tenderloin, roasted spaghetti squash with meatballs or almond and vegetable paté. That's just a taste of what Milonas's talented kitchen team serve. No wonder residents arrive for meals early.

"We get great reviews; people are very happy. They can tell that it's done with heart."

For more information about Cridge Village Seniors' Centre, go to cridge.org.

Gill Scadeng, nutrition program co-ordinator, AIDS Vancouver Island

People go to AIDS Vancouver Island for support and comfort, and you can feel the positive energy of those providing it.

AIDS Vancouver Island's mission is to serve the needs of people infected with and affected by HIV and hepatitis C. One service is a positive wellness program, which includes a drop-in space where clients can interact and enjoy a nutritious lunch.

Talented chef Gill Scadeng stirs the pot. She was born in England, studied cooking at technical school and in the 1970s trained in London under famed chef Prue Leith.

"Her teachers were Cordon Bleu trained, so it was basically Cordon Bleu training, without a Cordon Bleu certificate," Scadeng said.

She worked in restaurants, then at a major bank, whose directors had their own chefs. "We prepared some pretty amazing meals," Scadeng said.

In 1980, Scadeng and her husband moved to Canada — first to Port Alberni and then to Victoria. She applied for employment at Sooke Harbour House.

"Frederique and Sinclair [Phillips] asked me to cook a meal for them," Scadeng said.

"They hired me. It was quite a buzz, I was only 24."

Her husband's work took the couple to the Lower Mainland. Scadeng became a stay-at-home mom and started doing catering. Her marriage ended, she returned to Victoria and in 2006 she wanted to do some volunteering.

AIDS Vancouver Island was in need, but when they saw her resumé, instead of getting her to volunteer, they offered her a temporary position to revamp their meal program.

"I was only going to stay a couple of months to set up the menu and grocery list, and then volunteers and clients would take over the program," Scadeng said.

Management realized they could not do without Scadeng's skill and spirit, and she has been there ever since. She prepares lunch for 40 in a well-appointed kitchen made possible thanks to funding from Coast Capital Savings Credit Union.

"It's interesting; some people will just pop in, say I'm not hungry, see what I'm cooking, say that smells good, and then say, maybe I am hungry," Scadeng said.

I would stay, too, if served Scadeng's yummy shepherd's pie, juicy roast chicken or fluffy frittata, just some of the tasty dishes she prepares.

"It's the most fulfilling job I've ever had. I love to cook, and I love to feed people. When clients say it tasted like my mother cooked me lunch, I know I've done my job," Scadeng said.

For more information about AIDS Vancouver Island, go to avi.org. There you can also learn about their local-restaurant-supported fundraiser, Dining out for Life, on March 24.

eakis@timescolonist.com

Eric Akis is the author of the recently published Everyone Can Cook Slow Cooker Meals. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

RECIPES

Pan Roasted Arctic Char With Lemon Basil and Tomato Salsa and Quinoa Pilaf

This recipe is by Nikolas Milonas. It's a dish he serves to the residents of the Cridge Seniors' Centre. You can buy arctic char at some grocery stores, but you could use another type of fish fillet in this recipe, such as cod, halibut or salmon.

Serves: 4

For the salsa

3 medium tomatoes, de-seeded and finely chopped

1 small shallot, finely chopped

3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

6 Tbsp olive oil

3 large fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

• few parsley sprigs, finely chopped

• zest of half a lemon

• salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate until needed

For the pilaf

2 cups quinoa, rinsed well

2 1/4 cups hot vegetable or chicken stock

2 Tbsp olive oil

1 small red onion, finely chopped

2 small carrots, finely chopped

2 celery ribs, finely chopped

1 small red bell pepper, finely chopped

1/2 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 200 F. Place the oil in a medium-sized pot set over medium heat. When hot, add the vegetables and salt, and cook until vegetables are tender, about 5-10 minutes. Stir in the quinoa and cook for about 1 minute.

Remove pot from the heat and carefully add the hot stock (it will bubble). Place pot back on the element, lower heat, cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until quinoa is cooked and liquid has evaporated. Transfer to heatproof dish, cover and keep warm in the oven until fish is cooked.

For the fish and final assembly

4 (6-oz.) Arctic char fillets, patted dry

• salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

3 Tbsp olive oil

2 Tbsp chopped fresh chopped parsley

Season the fish with salt and pepper. Place the oil in large, wide skillet set over medium heat. When hot, add the fillets, flesh side down, and cook until that side turns opaque, about 3-5 minutes.

Flip the fish over and cook 1-2 minutes on the other side, or until just cooked through. Remove pan from the heat.

To assemble the dish, add the 2 Tbsp chopped parsley to the quinoa and fluff with a fork. Spoon the quinoa into the centre of 4 heated plates. Set the fish on the quinoa, top with the salsa and serve.

Chicken Peanut Stew

This recipe is from Gill Scadeng, nutrition program co-ordinator for AIDS Vancouver Island. It's a dish she serves her clients that she adapted from a recipe by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. Serve it with rice or chunks of fresh bread.

Makes: 4 servings

2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

1 large yam, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

4 Tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, thinly sliced

2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

2-4 cloves of garlic, crushed

• chopped fresh chili, or dried chili flakes to taste

1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

3 cups chicken stock

1 tsp dried thyme

1 bay leaf

2-3 Tbsp smooth or crunchy peanut butter (preferably salt- and sugar-free)

4 small, or 3 large, boneless, skinless chicken breasts, each cut into 6-8 pieces

• paprika to taste

1 large bunch spinach, washed, dried and tough stems removed

2 Tbsp cornstarch mixed with 1/4-cup cold water

Put the potatoes in a medium sized pot, pour in enough boiling water to cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Add yams and simmer 5-10 minutes more, until potatoes and yams are just tender, but still solidly holding their shape. Drain well and set aside.

Heat 2 Tbsp of the oil in a large pot set over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté 5 minutes, until softened.

Add carrot, garlic, ginger and chilies, and sauté 3-5 minutes more. Pour in the chicken stock, add thyme and bay leaf, bring to gentle simmer and simmer for 20 minutes.

While the stock simmers, season the chicken with paprika to taste. Heat the remaining oil in a large skillet set over medium-high. Add the chicken, in batches, cook until golden brown on all sides and nearly cooked through, and then transfer to plate.

When the stock has simmered 20 minutes, discard the bay leaf and strain the mixture into a clean, wide pot.

Spoon half of the vegetables in the strainer into the pot with the strained stock. Place the other half of the vegetables into a food processor or blender. Add the peanut butter and some of the strained stock and purée.

Bring the strained stock back to a simmer and stir in the cornstarch mixture. Return to a simmer, and then mix in the spinach, potatoes, yams, chicken and the puréed vegetables/peanut butter mixture.

(The consistency should be like a thick soup at this stage, add more stock if it is too thick.) Simmer the stew until the chicken, potatoes and yams are tender and cooked through, about 10-20 minutes, and then serve.

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