Have you ever had one of those moments in your life when someone you knew in the past, that you have not seen in a long time, suddenly appears in your life now? That is the case with Chef David Wolfman and I. In the early 80s, I was working as a club DJ. David came up to the booth one day and introduced himself. He was a tall, skinny kid with energetic eyes. He said he was a DJ in Oshawa. I had just had an accident and my leg was in a cast. I asked him if he would like to spin records for awhile so I could have a break. He filled the dance floor with his set. After I left that job, I lost touch with David.
When I started the cooking courses at George Brown College, I had no idea that David was on the faculty. One day I saw a poster for his book launch. It would be a tasting menu at Pow Wow Cafe. I bought a ticket and was going to surprise him. We re-established our relationship, through food this time, not music. And I bought a copy of his book. David agreed to an interview for my blog.
Chef David Wolfman has had an illustrious career. Always ready to take on a new project, he has been a driving force for the promotion on Indigenous cuisine. David has not only been working in the industry since 13, he is a TV personality, author, along with his partner Marlene Finn, of the Cooking With the Wolfman cookbook. He is a culinary professor at George Brown College, teaching for the past 26 years. He has travelled the country working with Indigenous youth and contributed to other volunteer activities.
When I ask him what his proudest achievement has been he tells a story of being in a youth group up north in Inuvik. David was there to visit with the elders, have a cooking demonstration and also to talk with the youth group. David had brought some greens with him, which were rare for the kids living 1000 miles above the tree line. He had been given some bear meat and seal. Using blue cornmeal, David made a polenta lasagna. He cut the lasagna into round circles and the kids loved it. He captured their attention immediately.
“This elder came up to me and said, it’s so nice that you are bringing this food back home. I said, I’m not taking anything home. This is for you. Again he said I was bringing the food back home. Then he walked away. His daughter came up to me and said, what my father was trying to say is your bringing an interest in our food to the kids. It was neat that he said I was that catalyst. I hadn’t realized what I was doing so that was one of the prouder moments.”
David dedicated, in part, his cookbook to his mother, Delores Wolfman. It was her influence that got a 8 year old David interested in cooking. One of the main reasons David got into cooking was the generous nature of his mother.
“We didn’t have a lot of food when I was growing up. The woman who lived upstairs, a good friend of the family. We called her Aunty Ruth even though she wasn’t our aunt. Aunty. My mom gave her a bowl of soup and then my mom sat down with us. There was no more soup left. I asked my mom, what about you? She said, oh I already ate. But she hadn’t and that is how my mom was. She would give away everything to make sure everyone had some”
“One day I was really hungry and went into the kitchen cause I could smell something cooking. She saw me snooping around and asked what are you doing. I said, oh, I came in to help you. She got me an apron and a stool. I was stirring the stew. The bread came out of the oven and she said, oh look this piece is broken. Let’s eat this together. That is why I went in there, to get something to eat. I didn’t really want to help her cook. She then started telling me stories. She probably told them to me before but I never listened. She made me feel comfortable in the kitchen – to make mistakes. That’s okay. That is the relationship I developed with my mom – in the kitchen.”
David got his start at the age of 15 working the take out counter at Fran’s Restaurant. The counter gave David a view of the two cooks in the kitchen. He was amazed at the flow between the two of them.
“It was like looking into the window of my future, looking into that kitchen window. I left there and got a job as a bus boy at the National Club. And I walked into the fridge. And it was filled with food. This fridge is bigger than my living room and it is filled with food.”
David did his 4 year apprenticeship starting with being a kitchen porter and working his way to prepping. Meanwhile he had also started at George Brown College. When he talked to his mom about his plan. She saved her money and bought him the Culinary Institute Encyclopedia.
David went on to establish an Indigenous catering company. He became known in the community. The television network APTN contacted him about doing a cooking show. David not only had his Aboriginal catering company but had also developed a course at George Brown. He proposed doing a show on Aboriginal Fusion recipes. The show went on air in 1999 and ran for 8 seasons. He trademarked the name Cooking With the Wolfman – which became the name of the show. After the first season, David went all the way and produced the show himself – hiring staff and a studio, planning the episodes, booking the guests – all the work that was necessary.
” I didn’t realize what a huge undertaking this was – and as a part time thing. I did it during my summers off at the college. I would ask what are you doing for the summer. They would say, just mowing the lawn. When they asked me I would say – oh just mowing the lawn and producing a TV show. I remember the third or fourth season someone asked me – you do this for a living? I said no actually I’m a teacher, a professor. I just do this for fun. And the guy got really mad at me because it was his career. I said – no, I didn’t mean it that way. What I should have said was any money I get from the show is reinvested in the show, to get a better product”
Even today the show is aired on FNX (First Nations Experience) in the States. It has retained it’s quality after all these years proving to be popular among the younger audience. In later seasons David was move on to the land, cooking with farmers, elders on the reservation, hunters. He also had international guests like a half Scottish half Indigenous fusion chef.
David’s next big project was to write a cookbook on Indigenous fusion along with his partner Marlene Finn. He was asked to do a chapter for a book on art and he wrote about culinary art. The publishers of that book were impressed with his writing. David asked them to consider him if they ever want a cookbook on Indigenous fusion. They immediately said yes. He had an outline from a previous project that fell through. He and Marlene worked through the weekend to rewrite it to a 27 page outline including stories and recipes.
“The next 3 years of our life was a matter of cooking food. I went to China during this time but working on the book in between George Brown and everything else. We got the book together, got it out and waited for the print. We won 3 awards for the book – the Independent Publisher Book Awards, the Best in Canada for the Gourmand World Cookbook Award, Forward Indies Books Award.”
After teaching at George Brown for 26 years, David has a special insight into the growth of our culinary chefs. I asked David if he has noticed generational changes over the years or are student the same?
“In every class everyone is different. We all have different backgrounds. What is common is there is a desire to learn. One of the first things I say when we have tours come through the school is – you might like Apple computers or Dell, you might like to wear blue jeans or not. There are a lot of choices. But 97% of our population, give or take, eat. You will always have a career. I was in Shanghai, I couldn’t speak the language but I could cook for somebody else.”
David discovered in his teaching career that people learn in different ways. For example he teaches Cost Control class (Culinary Math) which requires an exact answer, black and white, right answer, wrong answer.
“It’s not ‘close’, it’s not – ‘needs a little more salt or little more el dente’. It’s right or wrong”.
He uses visual imagery to explain mathematical concepts – like cutting a pie to calculate percentages. Others need to read the recipe or the formula to get it.
“The wider the range that I can share my knowledge with them, the more they get it. They say- oh you’re a great teacher, but I just have a variety of ways to teach it.”
And David learns from his students. He had a student who was legally blind. One day David was showing how to filet a fish. The student asked David to describe what the fish looked like. He proceeded to do that.
“Each class after that, remembering that student in the room, brought me to a new level. Today we are working with an eggplant. It’s a little bit bigger than a grapefruit – and so on. It should be equal to all of us. It had an affect on the other students as well.”
“I find now, most recently, that students are really dedicated to learning. It is really neat to see. Is it because of giving them my intro – sharing my enthusiasm for food? Every student comes in having their own ideals of what they want to learn. I call that your repertoire of knowledge, or your brain. Whatever you want to call it. But you have a lot of extra space. You meet another chef who shows you a different way. Then when it comes time for you to cook, you don’t say which one is the best. You will have 4 or 5 different ways to cook that item.”
The past, pandemic year has not slowed David down. George Brown has switched to online learning. One of David’s classes had already been 50% online for 8 years so it was relatively easy for him to switch to 100% online teaching. However other classes he took on proved more challenging. He was used to face to face discussion of what the student had cooked – texture, flavour, smell. He now had to change that approach to online where he couldn’t judge those factors. He now had to mark Powerpoint presentations.
“Without having that there, talking about it and writing it down after you sent me the Powerpoint. I came up with a template with put your picture here, put your words there. It was challenging for the student because they had to stop and take pictures. Guiding people through to where they feel comfortable, being comfortable with this program. That was really challenging for me.”
David has also been in touch with his extended family who have been trying to teach their kids to cook during the lockdown time. Family is a big part of David’s life. Zooming has been common with his family so helping them with their cooking was easy to do. “My work with the camera setup at the college has helped with that.”
Personally, I was happy to hear my old friend sharing his experiences with life. Teaching, learning, advising and helping to make this a better world.