Chef Spotlight: Jay Carter

Jay Carter, owner and proprietor of Dandylion, a refreshingly inexpensive and veggie-centric restaurant in Toronto

Chef Spotlight: Jay Carter

Source: Image: Renée Suen

Jay Carter started his culinary journey washing dishes at a retirement home before finding his calling running some of Toronto’s most influential kitchens. Many years working in Susur Lee’s demanding and celebrated restaurant empire equipped the chef from Windsor, ON, with priceless cooking skills, including traditional techniques of fermentation and preservation and mastery of the ‘waste not, want not’ Chinese ethos.

After a decade under Lee, Carter was ready to open his own restaurant, but it took two more years to secure his dream space ‘ a storefront he loved and passed by for 15 years ‘ on Toronto’s trendy Queen Street West. From the small and minimally equipped kitchen, he creates light and approachable fare at Dandylion. Vegetables are prized as much as, if not more than, meats and treated with care: Broccoli, for example, is prepared in a cacophony of textures ‘ raw shaved, puréed, pickled, steamed or fried into chips ‘ using the stem, florets and stalk. There’s homemade bread, pickles, kombucha, yogurt, kefir and carbonated juices. While the menu is small, it changes around seasonality and availability.

Best Food Memory

There are so many: eating black pepper crab in Singapore; the first time I ate a raw English pea shucked out of the shell. I also remember being in the garden with my grandfather with a garden hose and a salt shaker. He’d pick a cucumber, clean it off and then season it.

Best Kitchen Hack

You know how mashed potatoes get all gummy? If you set the starch in the potato first, you’ll never have problems ‘ they’ll always be fluffy. I’m not sure where it came from ‘ maybe it’s a gnocchi thing ‘ but it’s a really useful trick. Bring the potatoes to a point where they’re just about to boil, then turn off the heat and let them sit for 45 minutes. Take them out to cool after that. Once they’re cool, cook them like you would if you started from a raw potato: boil, then blend them.

Best Kitchen Tool

Hands. And I don’t mean for tasting or finger licking, I mean you have to hold the food, touch it. Like when you grab a fig and gently squeeze it. There’s no tool that can measure that. If you don’t touch things, you don’t know what stage they’re at. If I don’t touch it and I expect you to put it in your mouth, it doesn’t make much sense, does it? It’s a serious thing: You’re entrusting me to feed you and I want to know everything about your food before I give it to you.

Best Cooking Style

Steaming is my favourite way to cook. It’s amazing. There’s nothing better than the cleanliness of a steamed piece of fish with a drop of soya sauce on it.

Best Way to Pick Produce

I like to buy really ripe stuff because that’s when it tastes best. Take guava: No one buys it when it’s ready; everyone buys it when it’s rock-hard and green. You want it when there are fruit flies around it. Actually, you should buy anything that has a fruit fly around it ‘ that’s when it’s sugary and ready.

Best Seasoning

I like clean food that’s bright and seasoned with acid and salt. I try to find different ways to heighten flavours. Instead of dousing with lemon juice and olive oil, I like getting flavours using leaves that are bitter or acidic, as well as dry stuff, like ground sumac, that’s very lemony bright. It feels very cleansing when you eat that way.