Sediamoci: Celebrated food critic Chris-Nuttall Smith on his new cookbook, Cook It Wild

Renowned food editor, chief restaurant critic, dining columnist and Top Chef Canada resident judge, Chris Nuttall-Smith knows a thing or two about buon cibo. The celebrated Toronto-based journalist is now dishing his expertise on true al fresco dining, with the recently published cookbook, ‘Cook It Wild: Sensational Prep-Ahead Meals for Camping, Cabins, and the Great Outdoors.’

We chatted with Nuttall-Smith to learn all about his career as a restaurant critic and his new book, inspired by a desire to eat well outside. Scroll down to read the full discussion.

Chris Nuttall Smith / Photo Credit: Toby Lennox

As a former restaurant critic, what are your top three dining experience red flags?

I’m still a restaurant critic! For the sake of my waistline, though, I don’t do a weekly column anymore! I just finished a list of Canada’s 20 Best Places To Eat for Maclean’s magazine. Red flags though?

First, I’m always a bit suspicious of any restaurant that doesn’t make it obvious who the chef is. This isn’t always a bad sign—there are plenty of very good places with chefs who work quietly in the background. But I feel like your chances of getting a meal that’s made with real pride and inspiration are higher when you know who’s cooking it.

Second, you can tell a lot about a place from the behaviour and tone of the floor staff. Do they seem genuinely happy, welcoming and proud of what they have to offer? When I don’t get that sense, I can’t help wondering what’s happening behind the scenes. And usually, a meal there just isn’t as good as it should be.

And third, I really recoil at the few restaurants that seem to go out of their way to make getting basic information or reservations harder than it should be. I still come across places that won’t put a menu or prices or basic contact information on their websites. It’s a tough business, I get that. And yes, there are many diners who seem to get even more excited by the appearance of exclusivity. But when you’ve got people hoping to spend their dining money at your establishment, the welcome should start the moment they first enquire.

What inspired you to create the Cook It Wild cookbook?

A desire to eat well outside! Canadians are heading outdoors to camp, paddle, cottage, picnic, hike and bike in record numbers—you can barely get reservations at a lot of provincial and national parks these days. Yet here we are, on holidays, in peak fruit and produce season with our friends and loved ones in some of the most beautiful places on the planet and we’re choking down hot dogs and instant freeze-dried survivalist meals.

With Cook It Wild I set out to develop an accessible, fuss-free way for ordinary cooks and campers to turn mealtimes outdoors into a cause for celebration. Harnessing the fuss-free power of make-ahead and prep-ahead cooking lets anybody love being outdoors. It’s how to experience the best meals of your entire year.

Cook It Wild / Photo Credit: Chris Nuttall Smith

What is your favourite Italian recipe in Cook It Wild and why?

This is like asking me to choose my favourite child! I developed a pesto recipe for the book that I absolutely love, and I use it not only as a condiment for pasta but with vegetables and even meats. It’s Italian islands-inspired, with pistachios and mint as well as pecorino Romano cheese, so it’s this gorgeous mix of that toasty, fresh nuttiness from pistachios, and lift from the mint and that spectacular grassy/super savoury/barnyardy personality you get from Sardinian cheese. I could bathe in that pesto I’m pretty sure! And of course, it holds beautifully, too, so you make it at home and it’s a breeze to use out there in the wild.

You mention using a less-common ingredient like Italian chickpea flour (for farinata) in your book. Tell us why you recommend using this over regular flour.

If I could have named my son Farina di ceci without my wife wanting a divorce I think I might have! It’s one of my favourite ingredients, especially for the outdoors. And it’s kind of the perfect ingredient too: it’s full of energy and protein, it’s easy to use, it stores beautifully (no refrigeration required, which is great for backpacking and paddling trips), and man, when you open up a bag of the good imported stuff, it just smells like walking into a garden, it’s beautiful! When you cook with great Italian chickpea flour, you appreciate how spectacular a legume like the chickpea is.

Cook It Wild / Photo Credit: Maya Visnyei / Styling: Eshun Mott and Sasha Seymour

What are your top five Italian ingredients to ensure a sensational dining experience in the great outdoors?

Good olive oil always, preferably unfiltered. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, but I don’t leave home without it.

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The king. Stores in a pack for weeks on end, and it’s gorgeous not only for grating but for eating by the hunk. It’s a staple of our outdoor feasts.

Pecorino Romano. Maybe this is controversial (sorry!), but a lot of times, I prefer it to Parmigiano. It gives a similar deep-savoury taste and sensation, but the grassy freshness and saltiness just grab me somehow.

Agostino Recca anchovies, in oil, in the tins. I buy them about a dozen tins at a time, I worry sometimes the checkout people think I’m crazy. They’re even in the pages of Cook It Wild. They’re the best-tinned anchovy in oil I’ve ever tried. I put them in pasta, obviously, but even better to me, with roasted red peppers and a bit of hard-aged cheese. I get hungry even just writing that.

Rummo pasta. Preferably spaghetti alla chittara cooked molto al dente. PERFECT texture. It’s my favourite noodle. And it’s pretty much always on our backcountry (or cottage) menus in one form or another.

What DOP, DOC or IGP products are featured in Cook It Wild?

Everything I’ve mentioned above! Oh yeah, and burrata cheese.

Cook It Wild Burrata Poutine / Photo Credit: Chris Nuttall Smith

Lastly, Campari, Aperol or Vermouth? Why?

Vermouth first. I love how it’s simple and smooth but often really complex at the same time. And it’s just one of the most versatile fortified wines there is. Plus, it’s a key part of Cook It Wild’s slushy negroni! Campari second. But in smaller doses — I love to use Campari as a flavour adjuster more than as the main event. And Aperol is indispensable! I use it in the book’s Paper Canoe, which is really just a slushy Paper Plane.


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