It’s a Thursday night at Eats Urban Lunch Counter on Baker Drive in Dartmouth and chef Richard Julien is ready to teach. The restaurant has been closed for a couple of hours but by 7 p.m. a dozen students gather in the restaurant’s small dining room. Since opening Eats in October 2014, Julien has taught a class here every Thursday night. Tonight’s lesson is comfort food: goat cheese and tomato strudel, risotto students will prepare during a cook-off, and chocolate mousse.
Along the line and on the counters are six stations, each equipped with pots, a burner and a tray full of ingredients for the risotto.
First we learn. Julien passes around a basil leaf, asking each student to take in its aroma. He asks about other ingredients that might go well with basil. By the time the leaf gets back to Julien, it’s well worn. “I want to change your perception of basil,” he says.
While each student doesn’t prepare a strudel, Julien has students help him roll out the pastry and spread on the filling. During the process, he explains each ingredient and encourages students to experiment at home.
“I am telling you why these things taste good so down the road you don’t have to be a slave to the recipe,” Julien says.
When one student asks to lick the spoon, Julien offers up a whisk. “We’re all friends here,” he jokes. “We’re all related somehow.”
Julien’s team includes chefs Mark Tingley and Tyler Clarke, both Red Seal chefs who work at Eats and help with the classes. They have a natural chemistry and humour in the kitchen. Julien tells us Tingley is from a town in Cape Breton whose population is six. Clarke is from “parts unknown” (by which he means Thunder Bay, Ontario).
During the risotto cook-off, Julien makes the rounds, complimenting each student on their creation. My risotto, he tells me, has “great colour.”
While making the chocolate mousse, he separates the eggs with his hands. Someone asks how he does it without breaking the yolks; Julien assures the class it’s a simple task. “If you know how to use soap, you’re okay.”
Again, he works the crowd, bowl of chocolate mousse in hand, showing students the consistency of the dessert.
He loves the teaching as much as the food. “When people start to understand those things, it’s really fun,” he says. “People are scared to cook but they are really scared to cook in front of a chef.”
Julien’s own lessons in cooking started when he was really young and made baked beans and tea biscuits with his grandfather. He didn’t think of food as a career until he was 16 and got his first job at Halifax Feast where he worked as a dishwasher after school. When he wasn’t working the dish pit, he’d asked the cooking staff questions about food prep. Eventually, they gave him some cooking shifts.
“I liked it because it felt like you created something and people enjoyed it,” Julien recalls. “That’s when it really stuck.”
In 1991, he studied culinary arts at Nova Scotia Community College, landing a job at the newly opened Ramada Plaza Dartmouth Park Place in Burnside. “I think that helped me a lot,” he says, “because I had kitchen skills and I was learning a realistic approach to what I was learning in school and how that applied in the real world.”
During those early years, Julien honed his presentation skills, too, first when he tended omelette or oyster shucking stations where he could interact with the guests. Cooking competitions also thrust him into the spotlight where he had to perform as well as he cooked. “I had a repertoire with people,” he says. “I think that’s where it all began.”
Mark Gabrieau worked with Julien twice over the course of their careers; first during Julien’s apprenticeship at the Ramada; and then again at Sunshine on Main Street in Antigonish. He recalls Julien’s natural confidence, work ethic and outgoing personality.
He also says the second time they worked together, Julien learned skills of flavours: what works together and what doesn’t.
“He would have been a great rock star,” says Gabrieau, who’s owned and operated Gabrieau’s in Antigonish for 16 years. “The guy is funny and he’s always pumped. I always knew he would succeed.”
During our class, he works the crowds and talks with his hands in big motions. His facial expressions seem to match what he’s doing at any moment.
Chef Live, the name of his catering company, is also appropriate for Julien. He got the name when he worked at Loblaw’s, where he taught cooking classes. To attract more students, Julien suggested he do a cooking demo on the retail floor and call it Chef Live. The idea didn’t come to fruition, but the name stuck.
He showcases those skills on live TV, doing cooking demos on CTV, Global and on a weekly show on News Radio 95.7 with Sheldon MacLeod.
His latest endeavour, Eats, was a means to an end. He wanted a bigger kitchen for his catering business. But he also knew people wanted more food-truck culture food. Eats, he says, offers “smart comfort food” made with locally sourced ingredients. “At the end of the day it’s those little things that you care about that makes a difference in the overall product,” he says
Having his own kitchen also meant he could have classes. “We wanted to have the entertainment value with the cooking classes,” Julien says. “We wanted to be able to host events on a small scale, which we have done. It was a no brainer.”
The class wraps up at 9 p.m., and Julien’s students go home with full bellies and the recipes for the food they made tonight. Before they leave, several students sign up for the next class. He loves the food, the teaching, but also that students keep coming back. “That, to me, is important because it tells me we are doing something right,” he says.