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Diary of a Restaurant – Ch. 16: St. Anne de Fry Pan

Dec 10, 2020

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

If Ravi and Segar brought spontaneity and  enthusiasm to the kitchen, they did it under the watchful eye of Chef Anne Yarymowich. Anne had come to us after Doug and André sold The Parrot, where she had been sous-chef, a position Donna had held before her.  

We weren’t expecting much when we opened Mildred Pierce. Our primary business was still catering; all we hoped to achieve was to generate some extra income from our party space to ease us through the slow catering months.  While the idea of a restaurant was a bit of a lark, we knew we wanted the food to be seriously good. We needed a competent and creative person whose focus would be the restaurant, undistracted by the catering events. Anne fit the bill.

For the first few months, Anne was the restaurant kitchen staff. Donna and other members of the catering staff might be scheduled as support on the line when they were available, but she ran the show. She was magnificent.

She arrived early every morning, doing the prep, planning the day’s menu, setting up the line and bopping to some Betty Carter or other soft jazz.  To the small set menu, Anne added specials that riffed off catering menus – if an off-site dinner menu featured a stuffed boneless breast of chicken, she might use the rest or the bird for a pot pie or tagine. (As an aside to anyone under thirty, I should note that in those benighted days of the last century, restaurants did not buy chicken parts but whole chickens. Chickens were butchered in the kitchen, legs and thighs going to one dish, breasts to another, wings to the bar for snacks and bones to the pot for stock.) 

Anne also kept a close eye on what was left in the walk-in fridge after catering prep was done. Noticing a surfeit of vegetables without a future, she might round them up and turn them into a rich and savoury ratatouille, served over a buckwheat pancake. An overabundance of eggplant would translate into baba ghanoush, fettuccine alla Norma and grilled eggplant sandwich. The latter, on focaccia with black olive pesto and Asiago cheese became a menu fixture.  

Desserts in the beginning were simple –  cookies, squares and fruit crumble, in keeping with the level of business and customer expectations, but as the volume grew, Anne added others, such as honey cake with peach compote and pies with fruit in season – or butterscotch and chocolate pecan, the pastry rich and flaky. She baked only a couple at a time to ensure they were always fresh, which meant they sold faster. Who could resist an apple pie fresh from the oven? 

 Ted and Ivan, working overnight in the restaurant would often raid the pie fridge, demolishing an entire pie, washing it down with a litre of house wine and joking that as the pie was twelve hours old, Anne would probably consider it stale. Even if she’d expected to serve the pie at lunch, she would shake her head, bemused and add pies to her prep list.

Anne might well have developed attitude when, in the early nineties Mildred Pierce was doing three full turns on a Saturday night and customers were raving about her “bonne femme” cuisine, its flavours and presentation. Her demeanor never changed even as she was recognized as one of the top chefs in the city.  Responding to the accolades  she would often laugh, referring to herself as ‘St. Anne de Fry Pan’.

She was not meek though, demanding respect for the kitchen and her food. Having heard Michael Healey describe one of the specials as “some sort of fish, covered with a kind of green goo” as he waited tables one evening,  she stopped cooking, calling to him sharply across the pass.  

“Michael, what did you call my special?!”

He was ten feet away and fully engaged with his audience, when he looked up to see Anne, stern and expressionless waving a French knife. Startled, he said,

“What I mean is, our fish special this evening is a lovely turbot with a parsley beurre blanc, served with new potatoes and French beans.”

She laughed about it afterwards, but Anne never quite trusted Michael to show the proper respect for her food.  When Michael became established in theatre, we would often get appeals for fund-raising gift certificates for productions in which he was involved. Anne approved of giving generously but encouraged me to include a note stating that “we were happy to support any enterprise that will keep Michael Healey out of the restaurant business.”

Confident as she was, she was not an enthusiastic disciplinarian, preferring to nudge and engage her staff, patiently explaining and demonstrating technique. If, finally deciding that someone had to be released, she would agonize over breaking the news to them, even going so far as to invite them to have coffee with her  after service, proffering a plate of axe shaped ginger snaps as her opening gambit. 

Anne insisted on cooking a meal at the end of service. No matter how busy we had been, she went back to the stove to cook for the whole staff. In doing that, in bringing us back together around the table, she reinforced  the importance of our community. Eating together, we would laugh over the day’s missteps, sort out our differences and make plans for how we would do it all better tomorrow.

READ THE NEXT CHAPTER: ‘December Parties’