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Culinary tourist: Off the clock with Michelle Deeton

Jars of candy in a Moscow grocery store

Michelle Deeton, Director, Institutional Initiatives,
Office of the Vice-President, Research & Innovation


Michelle has been at the University of Toronto (U of T) for three years.


Before that, she worked at the University Health Network (UHN) for 10 years for three U of T professors, with research operations at U of T and UHN.

What do you do off the clock?

When I am not at work, I love to travel and experience the sights, sounds, and most importantly, the tastes of the places I visit. On any trip, I will always attend a cooking school or home stay to learn the local cuisine from the experts!

I have stacks and stacks of cookbooks in our house and I try and purchase a local cookbook on every trip. Interspersed with the more formal lessons, I always try and find a local farmers market or neighbourhood grocery store to see what they have.

Grocery store in Paro, BhutanWhen did you first become interested in combining travel with food?

Seriously, ever since I was a child. I have a very food-focused family. We went out and ate often and looked forward to where we’d eat on family trips. We still talk about the perogies in Winnipeg and the lobster in Cape Breton.

What are some of the more exotic or unusual destinations you’ve travelled to?

Last year, I was in Bhutan to trek in the Himalayas. We stayed with a family where we learned to cook the most amazing vegetarian dishes with the famous Bhutanese red rice.

I attended a charming cooking school in rural Cambodia and Cambodian cuisine is still one of my favourites to cook at home — so complex and different from neighbouring Thailand or Vietnam.

Recently, I’ve attended other schools in Turkey and India and a home-cooking class in Suzdal, Russia.

Sometimes, I do not excel at mastering the local techniques. In Tajikistan my host told me I would never find a husband because I cannot make a classic Tajik-style cucumber salad. I say it’s a good thing that I ended up marrying someone who hates cucumbers.

In a few weeks, I am attending a cooking class in Iceland, this time with husband in tow.  We’ll see how it goes!

Michelle Deetoon at a roadside cafe in Tajikistan and in Angkor Way, Cambodia

How do you prepare for your trips?

Before I leave for any trip, I do some research on what to eat, what to see, where to visit but you can only read or surf on the internet so much. I usually talk to friends or strangers to see if people have any recommendations, and when I get to where I am going I just start walking around, talking to people, popping my head in restaurants and trying out the food shops, street food, anything that seems interesting.

This past February, my husband and I traveled to Buenos Aires and had a couple of experiences, which we didn’t know about until we got there and started poking around some amazing ‘closed door’ restaurants, dining in peoples’ homes and some excellent culinary walks. The most important thing we look for is supporting the local economy and families, learning, eating and experiencing.

Who inspires or influences you?

I am inspired every day by the amazing professors and staff at U of T, but outside of work I try and find inspiration everywhere. Recently, I was thinking about Julia Child, an American in Paris and the informal home kitchen cooking school she started with two friends — L’école des trois gourmands. That, I found inspirational, and I try to remember that you will never learn anything about the world by being afraid of it.

Bon appétit!


One of Michelle’s favourite recipes

Caramelized Pineapple with Tofu (Khor Mnoas Tofu)

This recipe lends itself freely to making more sauce, adding more onion, pineapple….

Ingredients:

  • 1 package of tofu
  • 1 cup fresh pineapple
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetarian oyster sauce
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 garlic glove pressed
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3 teaspoons of sugar
  • ¼ teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 stalk of green onion chopped
  • Handful of chopped cilantro

Directions:

  1. Cut up tofu and pineapple into bite-size chunks
  2. Place pineapple, sugar and oil into a hot frying pan and stir-fry until sugar caramelizes (about four minutes)
  3. Mix oyster sauce, water, garlic, soy, salt and pepper together
  4. Add sauce, tofu and green onion to pineapple pan and cook on medium heat until sauce reduces (about five minutes)
  5. Garnish with cilantro and serve with hot rice.

Recommended beverage: Fresh juice or Sauvignon Blanc

Recipe is from: Nyum Bai! A Cambodian Cookbook

Photos: (top) Jars of candy in a Moscow grocery store, (middle) grocery store in Paro, Bhutan, and (bottom) Michelle at a roadside café in Tajikistan and at Angor Wat, Cambodia.