Home for the Holidays
If Jon Svazas and his wife, Kate, are attending a family holiday function, it’s a given that Svazas will spend his time in the kitchen. And though he works day and night at his two Ottawa restaurants, Svazas wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s different when you’re cooking at home,” says the amiable chef and family man dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt and calmly working his way through the tasks at hand. On this casual Sunday afternoon, there’s none of the stress seen in a high-paced restaurant kitchen — he doesn’t even wear an apron when he’s cooking at home. He works slowly, with a Zen-like serenity, and takes breaks to hang out with Kate, son Henry, 6, and daughter, Eva, 3, the latter of whom he affectionately calls Loo. “It’s nice to putter in the kitchen — you don’t get to do that in a restaurant.”
It’s one week before Thanksgiving and Jon and Kate have agreed to produce a feast like the one Svazas will serve his family at Christmas. The chef, who owns Fauna, one of Ottawa’s most innovative and refined kitchens, and Bar Laurel, the city’s first Pintxos bar, isn’t wedded to any food traditions during holidays. If he does a turkey, there’s usually a twist — he’s done tandoori turkey and one year the rest of the meal was also Indian, with curried squash and potatoes. Another year, he cooked a 36-pound turkey for his and Kate's families together, and yet another, the family enjoyed the Korean rice and beef staple, bibimbap. Still another year, they feasted on Japanese yakitori. It would be safe to say the Christmas food tradition in the Svazas household is not to have one. Asked about traditions from his own childhood, Svazas says Lithuanian Catholic families such as his (his dad was born in Lithuania) would often have a huge seafood feast on Christmas Eve before midnight mass, which would be followed by a present-opening frenzy. Svazas’s brother Ken works at Fauna so they see him often; his parents live in Welland, in the Niagara area, and he has sisters living in Toronto, Hamilton and Whitehorse. His Toronto- based sister and her husband are the primary investors in Fauna.
“I do like cooking a giant bird,” Svazas says. “It’s fun and it’s a challenge to not have it turn out dry.” He says he'd like to try deep-frying a turkey one of these days, once he has the right equipment and setting. “You have to do that outside,” he notes.
Today, at their Chinatown home, the Svazas children will engage one tradition they do keep, and it’s one that Kate and her siblings, Ali and Dave, also grew up with: Making a gingerbread village and then decorating a cast of gingerbread figures to eat for dessert. Last night, they completed an elaborate village with several houses, a blue icing stream that wends its way through it, in spite of white icing snow covering the rest of the scene, and candy paths from door to door. Doing that part early was intended to get the children into the Christmas spirit in spite of the fact that they haven’t yet carved pumpkins. With that mission accomplished, they can now concentrate on decorating the cookies. Again, the family isn’t wedded to traditional gingerbread-man shapes, there are airplanes, stars, men and women, and, of course, the ubiquitous T-rex cookie. And to decorate, they have jewel-shaped ju-jubes, Smarties and several varieties of candy sprinkles.
When the children are ready to decorate, Chef Svazas takes some time out of the kitchen to sit at the dining room table with Henry. Chairs identical to those at Fauna — some grey, some red — surround the long rectangular harvest table. Svazas’s main job is to hold the icing tube — royal icing is great once it hardens, but is a tad runny at first — and deposit dollops and lines of icing wherever his son requests. “Put some here, Daddy — for an eye,” Henry instructs. Svazas dutifully doles out some icing in the right spot, just before the icing explodes through the piping bag’s other end. Svazas’ hand is covered in gooey icing; it’s dripping onto the red tablecloth that covers the dining room table, and all over Henry’s hands, which the boy quickly cleans off on his pants, just before he runs his shirt sleeves through more icing. It’s temporary sticky, sugary chaos, but both parents keep their cool. Svazas laughs the whole time, particularly at the suggestion that he’s clearly not a pastry chef, as his wife comes to the rescue with wet rags.
Together, father and son produce their proudest creature: A black bear in silhouette. The cookie creature morphed from polar bear, when he was covered in white icing, to a black bear, his fur represented by dark brown sprinkles and his vision granted with the help of a single orange Smartie.
Eva, meanwhile, has gone rogue. She’s licking the icing off the cookies after telling her mom where to put it. It hardly matters, as it will soon be in her tummy.
Today’s menu includes two unusually large ducks, purple potatoes, roasted white and romesco cauliflower, roasted carrots, braised black kale and braised cippollini onions in a demi-glace as a sauce for the duck. Svazas is going simple with the duck. He’s already used a medieval- looking device to perforate the skin. “These guys just need lots of salt and a bit of olive oil, then you can fire them in the oven,” he says. “Ducks are so fatty, you don’t need butter or any of that stuff.”
He has stuffed them with whole oranges. He cuts some fat off the neck and then tucks the butt under when he’s trussing it. Then he rains salt down on it — more than most home cooks would dare to use — and a bit of oil. He positions them on a rack the shape of a checkmark with a deep drip pan underneath. Into the oven they go.
Next he tackles the onions, painstakingly removing their delicate sheaths and braising them in a pan for a while, before adding a demi-glace and some cooking liquid to make an oniony sauce.
After he cleans and slices local carrots lengthwise, and labouriously breaks down the cauliflower and romesco into tiny pieces, he starts peeling his purple potatoes, which he’s already par-boiled in salted water. Lucas has just put Eva down for a nap and given in to Henry’s request for a little screen time with his Pokemon game, so she offers her husband some help in the kitchen. He tells her she can hand-peel the potatoes, a job that picky chefs such as Szavas see as worthwhile in spite of its tediousness. One gets the sense that busy professional women and mothers such as Lucas see it simply as tedious. But like a good sous-chef and wife, she smiles and does it anyway, noting that she can’t guarantee he’ll be happy with the results.
When the time comes, the potatoes and carrots go under the duck to mingle with its drippings and roast. Szavas puts the romesco and cauliflower in a heavy frying pan and lets it roast stove-top. Lucas offers a round of drinks — water or wine — and Svazas quickly takes her up on the wine offer, choosing the better of two reds they have in the kitchen. The other one will go into the sauce for the duck. “Drinking wine while cooking is definitely something I do,” he says.
When he thinks about it, he says his cooking styles at home and at the restaurants are actually pretty similar.
“To be honest, they’re not super-different,” he says. “At the restaurant I always try to use the best local produce and meats I can get my hands on, and I do that at home. Technique-wise, I do some of the same things at home as I do in the restaurant — I have done sous-vide at home, I have that weird meat tenderizer thingy to pierce the skin on the duck. I certainly don’t do anything super labour-intensive at home, so you won’t see all the purées and you won’t catch me doing herb paint and caviars and papers at home. But when it comes to the ingredients and the quality of food, I definitely adhere to the same principles at home as in the restaurants.”
How often does he actually get a chance to cook at home? “Less and less. But when we had all the troubles with Fauna opening [several issues, from landlord problems to flooding, kept putting off the restaurant opening], I cooked a lot of meals at home. Not just because I enjoy cooking for Kate, but also to keep my cooking going. At that point, I was doing full-on restaurant food to stay on top of trends and keep up my skills.”
After Henry was born, he had a full two years at home with the boy. “That was a silver lining in all the delays for Fauna.”
And even though he doesn’t get much time to do it these days, he does enjoy cooking at home and he is always at the helm of the kitchen when the holidays roll around.
Soon, the in-laws arrive. Lucas’ parents — Deb and Steve — and her sister, Ali, who followed her father into the Canadian Forces and was recently posted to Montreal. She visits Ottawa, where parents and her only niece and nephew live, often. Svazas puts both large ducks on the table, along with the cauliflowers, kale, carrots and potatoes. Lucas wakes up a reluctant Eva, who works hard to shake off her nap. And now, the family will cheerfully chow down on this uncommonly traditional Christmas meal at a very non-traditional time.
Fauna Food & Bar
425 Bank St., Ottawa
1087 Wellington St. W., Ottawa