Today’s Baker’s Dozen interview is with one of the first bloggers I “met” when joining Twitter in 2009. Mardi Michels of eat.live.travel.write is based in Toronto, Canada so we were in completely different time zones. But I knew immediately she was an early bird and online when I was because she always seemed to be tweeting about what she was baking when it was probably 5am over there.
We managed to meet in real life a year or so later and again last year when she was visiting London. She teaches French full time to junior age boys (7-12) but also cookery classes in an after school club. If we lived in Toronto, I’d definitely be sending Ted to her classes because the kids can cook better than I can (and he could wow Mardi with his extensive knowledge of the Paris Metro).
As well as this, she is a “super ambassador” in Canada for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and manages to spend several weeks a year in France where she owns (and rents out) a holiday property. With a love of baking and France, you can see why we get on.
I will hand you over to Mardi…
Where did your interest in baking come from?
My mum is an avid and excellent baker and I guess I grew up watching her in the kitchen. It’s interesting though because until about 5 years ago, when I started seriously blogging about baking, I considered myself more a cook than baker. Now I consider myself equal parts cook and baker though my colleagues who enjoy my recipe testing for baked goods think that all I do is bake 😉
How did you learn to cook?
I have taken some basic culinary classes at George Brown College Hospitality School here in Toronto (it’s an excellent school and I’d love to have the luxury of working through the professional program) but I am truly self-taught. That means baking and cooking a LOT, following recipes, figuring stuff out on my own and finally, as I launched this blog, starting to develop recipes of my own. I am a keen “continuing education” student and have taken countless classes during my travels where I always learn something!
Tell me about your kids’ cookery classes Petits Chefs – they sound fun!
I started my boys’ cooking club in 2010, after hearing Jamie Oliver speak in Toronto (I wrote about it here), mainly about his Food Revolution and “Pass it On” campaign. Throughout that talk I kept on thinking how irresponsible it would be of me to NOT take part (even in a tiny, drop-in-the-ocean kind of way) in Jamie’s Revolution and a few short weeks later, Les Petits Chefs was born. I am not the world’s greatest or most knowledgeable cook or baker, that’s for sure, but I do know my way around a kitchen (or in this case, a science lab/kitchen!) so I figured why not pass on some basic skills to the students I have to offer a club to anyway? It’s been the greatest thing – very often, the highlight of my teaching week (and certainly a bonus for the boys’ parents who look forward to tasting our creations each week!) and a wonderful way for the boys to get to know me outside the classroom, doing something I love (which can only be a good thing!). Six and a half years later, we’re still going strong!
In terms of my adult classes, back in the summer of 2012 I led a series of recipe development workshops in Paris which led to me mustering up the courage to finally launch my own classes in Toronto in the fall of 2012.
What are your favourite things to bake? Do you have a speciality?
Despite what many people might think, macarons are NOT my favourite thing to bake, though I am pretty good at it! My “thing” right now is choux pastry.
Tell me about your French influences… there seem to be many!
Well I lived in France for over 5 years in the mid 90s. I was supposed to be working on my PhD (the first of two I would start and not finish… yet) but instead it seems I cultivated a love of all things French. Longtime readers of my blog will know a few things about me:
- I love to cook and bake.
- I love to teach others to cook and bake (in person and through my writing and photography).
- I love France.
- I love French food and the French language.
- I love to teach others about French food and how to speak the language.
- I love teaching kids to cook.
- I spend my days teaching kids how to speak French and how to cook. I even incorporate a little cooking into the French curriculum from time to time because, well, pourquoi pas?
- I spend my spare time teaching adults to cook, mostly French food.
- We have a house in France (that we rent as a holiday home just saying….)
- I get to spend a lot of time in France.
I’d hope that any one (or more) of these things might come to mind when people think about my blog and about what I do. For me, there is a common theme – well there are a few, but let’s focus on possibly the “achievement” I am most proud of: Look at all the things I love. Now look at all the things I do on a regular basis. See any crossover? Uh huh. I’m clever like that.
Somehow (well, a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck), I’ve managed to combine much of what I love (all the France-cooking stuff) with something I actually *have* to do (you know, my day job which pays the bills). And when I get to write about that, well it’s everything I love (to do) all rolled into one. Recently, my love of food and French and teaching collided beautifully in a culminating activity where my Grade 6 students cooked a Haitian meal together with a chef from Toronto. Way to make my day job and passions merge perfectly!
And you have a place in France now? What drew you to Nerac?
Well, it’s not one of those movie scenarios where “we fell in love with it and bought it on the spot” – I challenge anyone to purchase a house spontaneously in France, in fact. It’s a tale that lasts years, starting back in 2013 when we first started talking seriously about maybe buying a little piece of France that we could enjoy in our retirement. Of course, we can’t simply afford to own two houses outright so the French house would need to become a holiday rental… and thus began the search – because as they say, location is everything…
In the summer of 2012 I had visited Nérac with Kate, Tim and Monica when I was in the region taking a food photography workshop and our task had been to head to the market and find a story in photos. That day in Nérac was life-changing in a few ways – it changed the way I take photographs as well as my attitude to making pastry from scratch (no, I haven’t always been the pastry –making fiend I am today. Just a few short years ago, I was scared of pastry!). On that trip, I stood just a few hundred metres from where we would end up buying our house and wondered aloud “Imagine living here”. It took months to actually find the house (looking mostly online but we took a quick trip there in March 2014 to look at a handful of places in person) and the actual purchase and renovation from a distance are stories for another day but for now, while we don’t live there full time, we do have a little pied-a-terre amongst the sunflowers now… Available for rent too!
(see further details below)
I see you visit Paris whenever you can. Which places there would you most like to show a new visitor?
I can’t go past my old neighbourhood – rue Montorgueil in the 2nd arrondissement. For visitors to Paris – first time and those more familiar with the city alike, my favourite way of discovering any city is to take a walking tour. I’ve taken many in Paris and can highly recommend them all. There’s really something for any interest (though the ones I take tend to focus on, surprise, food!). A bike tour can also be a good idea. As can not over-planning one’s visit!
What would be your best piece of advice to someone wanting to teach cookery or baking classes?
I’d say try to teach a friend and get their feedback before you venture into the world of teaching cookery or baking classes. Because, honestly? Just because you are good at doing something yourself, it doesn’t make you a good person to teach others (think about learning how to drive from your dad. Or learning Excel from your other half…). My years in the classroom (and especially my 4 years working in a Montessori school) have taught me valuable “class management” and organization skills that I put to use in every adult class I teach. I may not be a trained pastry chef but I do know how to teach others how to bake and the teacher in me takes over every class I teach. In my adult classes, I like to break things down exactly as I would for my students (not dumbing it down because I never do that, rather, just making everything as clear as it can be, from the actual recipes themselves to the timing and organization of the classes.
Who is your kitchen hero? My mum. Jamie Oliver. Dorie Greenspan.
(I should point out here that throughout most of the seven years I’ve known her, Mardi has been a stalwart disciple of Dorie with extended spells of blogging through some of Dorie’s books on a Julie & Julia style weekly cook-a-long basis. That’s dedication!)
What’s been your food or travel high point since starting your blog?
Meeting Jamie Oliver. Being a Food Revolution “Super Ambassador” for Canada. It’s allowed me to share my passion for real food with so many people, in real life and through my writing. Because of my blog, I cook and bake. A lot. It’s funny – writing about food has made me much more open to trying new things, both eating them but also cooking and baking and, in turn, it’s made me so much more confident in my abilities. Not to say that I don’t always end up with “perfect dishes” – long-time readers will know I admit to, and have posted, my fair share of, shall we say, not-so-successful dishes and I know they appreciate that honesty. Mine is definitely not a blog where you will find perfection in every post. Because that’s not reality, right?
Writing my blog has seen me cooking and baking a lot more from scratch than I ever did and, in turn, eating better (real) food. I was never really one to use a lot of processed foods in my cooking but over the past few years, I have found the courage to try making so many more things than I would ever have dreamed possible – bread, charcuterie, pastry – five years ago, I would not have imagined making such things from scratch in my own kitchen (let alone photographing and writing about them!). But there you go. Never say never. And it’s definitely meant eating better in our house.
That’s not to say that I make everything from scratch all the time. For me that would not be feasible with the lifestyle I lead. But an increasing knowledge of how to cook from scratch has definitely seen me thinking twice about what I am buying and what I am choosing to make from scratch these days. I also think that for a lot of people who want to eat healthier, the whole idea of making everything from scratch is intimidating and instead of just doing what they can, they decide it’s “too hard”. I mean if the choice is between a fast food meal “because it’s quick and cheap” or cooking up some pasta and adding a jarred sauce to some veggies, I’d definitely choose (and recommend) the latter. Mostly-homemade is better than fast food. Of course this leads to much label-reading in my world. There are definitely “better” pre-made products than others, so it’s important to know what to look for in terms of ingredients and nutritional information on a label. But many people don’t know how to read a label, or what to look for. This combined with the fact that many people choose fast food over real food because they don’t know how to cook with what they’ve got means my job as a (cooking) teacher is so important.
Do you have any memorable cake fails?
Definitely, although I haven’t documented many for the blog. But my first ever post detailing making macarons has got to go down as one of those “look how far I’ve come” posts that I will never delete from my blog (despite the terrible photos)
Do you have a favourite bubbling under trend we should look out for?
I’m thinking more people need understand the charm of choux pastry. It’s very “in” in Paris (and increasingly so in places like London) – I’m not quite sure why we here in North America are so slow to get on the choux train!
What new things would you like to achieve in the world of food and baking?
I’d quite like a column in a magazine. Writing about cooking with kids. Jamie Magazine to be specific. A girl can dream, right? Do I want to write a book? This is the question I am asked over and over again. Well yes… A cookbook? Maybe. A book? Definitely. I do think there’s something in the story of our house in France but since that’s not a complete story, it might have to wait. A cookery book full of real recipes (i.e. not dumbed down) for kids? That might be something I would consider. Especially if it was French food 😉
All images supplied by Mardi Michels. You can visit Mardi’s prolific blogging adventures at eat.live.travel.write or follow her on Instagram at @eatlivtravwrite
For further info about booking Mardi’s rental property in France visit neracvacationrental.com. Mardi says, ““maison de la fontaine is a fully-furnished, newly-renovated vacation home featuring all modern conveniences, sleeping up to 7 people. Located in the historic town of Nérac, in Gascony, South West France, the house is easily reached from Bordeaux or Toulouse via train and is just a short drive to San Sebastian in Spain. It’s the perfect base from which to explore the surrounding wine regions and a great “home base” if you’re checking out Euro 2016!”
Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day is on May 20th – for more info about this global campaign to improve kids’ nutrition globally visit JamiesFoodRevolution.org
If you would like to nominate someone for a Baker’s Dozen interview then please get in touch with your recommendation and I’ll see what we can do!