Cooking with Cameron: Chef’s time in India inspires film
by Maeve Haldane
For most cinemagoers, Cooking with Stella, a recently released film about a Canadian family that moves to Delhi – she’s a diplomat; he’s a spouse, stay-at-home father and chef learning about Indian food from the High Commission cook – is a lighthearted comedy.
For Ottawa-based chef Cameron Stauch, BCom’97, it’s a little like watching a home movie on the big screen.
Five years ago, Stauch really did move to Delhi, along with his diplomat wife Ayesha Rekhi, BA’96, and their young daughter, after Rekhi was posted to the Indian capital by the Canadian government. The family spent three-and-a-half years there.
Rekhi’s godmother, acclaimed filmmaker Deepa Mehta (her work includes Water, an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film in 2007), co-wrote a script with her brother Dilip Mehta, loosely based on the time that Stauch and Rekhi spent in India. “At first we found it odd,” says Stauch, “then we found it touching and were honoured that our lifestyle could be adapted to the characters.” Immortalized on celluloid are the pool Stauch’s family swam in and the gardens they played in. His daughter’s first day riding a bike is captured in a background cameo.
In the film, a Stauch-inspired character, played by Don McKellar, relishes the opportunity to learn more about Indian cuisine. Stauch says this was true for him as well, as he enjoyed immersing himself in the incredible variety of the food that was available in Delhi.
McKellar didn’t realize, at first, that the fellow who was helping to ensure that the film’s cooking scenes rang true, was also the basis for the character he was portraying. Sharing some wine with Stauch and Rekhi during a break in the action, McKellar learned they were both McGill grads. “Oh, I was told [my character] went to McGill too!” he informed the couple. Stauch says McKellar didn’t need much coaching – he was already quite adept in the kitchen. The actor, however, was keen to learn “about cheffy things” from Stauch – the proper knife method for cutting and chopping different food ingredients, for instance.
Film and food have always played an important role for Stauch and Rehki, who met at McGill. During their courtship, Stauch would sneak picnics into movie theatres and the couple would snack on baguettes, charcuteries and cheese, while sipping wine.
Stauch served as the food stylist for Stella, which was filmed on the Canadian High Commission grounds. Stauch, who has worked in the kitchens of several eateries, likens film work to cooking in large restaurants – it’s not always clear “how things are going to come together, and then somehow, magically or organically, it happens.”
These days Stauch is part of the team of chefs at Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s official residence, where they “get to do something new every day,” Stauch says, a rare treat in the sometimes routine and gruelling life of a chef. With the aim to showcase Canadian ingredients, they’ll often pair a technique from one part of the world with the flavours from another. The reduced condensed milk of Indian kulfi is swapped out for maple syrup, for instance. The filling of potsticker canapés changes to suit the event.
Stauch first seriously considered a career in cooking while he was at McGill. He approached Normand Laprise, owner-chef of La Toqué, who recommended that he bone up on the basics of French bistro cooking. An eight-month stint at Montreal’s Chez Gautier revealed that, “duck fat was one of nature’s golden offerings” and gave Stauch the technical chops to excel at Stratford Chefs School.
When the McGill News spoke with Stauch, he was preparing for a trip the next day to India to do research on a cookbook (He made sure to leave behind a freezerful of meals for his wife, now on maternity leave with their second child). His itinerary includes a biodynamic tea plantation in Darjeeling, and temples in Amritsar and Puri. “Temple cooks feed 30,000 to 40,000 a day, up to 100,000 during festivals,” he says. As India modernizes, its culinary heritage and agricultural diversity risk being lost. Understandably, urban chefs want to experiment with other cuisines, but Stauch worries that the vast riches of their own taste tradition might languish as a result. He aims to do his part to preserve and promote at least a small portion of India’s vital cooking culture.