Talking Food with Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar

I thought it would be fun to put a little rock and roll into my blog.  I got the chance to talk food with Gordie Johnson, lead singer of group Big Sugar. I have seen Big Sugar play during my University years and remember quite a few of their songs.  This week they played 2 sold out shows at Festival Place in Sherwood Park.

I had the option to do a phone interview but I really wanted to do an interview in person.  Festival Place is a wonderful, intimate venue for a concert and I got to come in during the sound check, which was a great experience for me.  Also, how else could I bring Gordie, a big foodie, treats from Duchess Bake Shop!  The whole crew could not wait for the box to be opened up.  

Gordie is really down-to-earth and easy to talk to.  He definitely loves food as much as music. Talking food with someone who loves it as much as you do is always a fantastic experience. 


I heard that you are a big foodie. I was reading that you grew with Italian food.

Italian food and Ukrainian food.  I grew up with 2 great schools of thought and it’s interesting because there are some places that it intersects.  Perogies are potato-filled ravioli. My father makes fresh pasta and my mother makes fresh perogy dough. They both have to roll them out, cut them into circles, fill them, pinch them and boil them so then... this is the exact same thing though we all know it’s not but at the end of the day, it kinda is.

It’s like how every country has their version of meat on a stick...

There are these things you eat your entire life and then one day you realize when you are looking at them … like my mother used to make Babka, which is a Ukrainian Easter Bread.  She used to let it rise and made it in a big ole coffee tin and it was this yellow, yeasty, cakey stuff with raisins inside.  The Italians have Pannetone on the holidays and I was at my mom’s house one day and I was looking at it thinking this is exactly the same thing. It’s not similar, it’s identical.

You cook a lot of Italian.  Are there specialties you make? You mentioned your father makes pasta dough.  Do you?

No, my father has the machine and the whole restaurant set up.  If I’m having pasta, I use the dry, I like it better. Hard to say what my specialty is… I’m the guy who makes the sauces once a week. I make my own pesto and tomato sauce. I make a giant pot of (tomato sauce) it and by the end of the week, we are down to just a little leftover which goes into next week’s sauce.  We have sauce that has potentially 10 year old sauce in it.

Do you experiment in the kitchen?  Do you make your own cheeses or yogurt? How adventurous are you in that sense?

In that category, I would say when I make Texas chili.  I can make Indian food, Jamaican food ... but living here in Texas, I have gotten into the whole science of chili making.  There are so many techniques into making chili, it can be very complex dish so I take an Indian approach by making a curry for my chili.  We use local peppers, I will dry them for 6 months, hanging them in the sun in my kitchen and grind them in a coffee grinder.  Chipotle peppers, Ancho chilies, which are very dry and raisiny, so when you grind them down to a powder, it’s amazing.

You mentioned you entertained.  Do you like bigger groups or more smaller and  intimate.

Look, I’m just the caterer.  My wife will have 12 ladies over for lunch and tell me the day before and it’s game on.  I go to the liquor store, picking the wine, the whole deal and my wife has no idea until the next day there is a spread.  She knows I love it every second of it.

Do you do any baking?

I’m fascinated by baking and my mother is a fantastic baker but baking … I haven’t pulled it off very successfully.  I have a couple of successes but there are so few.  I like making Italian cakes with nut flours.  Recently, I made a flourless pistachio cake with sambuca cream is really good.  I’ll whip up Italian icing for no reason at all other than to have it in my coffee. It’s this wonderful icing where I’ll dump some West Indian rum into it or sambuca.  It’s super easy and put it into espresso every morning.

I have children and I know when I’m in the kitchen they always want to help.  Do any of your  3 children do the same.  

The youngest is 6 and she likes to stand up next to the counter as Papa is cooking  but mostly because I have really good Romano cheese, Pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano, a really nice hard Italian cheese that she picks at because you have to eat while you are cooking.  I like to have salami, cheese, some olives and a little bit of wine while I’m cooking.

Any of them have a cooking or baking bug?

That’s just starting for them.  My son has a deep interest in the American civil war and I came home and he was making corn dodgers because that was one of the things they ate at the time.  It’s made out of corn meal and rendered meat fat and salt, if you had salt.  He wanted to be authentic and he baked this stuff and it gave me a great deal of empathy for the Confederates. It was his first kick at it but just the fact he went to such lengths to find authentic corn meal and he wanted to render his own meat fat.  Since then he made cornbread for family Christmas for about 20 and it was great.

You have a ranch/farm.  Do you raise animals? Do you grow stuff?

We did but no so much now because I’m not on the farm so much anymore because I’m on tour.  My brother in law controls the cattle herd (in Alberta) and we have a few horses but I’m not really a super active farmer.  Our land in Texas isn't conducive to growing almost anything because the deer will eat absolutely every last thing I will plant.  We have a beautiful rose bush and the only reason it survives is because it’s 20 foot tall and deer can’t get at it…. I love to work outside…

Lot of land here is being converted into vineyards or olive trees since they do well in limestone and terraced land and hills so I think I’m going to convert a lot of our land to olive cultivation which excites me.

(Image supplied)

Eating local and organic is really important to a lot of foodies, do you follow this way of living too?

We live most of the time in Texas and food-wise I’m really drawn to that place for the cuisine.  Also, for the freshness of the produce.  You walk into a grocery store there and you are hit by the smell of fresh oranges and we are so spoiled by that… We live in the next county over from Austin.  We eat from our community and they don’t call it organic, it just is.  Why buy city water when you can use water from the mineral springs on our property?  We buy our milk locally, from grain fed cattle that someone loves.  It’s like living in Italy, there is so much local (available) and we just eat our local stuff.

Being on the road, you probably read up on places you want to stop and eat.

No, we don’t use (the internet).  We have restaurant radar.  We have developed it over decades of touring.  You look outside the bus window, and in a small town there isn't a lot of streets, and you drive until one of us says… that place.  We look at the menu and that little light in our heads go off and we almost have never been wrong.  These are often the places we go back to over and over again.  It can be risky if you don’t have a lot of time to drive around and sometimes we find ourselves in the strangest of places and then drive past a little strip mall and wait a minute, look at that, how remarkable, let’s go check it out and it’s sublime.

Are you a straight up carnivore, eating it at every meal or do you lean toward vegetarian?

I live 2 different lives in that respect. On the road, especially on show day, that little box of pastries is a godsend. That would be the most substantial food we will have all day. We usually set up our juicer and juice organic vegetables or have hummus, some olive oil and pita and some red wine.  I find that on show day, when I run the motor lean, I just have a better show.  Even if some people order meals after show, I find myself sticking with the hummus and pita.

Last question, have you eaten in or around Edmonton?  Remember any places or meals?

There is an Italian place downtown, Pazzo Pazzo, their Bolognese is very authentic. It's a small and not very fussy restaurant, quiet, dark, easy to just tuck in there on a night off and drink wine and take your time eating food.  I remember rabbit on their special board. It's really good.