He doesn't have far to go when he needs a pumpkin to cook for one of his culinary specialties, or to decorate the lobby and dining room of the Gladys M. Manning Memorial Retirement Home, where he is chef. Andrew Dill, of Windsor, NS, is within shouting distance of famed giant pumpkin grower Howard Dill's farm, his father's farm, where he grew up among some of the world's largest pumpkins.
And that's just as well, especially when the 33-year-old chef prepared myriad pumpkin dishes for a dinner theatre staged at the retirement home during the town's annual pumpkin festival last year.
The pumpkin-in-every-dish menu included a fall harvest salad, a choice of sautéed chicken breasts or braised salmon, a medley of vegetables, pumpkin rolls, and for dessert, a choice of ice cream crepes, pumpkin pie or pumpkin cheesecake (the salad and cheesecake recipes follow).
Andrew developed his love of cooking early in life. His now retired mother managed the food operation at a local inn, the Kingsway, and began teaching Andrew the basics of cooking when he was young.
"At age 10, I was plating and garnishing lobster dinners for service and by the time I was 15, I had the dining room and coffee shop menus memorized," he says. "Sometimes, by myself, I prepared up to 100 à la carte orders in an evening. By the time I was 19, I was running the food operations at the Kingsway Inn."
After doing stints at a couple of Valley restaurants (The Old Orchard Inn among them), completing several courses and seminars including the Red Seal Interprovincial qualification from the Nova Scotia Institute of Technology, in Halifax, Andrew and his wife, Tanya, are back in Windsor, where it all began. From the windows of the 65-seat dining room, which is open to the public as well as to the residents of the Gladys Manning's 102 units, he can see the farm where he grew up.
While Andrew places the residents' taste preferences first, he also has the opportunity to create his own specialties. Pumpkin is a natural for the young man, who placed third in the world's first pumpkin regatta held five years ago in Windsor-now recognized far and wide as the pumpkin capital of the world.
It took him almost half an hour to cross Lake Pesaquid in an 810-pound, carved-out pumpkin. "On my knees, inside a giant pumpkin, full-out paddling with a single paddle…It was absolute pain," he says.
While it is obvious that Andrew would rather cook the gourd than paddle it, he says there's a lot to know about the pumpkin you're cooking.
"There are hundreds of varieties of pumpkins, but the most common one used in cooking is the 'New England Sugar Pie'," he says. The best method for cooking pumpkin is to steam it, and then purée it in a blender to break down the fibres.
"We have used canned pumpkin in my mother's recipe for pies, but with the real pumpkin purée, it's the ultimate best," says the chef who dreams of baking the world's largest pumpkin pie.
Thanks for the tip, chef.
"Just call me the pumpkin chef," Andrew says, with his infectious laugh.