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Montreal restaurant Elena raises $50,000 for workers in community cookbook revival

Community cookbooks — a meeting of creativity, cooking and cause — are experiencing a revival. Whether spiral-bound or downloadable, as Montreal restaurant Elena proves, these grassroots publications still hold the power to make a difference. Through sales of a pair of digital mini cookbooks — Elena: Remember Skin Contact? , and Elena and Friends: A Tight-Knit (But Socially Distanced) Community Cookbook — the St-Henri spot has raised nearly $50,000 for restaurant workers.

“We felt restless and were like, ‘What can we do?’ It was that moment of feeling helpless in a situation,” says chef Janice Tiefenbach, who heads the kitchen at Elena. “You immediately want to take control and figure out what you can do, and how you can be productive.”

When the restaurant temporarily closed in mid-March, the team immediately started working on Elena: Remember Skin Contact? , which they released on March 30 for $15. “It was our way of making people feel a little bit happier during this time, and helping raise funds for our friends as Elena was closing,” says writer Stephanie Mercier Voyer, who was part of Elena’s opening crew in 2018.

Drawing on recipes and photos they had banked for a potential long-term cookbook, they challenged themselves to putting something together — “almost like a zine kind of idea” — in a matter of weeks. All of the money from both books goes to the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund , formed to support workers in financial need due to COVID-19.

The first book was such a success they immediately embarked on a second, Elena and Friends: A Tight-Knit (But Socially Distanced) Community Cookbook , which they launched on May 11 for $18. A collection of 27 recipes from some of the city’s top chefs — including Dyan Solomon of Olive et Gourmando, Emma Cardarelli of sister restaurant Nora Gray (and Elena co-owner) and Fred Morin of the Joe Beef family of restaurants — it’s a community cookbook in the truest sense.

“It was nice to be able to reach out to our friends and ask for a recipe that meant a lot to their restaurant, and to them,” says Mercier Voyer, adding that she personally took a lot of joy from the project. “It warmed my heart to be able to make something as simple as scrambled eggs from Larrys — they make it in such a special way and it’s unlike any scrambled eggs you’ll have anywhere else — and to see the community rally behind the same cause.”

Much of the focus of pandemic cooking has been on shelf-stable staples . And while there are recipes geared towards pantry cooking in Elena and Friends — such as Elena’s Pantry Cake and Candide’s Preserves — the team wanted to strike a balance with uses for spring/summer produce. The recipes range in level of difficulty as well: Some take time, like The OG Beba Beef Empanadas; others are more straightforward, such as Taverne’s Mac & Cheese.

Tiefenbach chose to include her recipe for Corn and Ricotta Agnolotti — a summertime favourite at Elena — with adjustments. Typically a vehicle for fresh corn and ricotta, she wrote the recipe for frozen niblets instead. But even the corn is replaceable, and can be substituted with any vegetable you have on hand.

“If you use a vegetable plus ricotta plus fresh pasta, it’s going to be good,” says Tiefenbach, laughing. “I wanted it to be something that you could do even if you didn’t have corn in season. I didn’t want people to be too hung up on specific ingredients — but to pass on some techniques, like making fresh ricotta. It’s not that hard and you don’t need any special equipment.”

Elena and Friends belongs to a new breed of digital community cookbook — with professional photography, playful illustrations and considered design — but it shares much in common with its analog predecessors. A snapshot of a moment in time, it represents what people can accomplish when they unite over a common cause.

From the open-source cookbook Toronto chef Nick Chen-Yin launched in April, to Taste of the Island , a forthcoming $15 digital charity cookbook featuring recipes from Vancouver Island restaurants by a group of university students, there’s an overwhelming sense of sharing and support coming out of an industry under pressure.

With months of distance from our favourite restaurants, projects like Elena’s remind us not only of the role they play in feeding us, but of the talented people behind them. Many of us miss restaurants because of the food they provide, but countless others — staff and suppliers — rely on them for their livelihoods. In this way, say Mercier Voyer and Tiefenbach, the goal of Elena and Friends is not only to raise funds, but awareness.

“I hope that this is a good reminder for people to continue being supportive however they can towards their local restaurants,” says Tiefenbach. “I hope we can raise the visibility of how important restaurants are. Not just as a place to eat, but as a place that engages your community.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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