I don’t usually go in for old Irish proverbs, but one that has been ringing in my ears ever since my hour-long phone call with Mike Christie goes like this: “Laughter is brightest where food is best.”
Back of the House, a new podcast hosted by Christie, champions that proverb, melding his passions for cooking and comedy into one-hour interviews with local comedians. Each episode, Christie invites a Toronto comic into his home to cook a meal and chat about everything from comedy to urbanism. The hour begins with a step-by-step recipe guide, so trust me when I say you shouldn’t listen on an empty stomach.
Like vegetables you’d find at a farmer’s market, Back of the House came about organically.
“I’ve been interested in food and cooking for a long time now, but the Reader’s Digest version is, I’m good friends with one of the producers of the podcast, Chris DePaul,” says Christie, explaining further, “Him and his brother have been putting on these really interesting comedy shows, called Comedy in the X. They’ve done Comedy in the Basement, which was in the basement of their old house. Chris asked me if I wanted to [cater] the event, and I jumped at the chance. That was, I guess, the initial seed of the podcast.”
“Chris and I were talking about how he wants to grow the series, and he wanted to get me involved, as I was already involved making food for the events, and he wanted to know if I was interested in doing a podcast. I’m very much a fan of podcasts, as a consumable piece of media. I also just love doing interviews, period,” he says.
Christie has never tried his hand at stand-up, but, being a fan of comedy, he is immersed in the local scene.
“What I’ve noticed about [the Toronto comedy scene] is that it’s very supportive, very inclusive, and it celebrates diversity,” he says. “To have a place like Comedy Bar, an institution where people can gather, is extremely important. It’s immediately accessible, too; there isn’t any pretence, and you can go up to your favourite comedians and start chatting with them.”
“I guess it was my idea to cook for these comics,” Christie reflects, continuing, “Instead of doing standard comedy podcasts that are more free form, we wanted to do something a little more different, a little more focused, and something coming from me and my own perspective, which is food.”
For Christie, bridging the gap between cuisine and comedy has been small potatoes.
“When you’re at a comedy show and you laugh, it’s not a thoughtful, laboured thing; you’re reacting very instinctively to it — what makes you laugh makes you laugh. The same goes for food; you either think it’s delicious or you don’t. It’s very visceral, and they both offer these high levels of satisfaction within you.”
“When I go see most comedians in Toronto,” he adds, “I usually hear at least one bit about food.” (It’s at this point that we both share a hearty chuckle over a reminiscence of Jim Gaffigan’s timeless Hot Pocket routine.)
“Maybe it’s how [comedians] create their material, or maybe they’ve realized that there’s something you can tap directly into people with, but it’s something accessible that everyone understands that you can really explore.”
COOKING ON A BUDGET
Comedy aside, if you want to slip on the oven mitts and explore cooking on a budget, Christie has a few tips to keep both your stomach and your bank account happy.
“I think chicken thighs are God’s gift to budget cooking. Not only do they have great flavour, but they’re usually cheaper than almost all the other cuts,” he says. “Get them with the skins on; they come off very easily, and if you put them in a pan or in the oven for about 20 minutes, at a medium temperature, it turns into crispy chicken bacon, which is one of the tastiest things you can taste.”
“It’s probably the least sexy ingredient, but I love beans,” he admits. “They’re cheap, nutritious, and you can get a lot of value out of a 99-cent can. Also, you can go to Bulk Barn and load up on spices; cumin, chili flakes, smoked paprika, et cetera. These can add a lot of amazing flavour to your food at essentially zero cost.”
Each episode of Back of the House ends with a series of Quick Christie Questions, which he consistently poses to his assortment of guests. We turned his questions back on the man who asks them, and here’s what he had to say:
Where is the best place that you regularly visit in Toronto? Comedy Bar
First intersection you think of when you think of Toronto? Bathurst and Bloor
Favourite restaurant in Toronto? Bar Isabel (expensive); Brock Sandwich (cheap); Drupati’s (cheap)
Favourite people to follow on Twitter? Shawn Micallef, Corey Mintz, and Chelsea Peretti
Song that’s been in your head recently? The War on Drugs – “Come to the City”
Favourite meal to make in a pinch? Having a sweet potato, a dark green vegetable (preferably Brussels sprouts but will do broccoli), and a cured pork (pancetta, prosciutto) – grate the sweet potato, let it cook in one pan so it gets crispy, cook the pancetta in a pan to get the pan all drained out, cook the green vegetable, top it with lemon and lime and garlic, throw some smoked chipotle peppers, and it can be done in about 15 minutes.
Dream guest for the podcast? Martin Short