Calgary chef showcases his mother-in-law's Pakistani cooking with new food truck
Cam Slade's first real test was cooking for a Pakistani wedding in Chestermere
Cam Slade's passion for South Asian food started decades ago in much harder times.
Slade was living on the streets as a homeless young teen in Kamloops, B.C., when he was taken in by a Sikh family. That started his love affair with South Asian culture and food.
After years spent working his way up in the restaurant industry in B.C. and then in Alberta, he moved to Calgary and met his wife, Naghma, marrying into a Pakistani-Canadian family.
And it's that family's food that Slade is honouring and sharing with the world via his new food truck, The Curryer.
At the centre of the family's love of Pakistani food is Slade's "Ammi Jaan," referring to his mother-in-law, Mubina Chaudhry ("ammi jaan" is Urdu for beloved mother or matriarch). He has the words "Ammi Jaan" emblazoned on the side of his business to make sure everyone knows who's behind the dishes he's serving.
"Like with any food the relationship deepens in the kitchen. It's been a fun experience and it's not just a job or a business, it's a work of passion," said Slade.
"I'm very proud. It involves the whole family: aunts and uncles and support coming in making the naan, making the samosas, putting out a true product reflecting the cuisine in its truest form. It's really brought everyone together," said Slade.
He's been working shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen with his mother-in-law, watching and learning as she passes on everything she knows after a lifetime of cooking Pakistani dishes like curries, vegetable dishes and biryanis.
"You've got to forget everything you learned from any other cuisine first. That was one of the learning processes, the breaking for the sauce, the oils coming out, it shows you've developed the flavours enough, which are so complex," said Slade.
His first real test was cooking for a Pakistani wedding in Chestermere. He passed with flying colours, joining the few white chefs that can cook authentic South Asian food.
"The other secret is to let Ammi Jaan take total control," Slade laughs. "Because I'm just an infant in this cuisine."
He admits it was hard to learn a totally new way of cooking after decades in the industry.
"Sometimes you have to trust in people that know what they're doing and Ammi Jaan knows what she's doing for sure," said Slade.
Ammi Jaan, or Mubina Chaudhry, was born and raised in Faisalabad in Pakistan and emigrated to Canada in 1989. As a child, she often watched and cooked with her mother and has continued that passion for cooking throughout her life.
"I have some really good recipes and have been cooking for many years. My kids, they love my food and so we decided to have this business. My son Cam, I'm so proud of him," said Chaudhry.
"I always cooked for my community and in my home country. I had a catering business at home and even cooked a few times for cricket teams," she said.
"I can cook anything. I like to cook biryani and chicken pulau, chicken and beef korma and tikka masala and alloo palak, spinach and potato."
But it's her family who she has cooked for the most over the years. They are some of her biggest fans.
"Everyone loves my Mum's pulau," said Slade's wife, Naghma Slade.
"Growing up, I didn't like vegetables but I would always eat my Mum's alloo palak and we cook that on the food truck now. These are the first things that we thought 'let's just make this super personal' and share what we love," she says.
"For my Mom, it's a very personal thing to share and she's grateful that this vision has come to life, this thing we always talked about growing up. We can introduce people to Pakistani cuisine, in contrast to Indian cuisine."
Opening a business in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic might not seem like a great idea but Cam Slade believes a food truck is a safe bet in uncertain times.
Slade thinks avoiding the overheads and empty seats of a dine-in restaurant, along with not having to worry about the social distancing requirements involved in running a brick-and-mortar business right now is the smartest way to launch.
But he also has big ideas for the future of The Curryer.
"When we started it was before the pandemic and then everything changed, the world changed and there were a lot of doubts and fear along the way," he said.
"But this form of business is now more relevant than ever before," he said.
Slade wants to build a family brand that will include a flagship store.
If all goes well, he plans to open this fall and explore franchising within two years.