There are dead bugs in Jason Malloff’s kitchen.
A sheet of cricket corpses sprinkled with chilis sits near a pot of melted chocolate. A bag of meal worms waits next to a chopping board where Malloff cuts up lobster. A plastic container with thatching ants that elicit a tangy flavour when eaten are there to be used like a spice.
Malloff is the chef and owner of Cabin, a Kootenay Bay restaurant that opened in July next to the ferry terminal. On Saturday he was preparing an insect-themed dinner as part of the Deconstructing Dinner Film Festival, which meant smoking crickets and finding out how meal worms might taste with meat and potatoes.
None of this strikes Malloff as even remotely odd.
He previously owned a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where insects are part of the country’s diet.
“After the rains these black ants would multiply and they would lay their eggs,” said Malloff. “They were fairly large, like the size of a rice crispy. They’d collect those eggs and those were escamoles, and those would be sautéed in brown butter and it was sort of like a caviar.”
Eating bugs, as Malloff says, is not a new culinary idea. A 2013 report published by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said at least two billion people incorporate bugs into their diets, and that the more than 1,900 edible insects could help nations reduce famine.
In Canada, however, there’s little appetite for insects. But Malloff thinks that can be changed if eaters reconsider their perceptions of food.
“Take cockroaches,” he said. “If cockroaches didn’t come into our house and shit in our butter and gross us out and be everywhere, and we just saw them outside, we probably wouldn’t even call them cockroaches. Most of us would just call them a beetle.
“So I think it’s that proximity to living next to them, to having to deal with them, having to compete with them, having them eat what would be our major food sources.”
Malloff doesn’t usually cook with insects — the meal he was preparing was a one-off event — but he’s thought about them as a food source for decades.
The first time he ate insects was in 1997 on a rock climbing trip to Thailand. He’d noticed bugs that looked like cicadas in markets. Later at a meal he found out a chicken satay sauce was made of those same bugs, which had been roasted and ground up. “That was my favourite sauce. So there was something very interesting to me there.”
Malloff is a student of molecular gastronomy, a school of cooking that uses scientific methods. That’s in part because his education was as a scientist, not a chef.
A Nelson native, Malloff graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1996 with a degree in microbiology and genetics. He’d planned a career researching infectious diseases, but that changed in 1999 when he cooked a dinner for friends in France.
Malloff had always enjoyed cooking for others, but had never considered it might become a career. Yet at that dinner an acquaintance said his friend owned a two-star Michelin rated restaurant, and suggested Malloff might be able to do some free training there.
“I had no idea what a Michelin star was,” he said. “I just knew Michelin from the tires.”
Malloff worked at the restaurant for eight months. Previously he’d been repelled by restaurant kitchens. They were too messy and chaotic. Put another way, they weren’t laboratories.
But this kitchen was different. It was clean and orderly. Everything was in its place. More importantly, a dish took less than a day whereas lab experiments might go on for months and result in nothing gained.
“You’re going to mash it all up and destroy it, and it’s temporary. I like that idea,” he said.
When he was finished there, Malloff’s career path had changed from petri dishes to cooking pots.
By coincidence, Malloff met another Nelson native and his current girlfriend at his restaurant in Mexico. The pair moved back to the West Kootenay in 2012, and Malloff did a number of jobs including consulting on the menu for Cantina Del Centro prior to its opening on Baker Street.
Cabin, his new restaurant, is in a lot of ways Malloff’s lab. It’s where he gets to play with, yes, bugs, but also with perceptions of what food can be. McDonald’s, he says, is a good example of a restaurant that has convinced customers the food it serves is good.
It’s not an opinion he shares.
“I remember as a child eating it because I was interested in a McDonald’s hamburger,” he said. “But it never tasted like a burger my mom cooked. It didn’t taste like beef.
“You can convince people of anything. Terrible movies gross millions of dollars. Terrible songs hit the Billboard, and basically it’s because people have said that’s what’s good. The trick is going the other way.”
Malloff’s menu for the insect dinner included innocuously titled dishes such as “Tomatoes on Toast,” “Bugs With Bugs,” and “What You Find Around Kootenay Lake.”
When the meal began, Malloff was most looking forward to watching from the sidelines. His favourite part of being a chef isn’t the experience of eating, but watching customers connect with each other over food. Even if that food happens to feature six legs and antennae.
“That’s one of the things that makes life rich. I like being part of that.”