Four decades spent in the most universal of settings, doing the most universal activity, has taught Caren McSherry an abundance of universal truths.
Food makes people happy.
If it tastes good, it doesn’t matter what the meal is.
Don’t trust a skinny chef.
Cooking classes in a room full of drunk dudes are not ideal.
These are the things you learn when your entire adult life is devoted to the culinary arts. The owner of Gourmet Warehouse is in the midst of celebrating her 40th anniversary as head honcho of the longest-standing avocational — read: for fun — cooking school in Canada.
Located near Clark and Hastings streets, The Gourmet Warehouse is a smorgasbord of activity when the Courier visits in mid-November.
That hustle and bustle and joie de vivre on the store floor serves as a nice parallel with the shopkeep herself. McSherry is bursting with energy and a type of life smarts that can only come after being around tens of thousands of people for decades.
“Food is the common denominator,” McSherry said. “You can take away religion, customs and everything else, and whether it’s a funeral, birth, birthday party, celebration, or a wedding, the one thing we all do is food.”
That’s not where McSherry’s head was at back when it all started on Nov. 8, 1978. Instead, her first cooking class was held before a captive audience of six former coworkers. Her meal of choice for the big night was mayonnaise.
“In the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘Why did choose this? This is just silly,’ but it turned out perfectly. After we’re done a girl’s hand goes up and she says, ‘That’s amazing, but why didn’t you just use Hellmann’s?’ That was the last time I was going to teach mayonnaise.”
McSherry initially taught out of her home at Georgia and Renfrew in between jaunts to Asia to broaden her repertoire. As demand grew, so too did the need for a new space.
McSherry settled on a warehouse at Victoria and Pandora in the early ’90s that seated 30 people. There was no parking and the entrance was through a back alley.
Rustic yes, practical no.
McSherry ended up at her current location in 2004, when she decided to open a retail space for all things culinary.
“This place was a dump,” McSherry recalled. “When I moved in, I went down to city hall to get my permit and the guy behind the counter looked at me and said, ‘Lady, you look pretty clean cut to me. Do you know what you’re getting into?’ It was all I could afford. He thought I’d be broke in a month. I said, ‘Screw you, I’ll show you.’”
Though food has been the constant that’s buttered McSherry’s bread, there’s also been a constant need to evolve and re-invent. McSherry travels to Europe at the onset of each year to bring home the coming year’s trends. She also changes her go-to meals based on the season: this time of year it’s all about butternut squash pasta, chicken pot pie, soups and stews.
And while Martha Stewart’s ornate meal planning ruled the roost at the turn of the century, now kitchen life is all about time management.
“[Stewart] would set the table on day one, on day two you’d make the sauces — it was completely insane, but she had the draw because she was one of the first out of the gate,” McSherry said. “People were following her like she was a goddess. Now the three-day preparation for dinner on Saturday night are so beyond over.”
Another thing that’s “beyond over” is the notion that men have no interest in cooking. McSherry saw that shift take hold within the last decade, and she now sees a 50/50 split in her classes. The lifelong Vancouverite does offer classes to men only, though at times they’re not for the faint of heart.
“There’s always a jackass in the crowd who would call for Chinese food on his cellphone in the middle of class. This poor Asian guy with 10 buckets of Chinese food would walk in and all the guys would laugh,” McSherry said. “The jackass is sitting there saying, ‘We didn’t like your food, so we ordered Chinese takeout.’ You have to have thick skin to deal with drunk men.”
It’s the level of stick-to-itness that sees McSherry as one of Vancouver’s most recognizable and beloved cooks. She’s a regular on TV and her seventh book, Starters, Salads, and Sexy Sides, was released in October 2017.
“I love cooking and I love to teach cooking,” McSherry said. “People are happy when they’re eating.”
Gourmet Warehouse is located at 1340 East Hastings St. in Vancouver