Ten years ago, Julie Albert was studying fiction-writing in Toronto, workshopping her murder-mystery comedies in a class full of creative writing students. Frustrated by the sometimes restrictive and stifling nature of prose narrative, Albert began parlaying her talents into the riskier and far more exciting world of the culinary arts.
Perhaps it was more than just a whim; Albert has always used her curious temperament as a divining rod to seek out the next big thrill. Teaming up with her sister Lisa Gnat, who at the time ran her own dessert catering business in Toronto, the two women set off on a business venture that has produced, so far, three cookbooks, a webshow and plaudits from the likes of Jason Alexander, Jon Bon Jovi and astronaut Chris Hadfield. Their cookbook franchise Bite Me has endeavoured, since its 2011 debut, to bring meals humming with deliciousness and humor to the tables of ordinary households. Indeed, the sisters’ working motto, “effortless deliciousness”, is the nucleus of their brand and even just a casual thumb through their latest concoction, Lick Your Plate, reveals the ingenuity of two women who let nothing get between them and a skillet.
“When we put pen to paper and whisk to bowl, we were determined to answer the age-old question, ‘What’s for dinner?’”, says Albert of their initial beginnings. “In retrospect, we went at it backwards — we wrote Bite Me, our first cookbook, and then went about finding a publisher. While Bite Me was well received (it became our calling card, getting us meetings at Random House in New York), our lack of online presence led us on a journey to becoming self-publishers. Being simultaneously authors and publishers was a huge learning curve, teaching us all about distribution, marketing and sales.”
Much like the meals in their cookbooks, Julie’s and Lisa’s DIY approach to publishing was a recipe for success; touring extensively across Canada on the back of their first book (“with pots and pans in our suitcases”, Albert attests), the two sisters soon gained traction online, cultivating a fan base that, at the time of writing, figures in at over 60 000 followers on their social media.
Julie, the literary component of the two, bares in these cookbooks the delicious qualities of her most esteemed trait: an irrepressible and contagious humour to split sides like a good home cooked meal. Pick any recipe out of Lick Your Plate and it comes accompanied with the reassurance of Albert’s wit; she’s there to let you know that dinner will be saved for the evening — so long as you haven’t burned down the house. Just some examples:
“Why should you trust us? We’re sisters (and not the how-do-you-solve-a-problem-like-Maria variety, but the give-me-back-my-sweater kind) who love working and cooking up fun together.”
“From Lisa’s Easy-Bake Oven days, she has been experimenting in the kitchen, developing her bionic palate and original recipes, while Julie hasn’t stopped writing since she banged out her first chain letter on her IBM Select I typewriter.”
“Standing in Lisa’s kitchen, I’m constantly forced to make snap decisions. Do I give her the 10 feet of space she demands or do I snuggle up close and make her cringe?”
“You know when you’re super excited because you think you’ve discovered something only to learn that someone has beaten you to the punch? This happened to me twice. Once with LED slippers (genius, right?) and again with a little legume called the lentil. It appears that I’m 10 000 years too late to jump on the lentil bandwagon, but better late than never, right?”
For her part, Gnat brings the wisdom of her years as chef and businesswoman to the table. Practical yet ready for all the rides in store, the culinary half of the sisters works to create meals that everyone from the single bachelor to a bustling family of seven can enjoy.
“I’d classify myself as a seasoned home cook,” Gnat confesses. “I admire the work of the world’s greatest chefs, but really like to provide solutions for the home cook and entertainer. I loved the idea of working with my sister. She’s a great sounding board (and recipe tester) and provides inspiration for when I’m at the stove. Though the cookbook shelf is already crowded, I feel that we offer people foolproof recipes, everyday solutions and endless laughs, all rolled into one package.
“I’m always thinking about the person with a lot on their plate (pardon the pun). I want to create recipes that focus on fresh ingredients, but also allow for the one-stop-shop — ingredients which should be readily available at the local grocery store. Our recipes need to be crowd-pleasers and family-friendly, nothing that requires hours and hours of stirring or fussy preparations, and I love to take a classic and put an easy twist on it for the home cook, adding new favourites in the repertoire.”
Lick Your Plate is, indeed, a one-stop-shop of ideas which refashions old favourites into entirely new dishes altogether. Divided into the basic categories of soups, salads, pastas, meat and vegetarian dishes, and desserts, the pair present a reinvented set of traditional favourites. Consider their take on risotto, often celebrated for its difficulty. A recipe for Sweet Potato Risotto with Thyme Roasted Pecans offers to put rumours of arduous prep time to rest and then does another good turn by serving up a host of colourful flavours with as many subtleties and textures as a Degas painting; the corresponding photo of the dish certainly promises a lushly rich impressionism of epicurean delight.
Recipe for Sweet Potato Risotto with Thyme Roasted Pecans:
“Lisa has let me in on a little Chef’s secret: Risotto is easy. Good rice, a hot stock and 20 minutes of frequent stirring are all it takes to make this creamy, dreamy dish of caramelized roasted sweet potatoes folded into Parmesan, thyme, and white wine risotto. Topped with roasted pecans, this no-sweat, restaurant-worthy risotto is easygoing and most-comforting-in-the-kitchen.”
Want dessert? Try snacking on the Ginger Cookie Sandwiches with Lemon Filling. How about brunch? There’s the ridiculously decadent Strawberry Cheesecake French Toast Soufflé to satiate all ravenous desires. And if you have any worries that these most daunting sounding recipes are more difficult to recreate than the Colosseum in Rome, put them aside. “If I can recreate Lisa’s recipe with ease and success, it’s a winner,” Albert assures. “I have a job, three hungry kids and limited time. So I look for recipes that will help me bring family and friends together in a lip-smacking and simple way. Our Bite Me brand is all about setting people up for success in the kitchen, sprinkling in a laugh (or two) and bringing everyone together — if we haven’t done that, we aren’t going to win in the kitchen or at the table.”
Strawberry Cheesecake French Toast Soufflé:
“Thanks to Lisa and Lionel (as in Richie), we can all be easy like Sunday morning. How so? All you have to do when you wake up is turn on the oven and get your knife and fork ready. Thanks to this overnight (it’s assembled a day in advance) Strawberry Cheesecake French Toast Soufflé, you can pull together the most jaw-dropping brunch in no time.”
Behind the fun, the food and the lustrous presentation, there’s a deep, sisterly bond between these two, the jam that holds the entire franchise together, so to speak. Albert and Gnat work from the familial point of love which binds them to the generations that have come before them. Both women had the passion for cuisine instilled in them by their mother and grandmother, the maternal forces that continue to guide them, whether in presence or spirit. A look at their webisodes reveals that cooking, for these two, is always a family affair. “It is all in good fun but while Julie likes to keep me laughing, I’m trying to impart some useful information to our viewers,” says Gnat. “We are often doubled over in laughter, which I wouldn’t trade in for a less sloppy sister in the kitchen.”
“Lisa and I have the perfect partnership,” Albert concurs. “While Lisa has a bionic palate and strong background in cooking, baking and recipe development, I love the written word and design. With that said, while we admire each other’s skill set, we don’t play much in the other’s domain — I don’t interfere with the marinades and she doesn’t have a burning passion for fonts. I love to eat (and cook) Lisa’s outrageously delicious recipes, while she chuckles at what I write and likes the eye candy I create.”
Lick Your Plate finds a number of ways to make cooking as painless as possible; the sisters turn efficiency into a creative endeavour. It’s this very approach which much of their fan base has come to recognize as a signifying trait of the Bite Me brand. Both assure that their latest cookbook is for everyone — from the clumsy novice to the seasoned pro.
“Lick Your Plate is going to be your best friend in the kitchen, your go-to resource”, Albert promises. “We’ve answered all the questions our readers have had over the years: What do I make with chicken? Fish? Meat? What meal can I make in less than 30 minutes? What are your best tips and tricks? What can I do with leftovers? We’re all about bringing ease and success to the kitchen and the table. No one has to be a Martha (eight-hour broth? No thanks) or a Gwyneth (home-grown veggies? Not here) to be a successful Biter!”
Adds Gnat: “We speak to everyone from the beginner in the kitchen to the experienced home cook. We look to bring inspiration, creativity, fun and lightness to the daily rigors of peeling potatoes and meal planning. We’re with you every step (and stir) of the way!”