Becoming Dennis Prescott
The Inside Story of a New Brunswick Musician Turned International Culinary Phenomenon
By: James Mullinger
Portraits by Kelly Lawson
The Maritime Edit’s Food Editor Dennis Prescott has had an incredible 12 months. The Moncton, New Brunswick–based musician turned chef released his first cookbook, Eat Delicious, which quickly became a Canadian bestseller. He has been featured in People, Hello! and Esquire magazines and has appeared on Harry Connick Jr.’s talk show twice and on The Marilyn Denis Show. As well, he has travelled to Kenya with World Vision Canada, cooking across the country and telling stories of joy, resilience and challenge in the region. Part of the UN World Food Programme Chefs’ Manifesto, he is actively engaging with chefs around the world to create a manifesto to effect change in our food systems, including global food sustainability, food access, crop diversity and diet.
The Maritime Edit: When did you first start taking photographs of your food?
Dennis Prescott: In 2012. I was a musician and travelled in a 15-passenger van throughout Canada and the United States. My bandmates and I, near the end of 10 years together, decided to go to Nashville, Tennessee and give it one last go to see if we could make something happen. We slept on air mattresses for two years. I borrowed some cookbooks from the library and started working my way through them. I fell in love with food and cooking for people. It was that idea of “the collision of food and community at the table.” A friend said, “Have you heard of this new social media app called Instagram? You should try it!” I think my first post was a selfie, but on my phone I started documenting the process of cooking and taking photographs of the dishes because I genuinely wanted to remember what I had cooked the day before. There was no decision on my part to say, “Hey, I am going to be a food guy.” It just worked out that the content I posted was what I was passionate about.
The Maritime Edit: The best and most successful creative ventures stem from a love and not from a commercial decision.
Dennis Prescott: Absolutely. I get a lot of people asking, “I want a successful social media platform. How do I do that?” And I say, “What do you want it to be about?” And they often answer, “I will do anything.” So I have to say, “Well, that is not how it works. If it is the mighty dollar that is driving you, then I genuinely believe you are sacrificing your unique creativity. And in doing that you will never fully embrace what makes you you, creatively, which is far more honest and interesting to the greater public than anything else.” If you said that you were going to do comedy but do it like that other comedian, I don’t think you would be as successful as you are today, nor would you be happy, because you would not be actualizing what you love.
The Maritime Edit: People come up to me and ask, “What do I need to do to become a famous comedian?” To that I say, “Well, I can tell you what you need to do to possibly become a working comedian and that is work your ass off for 10 years for no money because you love it. And then maybe someone will pay you to do it.” The general public has an amazing bullshit detector. They know when someone is trying to sell them something they don’t believe in and when someone is passionate about it.
Dennis Prescott: That’s it. I would do this regardless. Doing something that you are so passionate about — something that you would still be doing whether you got paid for it or not— is such a freeing feeling.
The Maritime Edit: How did your unique photography style come about, and why does it resonate so well with people?
Dennis Prescott: I am on a constant mission of failing forward creatively. Sometimes the word “failure” has a negative stigma around it, but as creatives, we need to embrace failure a little more. We need to understand that for beginners, being awesome at something is going to take time.
Although I didn’t go to photography school, I did know that I needed to learn about light and shadow and how to take a good photograph. If I explained my photography process most people would say, “Well, that’s wrong!” It’s not traditional but I figured out a way to take photos that works for me. What I think resonates with people is that I love inspiring them to move from the couch to the kitchen and to spend more time at the table. So I shoot a lot of larger-meal images because I want to inspire people to believe that they can have these types of meals at their house and that there doesn’t have to be any super fancy culinary skill involved — other than that the meals will be beautiful, delicious, attainable and accessible. I love hearing messages from folks who say, “Hey, I saw this photograph and recreated it for my family.” But what is so much cooler to me is that they are spending time at the table with their family. I truly believe that the more time we spend at the table… Well, that is where real life happens. As a society we need to get back to the table.
The Maritime Edit: You are inspiring people not only to eat well but also to connect with each other.
Dennis Prescott: A few months ago I received a message from a family that lives in West Africa. They said, “Hey, we wanted to thank you. We haven’t eaten this kind of food before.” And I said, “Thank you so much! Can I ask which recipe you cooked?” And they replied, “Garlic fingers with donair sauce!” That just blew my mind! You know, that is our late-night… You’ve had a couple of pints and you need a certain something! And these people in West Africa are making it. Food is the universal language and media makes the world more accessible. It’s a universal heritage that we share. Everyone loves deliciousness. Delicious is a universal language.
The Maritime Edit: It is the great myth of modern society that fast food is cheap.
Dennis Prescott: It’s so much more expensive, and the long-term repercussions are huge. I certainly would not want to judge anyone, but it is not as cheap today and not as cheap tomorrow. In 2018 we know that we are eating some stuff that we probably shouldn’t. So if you want to eat fried chicken as a treat, great. It’s delicious. But make it yourself. That way you know exactly what is in it, you can make it a lot more affordably and in the end you enjoy and take pride in something that tastes way better than takeout. It’s the same with a burger. If you want one, eat an amazing burger like Jesse Vergen’s at the Saint John Ale House. If you are craving that then eat at home five nights a week and as a treat, go and support a local restaurant. Go and have that burger. Pay a little bit more than you would to make it on your own but walk away knowing that you got a quality meal.
The Maritime Edit: Can I ask you about your UN work and what it means to you?
Dennis: I have always known that there are kids around the world who don’t have access to clean water or food. I am not an expert but I do want to help, and I have always believed that whether we speak to four people or four million people, we have a voice and can advocate that we want the world to be a more loving, joyful and caring place. And in 2018 we need that more than ever. I went to Kenya and Somalia to visit with families and cook with them. World Vision is the UN’s on-the-ground partner, and I have been involved with the World Food Programme, which is the food arm of the United Nations, helping develop a chefs’ manifesto. The goal is making it accessible so that you can play a part in the initiative if you want to. People can help with things like food sustainability, food waste, hunger… Whatever it is, you can get involved. My overall goal is to inspire people to cook more and spend more time at the table — and in doing that, inspire them to think about how they can make it possible for everyone.
The Maritime Edit: Your cookbook is being read the world over. I’m assuming that some people discover you through social media and some through the printed page.
Dennis Prescott: For sure. Here is a true story that I haven’t told anyone, so I will tell it for the first time to you. I wasn’t at all prepared to write a cookbook. But I had a dream on a Sunday night that I was writing a cookbook. I woke up and thought, well, that is weird. And that week four publishing agents reached out to me to ask if I had ever thought about writing a cookbook. In the end, I got to work with a dream publisher, HarperCollins, throughout the process. They also publish Jamie Oliver’s books in Canada, and he was the chef I learned from when I borrowed those books from the library in Nashville.
There is something about the tactile feeling of books. I talk to people all the time, and they say that a cookbook isn’t just a kitchen book for them but also a coffee-table book. They want to look at the photographs and be inspired. Like all books and printed magazines, cookbooks are not going away. No way. The convenience of e-books will never replace the tactile feeling of holding the thing in your hand. I have some books on an e-book reader but I never use it. I don’t like the experience of it. In 2018 and in the world we live in, it’s nice to have something that is not a screen. It’s nice not to have a blue light pointing at your face the whole time. It’s nice to take a break from all that, to dive into your imagination and pick up a magazine and learn about Fogo Island or a restaurant in Saint John or Halifax. It’s nice to pick up a novel or a cookbook. When you look at The Maritime Edit, it’s not just that the work is beautiful and it’s done beautifully. When you pick it up you get the feeling that you are experiencing something special.
The Maritime Edit: That’s precisely what our readers and advertisers tell us. Smart companies are moving into this idea that because we stare at our screens all day, so if you really want to reach someone and get them invested in your message, you need it to be on a printed page to give it the gravitas it deserves.
Dennis Prescott: Oh, for sure. It is ageless. I have received emails from people in their 70s who bought the book at Indigo in Winnipeg or wherever. When they read the book it reminds them of dishes that they made for their kids when they were younger. And then I get messages from kids who are 15 or 16. They are cooking through the cookbook and it is their first one. So I think social media is a great driver to make people aware, but it is not the only way to get your message out there. If someone buys your magazine at an airport or at a store, they may not know that you have a vast social media presence both as a comedian and your magazine. I am always curious as to what draws people to my cookbook. I ask, “Okay, out of all the cookbooks or magazines — and having no idea about Dennis The Prescott or The Maritime Edit, let’s say — what was it that drew you to Dennis The Prescott or to The Maritime Edit?” To me that is fascinating.
The Maritime Edit: And this beautiful place we live in works differently from everywhere else.
Dennis Prescott: It’s grounding and I love it. I love living in Atlantic Canada for the same reason that everyone loves living in Atlantic Canada, and I have zero intention of moving elsewhere. Because I travel so much people ask me all the time, “When are you moving to Toronto or New York?” I mean, is “never” an option? It is not that I don’t love going to those places, because I do. But we have something really special here. The people are the place. We have access to wonderful food and the incredible outdoors, but it’s the people that make it. We are not being inundated in the same way that people elsewhere are. Even our big cities are small towns.
The Maritime Edit: Something that we try to celebrate in the magazine is the idea of being world class from a small place. Sometimes in a small place (and I don’t mean just here) there can be a temptation to just be “good enough.”
Dennis Prescott: I have always been one hundred percent. It goes even beyond passionate. It’s whatever the positive word is for being obsessive. If you are not going to shoot for the best and fully immerse yourself in what you are doing and strive to be your best version of your creative self, you will never be fully satisfied. Even if you are able to make a living, you won’t be creatively satisfied. It is because you are not embracing your desire to strive for excellence and get better at something every day.
The other part of that is that in 2018 we live and consume globally. There is no longer “this is good enough for a small town” if you are actively engaged in the global world, especially on the internet or if you read magazines. People in the UK, America, the Dominican Republic, Southeast Asia and New Brunswick are following me and reading your magazine. So when they are looking at creatives, I understand that they are not comparing me with others living in New Brunswick. They are comparing me with people living in the UK, America or elsewhere in the world. It is not a competitive thing but a reality, living in 2018. I just want to do the best I can do. I also feel that I have a responsibility, to be honest with you, to give the people who are following me the best that I can every day. I wouldn’t be satisfied if I didn’t do that.
The Maritime Edit: It’s so nice to hear someone else say this.
Dennis Prescott: I was saying this to someone yesterday: Not only are the people running The Maritime Edit super cool and not only is what you are doing with the magazine cool, but you also have the other parts of your careers. And it is the fact that someone is finally saying, “We have something unique. We have something special here, and let’s shoot for the best we can. Let’s put it in a magazine that is world class, that is comparable to what is being done everywhere else. Let’s highlight these amazing stories and let’s do it with excellence.” It is so exciting, really.
I work with World Vision International for the UN, and we are developing a chefs’ manifesto so that chefs all over the world have a document they can refer to if they want to contribute and help tackle food issues like global hunger, food sustainability and food diversity. I was in London cooking in October. Arthur Potts Dawson is a chef from London who has done very well for himself, and while we were cooking in this outdoor garden, he asked, “So where in Canada are you from?” So I told him that I am from the East Coast. He goes, “Where on the East Coast?” And I told him that I was about two hours from Halifax. He said, “Where exactly?” I replied, “Well, I am from a city called Moncton, New Brunswick.” And he said, “I have a bucket list of places I want to go in the world for food. I want to go to Japan, India and a few other places. But the number one bucket-list food vacation for me is to go to Moncton, New Brunswick. I want to go into the maple woods to do the pancake dinner at a sugar shack and have maple syrup on the snow with a popsicle stick with my kids. I want to have the maple experience.” And this is a world-renowned chef. He could go anywhere he wants and he wants to come to New Brunswick. A Seattle chef known for having the best oysters in the world said, when he heard I was from New Brunswick, that I couldn’t try his because, as he put it, “You have the best in the world there.” The good experiences we have here are ones that you can’t get anywhere else. And I love sharing those stories because I come across people who have a real desire and affinity for what we have here. We know that we have the world’s best lobsters and oysters, but what we don’t know is that the rest of the world knows it too.
The Maritime Edit: It is so interesting to hear you say that because there is a tendency for people from here to talk down about the place in which they live.
Dennis Prescott: For sure. We have our challenges but everywhere has challenges. But we live in a little nirvana. Beyond the fact that we are able to live economically and experience the outdoors in the way that we do, the people here are unique. I have been all over the world and have met amazing people, but there is something special about being from here. I am biased because I am from here, but there is something special about this area. There is a kindness toward people, a down-to-earth quality in people that I have yet to experience anywhere else. Your magazine captures this magically, and I will do whatever I can do to let people around the world know about it. I really believe in what you guys are doing, and the quality and passion are there. That means something and will make a difference.
This story originally appeared in The Maritime Edit magazine. To subscribe, please click here