It was with pleasure that I accepted Eugene Meehan, Q.C.’s invitation to share here some advice after 36 years of legal practice and also to share with you all my recipes after nearly 25 years of teaching Italian cooking on the side of a busy law practice.
A Long Friendship
My friendship with Eugene goes back 38 years to the University of Alberta Law School in 1982 when he was my Company Law professor. He was a great teacher and motivator even though, to a young Ukrainian Canadian prairie boy’s ears, his Scots accent was hard to get used to (Was it the “Green Grocers” case? The “Gringrose” case? And what was it in dealing with corporations that was a “trrrrrrap for the unwary”?). And I will never forget that last thing he told our class as he finished his last lecture of the semester—a very Scottish and stern admonition to “Go forth and be productive members of society!” So, thanks to Eugene, I tried to be.
Cooking Italian on the Side
After law school Eugene and I actually followed similar paths in life. In addition to practising law and being a “productive member of society”, I followed my passion for all things Italian. I grew up with Italian immigrant neighbours who ignited my love for Italian food. They were right out of central casting—from Sepino in Campobasso, Molise, they lived in their basement and kept all the furniture upstairs covered in the plastic it came with. Their family crucifix was life size. They made their own wine, and they sterilized rubber boots so that the kids could crush the grapes the traditional way. Their house always smelled of fresh bread, roasted peppers and fermenting vino. My love affair with Italy began in that basement in southwest Calgary.
I traveled to Italy for the first time right before I started articling in 1984 and not only did I return, but I have been fortunate to live there for large chunks of time. The first time I lived there was in 1996 in a little village of 50 people in Tuscany in the Garfagnana Valley called Vagli Sotto. While there, I was adopted by the town and all of the women invited me into their kitchens to show me how to cook the local specialties—farro, rabbit with tiny olives, ravioli stuffed with stinging nettles and, of course, the porcini mushrooms which grew under the apron of tall chestnut trees carpeting the valley.
When I got home from Vagli Sotto I had recipes that no one in North America had yet discovered. Through my brother (the famous Bar-be-que evangelist and cookbook author Rockin’ Ronnie Shewchuk), I got invited to a regular Sunday night gathering where chefs and people in the food industry would cook for each other and show off new things. My new Italian stuff knocked people out. In attendance was a young woman named Gail Norton, who was about to open a cooking school. She asked if I would teach my Tuscan recipes at her new school, and my career as an Italian chef was born. It was 1996—there was no Food TV, no Emeril, no “Bam!”, and no Barefoot Contessa. Foodies were clamoring to learn about different and strange new dishes and I went on to become one of the most notable and quotable Italian food authorities in Alberta. Not bad for a fat Slavic kid.
Eventually I also started to teach courses about Italian wine and cooked dinners for visiting Italian winemakers. I took advantage of a chance to live in Florence and actually retired from law for a couple years and lived above the Porta Romana in a little house on Machiavelli’s old estate. I wrote the back page of Calgary’s food magazine for fifteen years.
Since I have returned to law I am known as the Italophile at the Calgary Bar. It got to the point in pre-trial conferences where before setting a trial date, the Judge would turn to me and say “When will you be in Italy, Mr. Shewchuk?” My Italy schedule trumped my law schedule. I have been an Italian wanna-be and have gotten to live my dreams.
Not to be Outdone
Eugene, of course, outdid me by going the extra step and marrying a beautiful and brilliant Italian woman, his Giovanna (that’s Madam Justice Roccamo [ret’d] to the rest of us). I love that he talks about going to see Nonna. And I love that he is getting stuffed with Italian food like a little porchetta. Eugene’s conversion to a pseudo-Italiano has also been a touchstone in our friendship as I often receive envelopes containing articles about Italian travel and the political climate in Italy included. He is “IBM”, Italian By Marriage.
It was in response to a letter from Eugene this Easter that I sent him the attached recipes for him and his family. They were accumulated from all of my cooking classes over the past 24 years and cover every region of Italy including recipes I learned from my travels there. And the reason the recipes got assembled in the first place leads to another bond I have with Eugene—teaching at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law. It is there that I annually teach a class in Professional Responsibility, but I did it al modo mio—my way.
Professional Responsibility and Pasta
Thanks to another dear friend of mine, the brainy and beauteous Professor Annalise Acorn from the U of A’s Faculty of Law, I have been invited to teach the year-end Professional Responsibility class, and while I am lecturing and talking to students, I cook for them and give them recipes to take away with them.
So I pack up my portable kitchen with induction burners, pots, knives, cutting boards and colanders and head north where Professor Acorn and I do all of the food prep together, set the desks with white napkins and plates and commence a three hour mix of ethics, personal life advice, law and spaghetti cacio e pepe. The students are so engaged and into the discussion that at times it has felt like a good dinner party.
The topics discussed varied from work-life balance to how alcohol-centric the legal profession can be, to how to avoid the mistakes that get lawyers into disciplinary troubles, and to the importance of emphasizing one’s talents. On the latter subject, I talk about how my whole life my strongest attribute is that I have always been funny. It came naturally to me since I was a kid, and throughout my life it has gotten me into groups in junior and high school that I would never have penetrated since I am not an athlete nor a remarkably attractive guy. It also distinguished me in Law School, with Eugene admitting that on the group photo of our class that he was given to help identify students in our Company Law class, he wrote beside my picture “funny”. It made me stand out, and endeared me to professors and other students.
An interesting thing happened when in every class when Prof. Acorn and I would ask the students to write down on a slip of paper their own strength. Not once did any of the student’s strengths overlap. There were descriptions such as “dependable”, “caring”, “emotionally strong”, “kind”, and “loyal”. It was so interesting that everyone had a different thing that they thought was their best attribute, and it wove well into talking about how to sell yourself in a job interview or when working at a law firm. I learned a lot from these young students while I stirred my risotto for them.
Toward the end of the lecture, after a lot of carbohydrates, I offer the students my list of ten things I think they need to do or know how to do which will help them with their careers and lives. It is based on my personal experience of navigating through a large firm, a boutique firm, an association of practices and a sole practice as well as being a road map for life its own self. And, I am so happy that I have a top ten list because, well, no one loves a numbered list more than Eugene. If I could incorporate bullet points, Eugene would have this submission framed and put on his wall. But I digress.
So here are the top ten things I think everyone should be able to do to be successful and fulfilled in a law career and in life:
- Learn to Cook One Signature Dish
This may seem trivial in the grand scheme of a law career, but this is good advice I am giving you. At many points in your life, and your career, you will be asked to host a dinner or brunch or lunch. A lot of people just call in the caterers, but, a more personal and impressive thing to do is to do the cooking yourself. In my view it does not have to be a fancy or complicated dish. It is just way more impressive than having the guy (or gal) from Skip the Dishes show up while your guests are having cocktails.
I tell the students that they are lucky to live in the internet age. There are instructional videos that can help you to master fail-safe and impressive dishes out there which I never had when I was younger. So you can learn to make a perfect omelette from Jacques Pepin but be forewarned: it is not as easy as he makes it look and practice makes perfect. Or you can make a beautiful vegan dish that all will love if you watch the amazing Alison Roman make her famous chickpea stew. Or you can watch the late, great Tony Bourdain make a beef bourguignan as he gives you the same lecture I am giving you about it being an essential life skill to learn how to cook at least one thing well.
On a non-law related tangent, if you want to make yourself attractive as a sexual or life partner to someone else, being handy in the kitchen is an asset. I don’t think there is a better way to seduce anyone than by having them sit at the counter and watch you cook. Worked for me with my beautiful wife. I’m not sayin’. I’m just sayin’….
- Be Able to Order a Failsafe Wine Off of a Wine List
This is obviously not a skill for those who do not imbibe, nor should it be. But if you are hosting clients or other lawyers and the wine list comes to you, there is nothing sadder than saying that you do drink wine but you don’t have a clue, and so someone else, or the server has to decide for you. This is not to say that you need an encyclopedic knowledge of wine. On the contrary, as impressive as it is to be able to order a decent wine from a list, there is nothing more off-putting than coming across as a wine snob. Wine snobbery has the effect of making one look like an ass while at the same time making others feel inferior. Not what you are shooting for.
What you are shooting for is for a country you know, an area or appellation you know, a varietal you know, and if you are lucky, a label or producer you are familiar with. For me, being an Italophile, I know my Italian wines very well. But when choosing for others I often choose a wine with universal appeal like a white Burgundy or for red a California Cabernet Sauvignon. It is that simple. And once you get down to this threshold, you can look at price and make a fairly reasoned decision. Other things to learn and know are basic pairings—if you are in an Italian joint, then you cannot go wrong by ordering a wine from the Bolgheri area with most items and if you are in a French bistro a Côtes du Rhône is almost never a bad choice for red. And the fun is in the learning. So just pay attention—when you taste something you like, make a note to yourself. This is not rocket science (or, as Kid Rock says, not rocket surgery). Pay attention!
- Be Able to Tell One Great Story About Yourself
Okay—I’m not talking here about a story as long as War and Peace where you ruin a dinner party by droning on, and on and on. I am talking about something interesting and maybe funny or horrifying that you have been through. Usually it may involve travel or a family story or some major blooper in your life, but it just needs to be good and interesting. It is great to have a remarkable story when with clients or with other lawyers or with friends. It is a great way to get strangers to remember you. There must be at least one thing that you have experienced or done that makes a great story. Think about it, refine it, learn how to tell it and then use it. It will make you memorable. That is a good thing.
A warning for lawyers though: no one likes to hear a law/courtroom/questioning story that goes on forever in real time. There is one lawyer who I know that we nick-named “Verbatim Reporting Services” because all of his stories were blow by blows of court applications. You know the kind: “So I said. And then he said. And then I said. And then the Judge said. Etc. Etc.” One of my favorite law stories is about a prominent lawyer who took over a group dinner in a restaurant and went through every step of his seven year lawsuit. At the end one of the guests sighed “Thank God they abolished appeals to the Privy Council….!” So, interesting and short please…and good. Thank you.
- Be Able to Tell One Good Joke
This may seem like a difficult life skill if you are not a natural joke teller or funny person, but, it isn’t hard to learn one good gag. And, it cannot be politically incorrect. And it cannot be offensive. It just has to be witty or good. And it often can be situational—I often rely on good, old, clean Catskills humor. It was what we watched on Ed Sullivan when I was growing up. And it works.
For example, a friend was recently showing off his new hearing aids which paired with his Bluetooth. So I immediately thought about the old guy who comes back to the nursing home and his pal says “Hey, why the big smile?” And the old guy says “I just got this new hearing aid!”. The pal says “Great. What kind is it?” And the old guy looks at his watch and says “Four o’clock!”.
See what I did just there? I have a stable of inoffensive gags that I can pull out of my memory. I have some racier ones for the right crowd. But one good joke is an asset that, once again, can leave an impression on people or break the ice at a dreadful client function. Learn one. Tell it well. Never offend.
- Be Able to Sing at Least One Karaoke Song
Some of you are now thinking: I don’t cook and I can’t tell a joke and now he wants me to sing? But the fact is: everybody can sing at least one song. You must know “You are my Sunshine” for God’s sake! Everybody has a range they can sing in. And the thing about karaoke, is that it is all about getting up and doing it—the singing isn’t the important thing. It is participating—which will stand you in good stead at a firm or client event if you are just a good sport.
I learned how important this skill was from my son Daniel, who studied for a couple years in China. He can do very good Mandarin karaoke and it is a cool thing to watch what a great reaction he gets when he does his greatest hit “The Moon Represents My Heart” in Chinese, and he really hams it up and sells it. I told him how impressive it is and he downplayed his accomplishment by telling me it would be like a non-English speaker singing the Beatles “Love, Love Me Do”. The lyrics aren’t exactly Shakespeare. And so for everyone, remember, you don’t have to do Bohemian Rhapsody, you just have to do a simple song well (or not well, which is also very entertaining).
For me, karaoke is about a song exactly in my vocal range—I Left My Heart in San Francisco—which I do a very big ending for. Always brings down the house. And if I get to sing with a band, even better, since I do what I call the “Three Chord Medley” of “Louie, Louie” and “Hang on Sloopy”. I can be a real nuisance if a microphone is provided to me, but it has also helped me in my career by being someone willing to get up and do it. In fact, it may have made my career….
- Be Able to Get By in One Other Language
Maybe I was lucky to be raised in a home where about half the time, Ukrainian was spoken. Other languages seem to come easily to me. I can converse in English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Ukrainian and Russian. And when traveling I have learned enough Czech, Croatian and Amharic to get by on a day to day basis. It has been a godsend while abroad, but also helpful in terms of developing a connection with people in my practice and in my life.
I learned early that in Germany, for example, most people my age speak at least three languages almost fluently from studies in school. And that continuing education in languages, especially English, is super important. And it is good for your brain. I have been so impressed with people who work at it into adulthood that I have taken up a daily Italian regimen. I am far from fluent, at least until I am into the second bottle of wine, at which point my Italian appears to flourish. But it is a life and career skill that opens doors, even if fluency is not present. The chance to work internationally really isn’t there unless you can get by in a language, and sometimes that is all it takes to get an opportunity. And even knowing a little of a country’s language when you are there makes people automatically friendly and helpful—they appreciate the effort. So go for it.
To not be able to navigate even superficially in both official languages in Canada is a sin. Bon. Voila.
- Be Conversant About Your Favourite Book, Movie or Song
When in doubt in any social situation about what to talk about, inevitably you can make conversation about a book, show or song. And if you have favourites then become familiar with them – know something about the author, the plot, the actor, the director or the songwriter. In the Covid era everybody I know has a favourite Netflix show or series. If you really enjoy something then learn some trivia about it—chances are you will find someone who loves the same content you do but who doesn’t know the backstory. But, as with being a wine snob, don’t be the person who knows so much that you take over the conversation and bore the hell out of everybody. But knowing something interesting is, well, interesting.
Books especially are great ways to make connections with people. You can tell a lot about people by what they read (or if they read books—think of Donald Trump holding up the Bible- as if he had read even a page…..). Asking someone at a client function what they are reading these days is a great entrée to a conversation and lets people know that as a lawyer, you are not only interested in the most recent Supreme Court of Canada case. (Sorry to all at Supreme Advocacy…)
- Know A Little Something About Every Sport
This may fall into the karaoke zone if you are not a sports person. But the fact is, that now sports is the universal language. Wherever you go, you will find someone who will want to talk to you about the local sport or team. This is especially true when cities or countries are caught up in the frenzy that is their team in the thick of things. I can point to the Raptors’ run at the championship as a good example. My wife, who hates sports, couldn’t wait to watch the next game.
So learn something about every sport so you can connect with almost anyone. I have had to learn from scratch about sports I have never really watched (like cricket) or sports I have never played (like soccer). These two are the most popular sports on the planet. It doesn’t take much effort and it will stand you in good stead with people who are into it, and, most people are into some sport. All it takes is a little effort each day to look at the sporting news.
I worked with a lawyer who knew nothing about sports but before he left for a client lunch always took the time to look at the paper to see the latest sports news. I gave him a toehold to make conversation and it was a great way to connect. I used to think this was pathetic, but, I came to realized how smart he was. You need a way to connect with people and this is a good one to foster.
- Understand/Learn About Your Own Politics and History
The rule is that in conversations or at dinner parties you should never talk about sex, politics or religion. It is a pretty good rule and one I have adhered to. But these days you may be called upon in more private company to talk politics. It is a slippery slope to be managed with great dexterity. But when pressed, you need to be able to say where you stand in a composed and non-aggressive way. And it should be frank and unapologetic. It will let people know (hopefully) what is onside or offside for you. And you should be able to explain why you got to where you are politically.
In my life, I was raised by firm New Democrats. Whenever a leader, provincially or federally, came to Calgary (always dangerous), my mother was enlisted to cook Ukrainian food for them. We hosted David Lewis and Grant Notley and this was what I grew up around my dinner table with but I have as an adult had my own considered political philosophy. And so should you.
Ask yourself where you fit on the spectrum politically. Ask the hard questions about the hot button issues. And have your own beliefs. Don’t be a sheep. And then be able to tell someone why you are where you are. I was a child whose father played records of great Tommy Douglas speeches to us while we were in our pyjamas and made us listen. I have moved from that but it is interesting to tell people why. I say it again: Don’t be a sheep. Consider this and make your own path to where you belong. And be able to discuss this intelligently.
- Stay Interested in ALL Areas of the Law
Finally, although you are out of Law School and never have to write another paper or take a mandatory class in an area you don’t practise in—keep up with all areas of the law. Not only is it good for your brain to expand your horizons, it keeps sharpened the skill-set you learn in law school. And that is why I think I await my emails from Supreme Advocacy; it is an easy way to keep up with Charter cases, criminal law and other interesting areas of the law I would never read about.
I think as a trained lawyer I should be able to at least converse or have some idea about the state of the law that laymen would be interested in. Wills and Estates. Criminal. Family. All of these areas are ones I am routinely asked about at cocktail or client functions. To at least be alive to the issues is important and is as important as NOT dispensing advice about areas of the law that I am not practising in. So keep in touch with your legal education. You never know when you may have to venture into things that are still in the back of your lizard brain. It is good for you.
Thanks Eugene for asking me to submit something. I am proud of the recipes I am offering to you all. They are a labour of love. And a quarter century in the making.
And to all the young lawyers reading this: Go forth and be productive members of society!
Allan Shewchuk, Q.C., Calgary litigator, email@example.com