Michael Hay may be young, but his food knowledge is vast and wise
IN THE KITCHEN WITH CHEF MICHAEL HAY You’ve spent the better part of the past dozen years in restaurant kitchens. What inspired you to become a chef?
I got a job as a dishwasher in a Kingston restaurant at age 15. I asked the chef if I could cook instead and he kind of took me under his wing, training me from scratch. I was pretty much hooked. I flirted with academia for a bit when I moved to Ottawa in 2002 but cooking won out. Chef Michael Hay of the Courtyard Restaurant knows more than a thing or two about making culinary magic. This acclaimed young chef is just 27 years old but has been cooking professionally since high school and his passion for producing inventive, delicious food is constantly increasing. Known best for his creative and playful approach to cooking, Michael is a big fan of applying modern cooking techniques to a wide range of seasonal ingredients. Can you recall one event or person that had a big impact on your chosen career path? I remember watching the TV show
with Rene Rodriguez, who had just recently graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa. It was shortly after that that I decided to pursue my passion for food full-time. Although I’d had no formal training at that point, I did have seven years of hands-on experience and found some great mentors. Happily, a few years later I actually ended up working with Rene at the Black Cat Bistro. You are admittedly a fan of what you describe as “modern cooking”, which uses unique new techniques and specialized equipment to produce surprising and delicious results. How did you get interested in this culinary alchemy?
When I was working under Chef Marc Lepine here at the Courtyard a few years ago, the atmosphere in his kitchen was really supportive. Marc was very creative with his flavours and presentation, while still using traditional techniques. We began exploring modern cooking together, buying interesting ingredients like xanthan gum and agar agar, then playing around with them, as well as experimenting with sous vide cooking. Modern cooking, what some refer to as molecular gastronomy (not a name I prefer), is really just a tool to make things more delicious. Having a new toolbox to cook with definitely helps us make magic in the kitchen; meats cooked sous vide are more unctuous; ice cream made with liquid nitrogen is smoother. Do you think your relatively young age is an asset as you continue to experiment with new ideas?
Absolutely! Because of my youth, I place a high emphasis on having fun in the kitchen, which gives me the desire and energy to be creative. I want to play around with ingredients and methods to make food that is more interesting or visually appealing while still being delicious. You’ve made a commitment to developing seasonal menus at the Courtyard. What is your design process?
It’s actually quite calm and controlled, and done very much in collaboration with other senior members of our team as we discuss, distil and create. My food brain never turns off but I can’t write a menu at home, sitting at my desk – I have to be on my feet, in the kitchen. I set myself a constant challenge to keep things fresh, as well as to keep our staff motivated and on their toes. We started working on our spring menu in November so we’d have lots of time to develop and test new dishes. How do you stay on top of the everchanging culinary world?
I probably spend 10 hours a week reading cookbooks and blogs and I often use Twitter to ask questions of famous chefs regarding techniques I want to try. I also enjoy learning from talented people via Youtube. I love that the food world is becoming so open source. My learning journey is ongoing and I feel very blessed that this is my life.