Let’s Dish:

Ottawa Business Journal - Ottawa at Home - - WHAT’S INSIDE - Writ­ten by PAULA ROY Like a Chef Photography by MARK HOLLERON Cook

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.

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