Interview: Chef Junishi Ikematsu from Montreal’s Jun-i Restaurant

It is unsurprising that Chef Junishi Ikematsu, Head Chef and Co-owner of Jun-i Restaurant in Montreal, would cite teamwork as one of the key ingredients to his restaurant’s success. The interplay between ingredients is the core makeup of excellent, fresh food just as the chemistry between kitchen staff influences the product. Chef Ikematsu has been cooking since he was a teenager. “I liked to eat,” the Chef says with a laugh, explaining that his mother was an excellent cook and that that likely influenced his own love of food. Chef Ikematsu began working in kitchens in high school when he got a job prepping noodles at a Chinese restaurant. He then worked at Manyoken, a classic French restaurant in Kyoto that is more than 100 years old.

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After years of preparing French food in Japan, where he also trained as a chef, Ikematsu moved to Montreal at the age of 24. His decision to come to Canada was based on the advice of a friend who already lived here. Chef Ikematsu’s first foray into the Montreal dining scene was working at a sushi restaurant. Now, he co-owns Jun-i on Laurier Avenue, a fantastic and creative restaurant that incorporates both French and Japanese flavours. The Chef calls it “mixing Japanese style with Quebec ingredients.” French and Japanese cuisine are always at the heart of his preparations. The Canadian often comes into play with the use of ingredients like venison which is not typically used in Japanese cooking. The venison tataki at Jun-i is just one example of Ikematsu’s merging of cultures. He aims to incorporate the traditional style of Japanese cooking, which is very different from what we typically find in North American Japanese restaurants.

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Central to Jun-i are a myriad of concerns, the most important of which is respect. “You must respect the food, the customers – everything,” explains Ikematsu on his philosophy behind the sushi bar and as a restaurateur. “Hospitality and the care of ingredients” are of tantamount importance and the kitchen aims to “put their passion inside the food.” Without passion, the Chef says, you simply cannot make good food. Part of Chef’s passion involves sourcing ingredients and insuring his sushi rice is perfect. “Rice is very important,” he says, citing preparation mode and timing as the key elements. Chef mixes his rice with seasoning, vinegar, salt and sugar and says it’s as important as the fish. “If we don’t have good rice, we can’t make good sushi” and it can take years to learn to make it properly. As for fish, Chef uses four suppliers for his, two in Japan and two local. The fish from Japan comes from Fukuoka and Kyushu and travels from water to table in one day. It takes 24-30 hours to ship the fish to Montreal. But before that, it is auctioned at 3:00 AM in Japan and flown to Montreal via Hong Kong and Vancouver. Talk about frequent flier miles. Fresh fish arrives three times a week from Japan. Ikematsu also sources tuna from Mexico, bio salmon from British Columbia, sea bass from Greece and arctic char from Gaspé, Quebec.


Once it arrives at Jun-i, Chef and his team of 10 get to work. The team is made up of sushi, kitchen and dessert chefs. There are also two partners in the restaurant, Ped Phimphrakeo and Jonathan Daunais, both of whom met Ikematsu from working together in other restaurants; they opened together Jun-i in 2005. The need for teamwork again comes into play outside of the kitchen with the administrative staff, waiters, dishwashers and cooks all working as one to create a seamless guest experience. Their passion and inspiration is derived from talking about new ingredients and Chef’s own trips back to Japan to “keep the Japanese flavour and way.”

In a restaurant that blends so many food traditions so meticulously, it’s no surprise that Ikematsu recommends pairing Japanese food with wine, even over sake. Jun-i serves a lot of Ontario wine particularly from Ontario based Norman Hardie Winery and Vineyards and Stratus Vineyards which with the restaurant collaborates on an annual co-branded event. Japanese food has subtle flavours, advises Chef Ikematsu, and doesn’t require a wine that is too strong or powerful. Delicate and fruity wines that are sweet at the beginning and dry often pair well with the Japanese flavour profile. Opt for a reisling over a wine that is oaky.
On the topic of wine, Chef Ikematsu says the best kept secrets about Montreal are the large number of tapas places, the many different kinds of restaurants and the bevy of natural wine bars. If you’re looking for him off duty, you may find the Chef having a glass and a snack at Buvette Chez Simone. “The place is amazing,” he raves.
At home, Chef’s wife is the leader in the kitchen. With two fridges – one upstairs and one downstairs – the Ikematsu residence is always well stocked. Meat, pork, fish, beef, daishi, seaweed, kombu, oranges and apples are all on the menu. The Chef sometimes cooks noodles for lunch and in summer the barbecue is often in use. Ikematsu, who enjoys summertime half marathons and gym workouts in the winter, has two sons and one daughter. His 21-year-old son has been working at Jun-i for the past four years and also studies cooking at ITHQ (Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie).

Articles and social media posts about chefs and their food have been common but Ikematsu stresses that his best advice for aspiring cooks is that “it’s not only making food, it’s working for a living. Always respect other people – coworkers, customers.”

 

 

The Thing About Miss Thing’s – Chef Jasper Wu and Head Barman Robin Wynne

FOMO is a real thing. Especially when you’re waiting at the bus stop in -6 degrees, pulling your tuque lower over your forehead to brace yourself against the next gust of wind. Or retrieving lunch in the PATH to avoid bundling up in 10 layers to hit the street. Thankfully, Miss Thing’s is the perfect antidote to the mid-February Canadian winter blues. Head Barman, Robin Wynne, evokes images of being on vacation in the Caribbean and drinking out of coconuts. “Why not just bring it to Canada and have those memories fresh and make you feel happy and warm because you remember that from when you were on vacation?” Wynne asks. It’s a provoking question, likely why Miss Thing’s is at its busiest during our harsh winter months (though, it’s admittedly busy year-round). From Wynne’s cocktails playfully contained in pineapples, coconuts and speciality cups that include seahorse-themed ceramics to Head Chef Jasper Wu’s “Modern Polynesian, Pan-Asian cuisine,” Miss Thing’s is definitely the thing. On a recent sit-down with Wu and Wynne, the barman summed the experience up perfectly: “the music, the tropical disco, the vibe, the food, the drinks all come together to create an experience.”

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The interplay between food and drink is something the creative duo have considered carefully. During their monthly rum dinners, they work together to pair the alcohol and food perfectly. “I pick out caramel or vanilla in the rum and I think about cake or crème anglaise,” says Wu. “We have to work together,” Wynne adds. “If he’s using yuzu in something that’s like super tart, do I have something that’s not so tart just to balance those flavors? Or do I continue on with the tartness?” But marrying food and drink isn’t just a Wu-Wynne Clan exercise; it involves the entire team. Servers too must have tried and be able to recommend pairings. Wynne recommends the Fuzzy Wawa and the pineapple fried rice. The drink has coconut and the rice has pineapple; together they form the flavour palate of a piña colada.

 

The Miss Thing’s menu changes every season, with core dishes remaining. Chef Wu’s team of four – including himself – incorporates tradition into their dishes. The Chef explains that he begins designing a dish by researching classic flavour combinations associated with a particular ingredient. “I think chefs are more DJs than composers,” he says. “Very few of us have actually composed, note by note, a song. It’s always an existing song, an existing dish like pasta Bolognese, paella. These are things already out there and it’s the chef that plays with it.” For example, a mushroom pancake dish influenced by a traditional braised beef pancake from China’s Xi’an region capitalized instead on mushroom season and benefited from a garnish of black garlic crema sauce. This is how Chef Wu describes his mixing style: “it’s always based on something that already exists and I interpret it with local ingredients or something that I personally like.”

Wu calls Chef Susur Lee, under whom he previously worked at Bent, a “jazz musician who likes to improvise” more than Wu does in the Miss Thing’s kitchen. The Bent kitchen environment was “still focused but a lot more chaotic” than his. Wu grew up in Hong Kong tasting many different cuisines. “I ate sushi when I was 10. I don’t understand this kid’s menu culture,” he says. If you ask him his favourite meal, he’ll praise his mother’s home cooking. Every New Year, Mrs. Wu makes a feast with steamed fish, braised pork belly, deep fried squab and lettuce wraps with dried oysters and daikon. “I’ve got to get that recipe from her,” Wu adds.

Robin Wynne’s mixology style seems to be quite different from Wu’s creative process. Wynne draws influence from travelling and experiencing “different drink cultures.” One of his favourite ways of getting local inspiration is to walk through Chinatown and return to the bar with various random ingredients, then test them out. “It’s almost like a science experiment,” says Wynne. “Sometimes you hit a home run and sometimes you strike out. Luckily, having worked with a lot of ingredients before, I understand the general direction in which to go.” Fun Chinatown finds include yellow preserved olives with the texture of orange rind and which have a “weird salty sweetness” as well as dried hawthorne berries.

Neither Wynne nor Wu is a classically trained chef; they both learned to cook in restaurant jobs. Wu began with a love of dining out which ultimately drove him into pastry at the kitchen at ki on Bay and Wellington. Wynne worked for Prime Restaurants and went from kitchen to management to bartending. Both advocate for the importance of learning on the job over traditional training. “Chefs that go out front will make the best bartenders because they’ve already got that blueprint in their mind of what flavours work well,” says Wynne on his transition to mixology. Much of his job is “guest experience” driven and involves multitasking cocktail making and engaging with guests. Not surprisingly, this involves lots of chats about Tinder, Bumble and dating in general. “The cocktail is secondary to the guest experience,” he insists. “Is it actually true that people come in and download their problems onto you?” I ask. “100 percent. It’s easier to talk to a complete stranger than someone they know and your friends are always gonna tell you ‘he was an idiot.’” Wynne is always happy to offer an unbiased opinion.

At home, Wynne’s bar is as well stocked as a restaurant’s. He shows me a picture of rows of bottles. “Some people collect stamps,” Wynne jokes, explaining that his collection includes some 100 bottles. He also rents a wine storage unit. Though he appreciates and enjoys alcohol, Wynne is very conscious of the problems associated with overindulging. His first instinct “isn’t to get home and pour three fingers of scotch or whiskey or whatever or to open a bottle” and many of his bottles are gifts from friends or come from alcohol companies looking for help developing products. “I think I still have three bottles of Southern Comfort that were all confidential tester bottles for stuff they’re coming out with which are now out. There’s a black pepper, a lime and I think there’s a spicy Tabasco one too.” One of the gifts is whiskey with a scorpion and cobra in the bottle brought back from Vietnam. “When do you drink that – I don’t know, when the world’s ending,” says Wynne who jokes he is saving it for the zombie apocalypse.

Wu’s fridge isn’t quite as well maintained. “My fridge is filled with Chinese takeout,” he laughs. Though the chef cooks on days off, he buys only what he needs. The inside of his fridge is currently home to a half litre of cream he bought two months ago. “It’s cheese by now.” The pantry, meanwhile, always has several kinds of vinegar including Chinese black vinegar, which Chef uses to finish soups and sauces. “You always want to add a tiny – even a drop – of acid,” he says. He also stocks lentils and couscous so he can come home at the end of a long day, sauté sausage or chicken with some vegetables and throw them in with a pot of lentils. “This is all done within, like, five minutes. I go shower, I come out and everything’s done,” says Wu.

If you’re looking for me this winter, you’ll find me hibernating down south – or as near as I can get – drinking out of a coconut with a big sunhat and diva sunglasses at Miss Thing’s.

 

 

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All Smoke – No Mirrors: BarChef’s Frankie Solarik

A chef walks into a bar – and never walks out. It’s not the start of a joke; it’s the start of one of Toronto’s most visionary bartender’s career. Frankie Solarik, the brains behind BarChef’s mixology, is a very cool and insanely creative guy who began bartending when he was 18 years old – or 19 years ago.

One of his first bartending jobs was in London, Ontario at a cigar bar. “Being in that environment, hearing the gentlemen talk about different nuances of flavour and aroma and the particular spirits that they were drinking, I kind of fell in love with the industry,” Solarik says. In the early 2000s, he moved to New York and that was where, working as a food runner in the kitchen, he discovered bartending as a professional career. Solarik loved the “energy of the kitchen and the colors of the plates” he was bringing to guests. He began incorporating some of the ingredients he was seeing used on the plates into cocktails. “I went into it with the same perspective as making teas with the idea of steeping ingredients for a particular amount of time to draw flavour out of them,” says Solarik, who met his BarChef co-owner, Brent VanderVeen when they were both working at another Toronto restaurant. VanderVeen is “as passionate about the actual operation running smoothly and efficiently as I am with the artistic expression of the cocktails and the dishes that are coming out of the kitchen,” Solarik says, calling them the “perfect yin and yang.” The two determined to open a cocktail bar with zero restrictions in terms of ingredients.

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Eight years later, BarChef is still thriving, but Solarik’s cocktail making process has evolved dramatically. During BarChef’s renovations, the liquid connoisseur came across Anthony Bourdain’s Decoding Ferran Adria video and was exposed to molecular gastronomy for the first time. Solarik, who had entered into the field making regular cocktails, “fell in love with that approach.” It was all about chemical reactions and “creating an immersive, emotional, multi-sensory experience.”

“I had a gentleman in from chicago who was saying if you go to enjoy a very fine dining meal there’s a narrative behind that. It’s like there’s a definitive beginning, middle and end, he said. But to be able to achieve that in a glass with one cocktail is an unbelievable experience and that’s the goal for me. The goal is to tell a story at the end of the day.”

Solarik started behind the bar but as his cocktails grew more elaborate, VanderVeen suggested he move back into the kitchen to take advantage of the added space and light. If you’ve ever enjoyed a BarChef cocktail, you’ll know each one has its own narrative. Take, for example, the Day into Evening cocktail which told the story of the transition from early day into evening in the summertime. Or the Pastels of Pisco, a spring 2017 cocktail currently being perfected which celebrates pastel colors. To create these feats of creativity, Solarik uses traditional knife work cuts such as Julienne. But instead of applying these to food, “it’s the idea of taking a liqueur or some type of alcohol, manipulating that into either an ice or a gel, cutting it into traditional cuts or preparations but then manipulating that into a whole new presentation.” Other more modern techniques include sugarwork, spherification and use of agar, gelatin and liquid nitrogen. But how do you create an experience out of a cocktail when alcohol has no aroma? If you’re Frankie Solarik you use dry ice to give that cocktail an “ambient aromatic quality which essentially takes you and puts you into an experience.” He tells me about the few times his cocktails’ scents resonated so powerfully with patrons that they cried. One time he served the leather-scented Mad Man to a man who was brought back to his first baseball glove and attending games with his dad. The Spring Thaw with its aromas of cedar, grapefruit, orange blossom and soil often reminds people of being in their grandparents’ backyards. Adding scent is a presentation technique achieved by including a scented vessel with the cocktail. “The manipulation of the liquid into different textures allows me to achieve a particular experience for a guest,” Solarik explains.

Now I want to know about Solarik’s own experiences with liquid. What drinks are the best to the King of Cocktail? “There have been some amazing wines. I take a big inspiration from the wine world, as far as the amount of complexity and mouth feel,” he says, but if he could only drink one thing for the rest of his life, he would choose a double jack and coke or a classic martini. “To be honest some of the ingredients we make here take me to a very special place,” Solarik adds, citing a caraway-infused maraschino liqueur which is “otherworldly.” He also recently had some amazing whiskey at a tasting at The Aviary in Chicago.

“My goal is to have Barchef reach an international level of notoriety and create a new genre in the world of food and drink.”

BarChef – the place and the man – begs the question: “is it a cocktail because it’s alcohol based or is it a dish because it’s consumed with service ware?” The BarChef team of 15 in the kitchen refers to their cocktails as dishes. This team is comprised of all cooks and chefs because it is “easier for them to get into that perspective of execution of these types of dishes.” Solarik’s self-proclaimed obsession with his craft and ingredients is written in ink. His arms are tattooed with encyclopaedic representations of the components of his bitters – rosemary, caraway, chamomile, cacao. Ultimately, he will create a full sleeve.

At Barchef you’re never really sure if you’ve gone back in time or forward. On the one hand, Solarik is “utilizing references of nostalgia” and on the other, he strives to be the world’s first Michelin-rated bar. But regardless, there’s something in the air here and it isn’t just the lingering smoky fragrance of his signature Vanilla and Hickory Smoked Manhattan: it’s pure genius.

 

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Playing with Food: Chef Marc Lepine’s Atelier

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The best way to describe Chef Marc Lepine is to say that he is so much more than a chef; he is a true artist. Atelier, one of Canada’s best restaurants, is exactly what its name would imply: a studio where creativity is digested.

Chef Lepine has been an active member of Ottawa’s food scene since he moved to the area in 2001. “I love it here. It’s come a long way,” Lepine says about the city’s dining. Before opening Atelier eight years ago, Lepine headed up The Courtyard Restaurant’s kitchen. Though he always wanted to open his own restaurant someday, he found himself moved to action one morning when he woke up and told himself: “I’m going to start today. I don’t know how to do it, I don’t have the money to do it, but I’ll figure that out.” Less than a year later, Atelier had moved from dream to reality.


The creative chef – who not only cooks, but also plays piano – was inspired to create his “delicious, visual and fun” 12-course restaurant after realizing Ottawa did not have a place where you could enjoy a tasting menu experience that meant “a big night out.” This occasion-driven restaurant model is similar to Grant Achatz’s Chicago-based Alinea, where Chef Lepine did a stage. As for why there are 12 courses, Lepine says that though he doesn’t remember the particular reasoning behind the number, “it’s just enough courses to give people that experience of eating so many different things and it’s the right number for us and our space.” His courses are innovative and fantastical. Take, for instance, the Edible Chopin Waltz (Op. 69 No. 2), pictured. This gorgeous creation features the first few bars of this intricate piece of classical music. It is accurate to the note and Chef Lepine originally wanted to include a soundbite of himself playing the piece.

“We draw inspiration from anywhere we can really,” says Lepine who had been learning this piece on the piano when the dish was created.

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Though he is absolutely a master of his craft, the talented Chef is humble and credits his success juggling the hats of owner and chef to his “great staff” including Chef de Cuisine Jason Sawision and his “other half here at the restaurant,” award-winning Sommelier Steve Robinson.

Not only is Chef Lepine proud of his staff and the long-lasting success of his restaurant, but he has also won substantial cooking awards and holds them among his highest achievements. He won the Canadian Culinary Championship twice – an event where 11 chefs qualify from across Canada and meet in Kelowna to “cook for the title.” There are three competitions, one of which involves receiving a black box full of random ingredients and having to cook with them in only one hour. This seat-of-your-pants preparation is very different from creating a restaurant dish, which can be a “multi-week process before it hits the menu.”


Lepine prepared for his black box challenge by doing his own trial runs and was pleasantly surprised to find one of the ingredients in his game day box was one he had practiced with; he used it to make root vegetable chips perforated with a hole punch! This office tool might seem like an unusual item to find in a kitchen, but Lepine lists a host of other strange things he keeps in Atelier’s cupboards: helium and nitrogen tanks (of which there are four, one having a capacity of 230 litres), balloons used to shape things, syringes and a cotton candy machine. At home, the molecular gastronomist makes simpler food to cater to the tastes of his children. In his fridge you’d find “lots of milk for the kids, always a bottle of white wine for me, cheese – lots of cheese – Roquefort cheese all the time and lots of fruit.”

No matter whom he is cooking for, Lepine’s philosophy is the same. He hopes “they leave happy and they’ve gained something that makes them think a little differently about food and they say something like ‘wow I’ve never had anything like that.’” That’s likely what the 50 guests Lepine catered for at Ottawa’s first Dîner En Blanc thought. On “one of the hottest days that I ever remember,” Lepine created a three course menu for 50 cooking out of a tent outside City Hall. Given the delicacy of some of his culinary creations, he had to run plates indoors because of the humidity. Another exciting venture currently in the works is THRU Restaurant, a mini six-seater located at the back of the upstairs level of Atelier. This restaurant inside a restaurant is set to open soon, with the space already having been designed and created.

THRU is just one example of Lepine’s brand growing: “sometimes it might be hard to keep up the approach of being a special occasion destination place after so many years. People always like new spots and whatnot, but I’m pretty proud to say that it’s been going in an upward direction.” Maybe it’s because of all the helium in those tanks!
Photos Courtesy of Marc Lepine and Atelier Restaurant.

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Lavelle’s Chef Romain Avril: The Modern Chef

The hottest new addition to Toronto’s dining and nightlife scenes is Lavelle, a sky-high rooftop restaurant with superb views, excellent food and epic people watching. Brought to you by Trademark Hospitality Inc., Lavelle has been open since July. Trademark’s Executive Chef, Romain Avril, calls the dining experience “exquisite, breathtaking and fun.”

Chef Avril sat down with me on a busy Friday afternoon looking every part “the modern chef,” his term for the new generation, a cohort of cool, teamwork-oriented chefs who are as comfortable with an Instagram page as they are with a spatula. It’s a breed Chef Avril contrasts with the classic image of the “fat chef, grumpy and yelling,” exactly the type who bullied him in his first kitchen when he was 13 years old.

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Though he admits it’s a high-stress job, Avril leads his team of 35+ with compassion. Some use the weakest link metaphor to describe the importance of teamwork; Avril more fittingly uses a soufflé. “If one person is not doing well, the entire team is going down. It’s like a soufflé, the whole thing goes down.” And relying on your team is now more important than ever, with the chef constantly being called out of the kitchen as a front-of-house ambassador. “Really to be known to the public, you have to be accessible,” says Avril, who admits the social part of his job came less easily to him than mincing and dehydrating. “It was really hard for me because I was really shy when I was younger and I had to overcome my own self. The [chef’s] jacket helped, I think.”

As does the Chef, the venue itself has a rich interior life. Avril describes Lavelle as a perfect blend of views, atmosphere and fine dining. “I think the three together bring something that is nowhere else in Toronto. Even worldwide, I don’t think that there’s many venues that will really do the combo of nightlife, pool, bar and fine dining.” But the real challenge now is to earn recognition not just for the nightlife, but also as a fine dining restaurant. Avril says there is currently a bit of a separation between nightlifers and diners. He hopes to influence diners to mingle outside after their meal and partiers to dine in.

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These kinds of adjustments are to be expected from a new venue, even “a beast of a venue” like Lavelle. And while the guests have been familiarizing themselves with Lavelle, Avril and his team – many of whom have been working with him for years in other restaurants – have been adjusting to their new kitchen. “It’s a really great kitchen,” says Avril, who came onto the project after the layout had already been designed, but he was still able to make some changes. He eliminated the microwave, the rapid oven and the soup wells and insisted on creating a pastry station. He also had a prep space built on floor P2. As for equipment, Avril got to choose his own. His cooking style requires special tools: both hand blenders and a VitaMix, a water bath, a vacuum sealer and dehydrators are part of the mix. What struck me most about the kitchen during my tour was that it’s down a flight of stairs. Talk about good exercise!

Avril and his team are working on designing new fall items. There will two fabulous desserts – peaches and cream and a mango pavlova. The peach dessert will include pickled peaches, fresh peaches, caramelized peach purée, cashew and crème Catalan with sunflower seed ice cream. The pavlova will be a take on the traditional dessert that incorporates flavours from South Asia and South America as well as mango, pineapple, lime leaves and Thai basil.

Describing these and his other dishes, Chef Avril says: “people say ‘you’re always cooking French’ and I’m like ‘no.’ I refuse to be put into that criterion. I do not cook French. I cook modern fusion.” But though this Chef is thoroughly modern, Lavelle is sure to become a Toronto classic.

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A few more tidbits…

What’s in your Fridge?

“My fridge is literally always empty. I’m always ashamed that I can never have anyone at home. I have water bottles – that’s all I have in my fridge. Sauce for Caesar salad and mustard and ketchup. I don’t even have butter anymore. My fridge is like – it’s air.”

His Most Embarrassing Story as a Chef:

When Chef Avril was 22 or 23 years old and still living and working in the UK, he was on a team that catered a large wedding. His task was to cook the chicken. The venue was spread out across two levels and, once he had finished preparing and plating the chicken, the wait staff asked where the rest of the chicken was. The chef returned to the prep space to find that he had left four trays of chicken in the fridge – still raw. Though two thirds of the guests were already eating, Chef Avril had to rush to cook the rest of the chicken. “I wanted to be that big and try to fit in a hole and hide,” says Avril, who thankfully hasn’t made a mistake of that magnitude since.

What are Those Tattoos?

One of Chef Avril’s tattoos is a nod to his astrological sign, Scorpio. It is said that the Scorpio goes through three stages of life represented by: the scorpion (ruled by emotions and instincts), the eagle (where the Scorpio develops his talents) and the phoenix (the most evolved). Chef Avril thinks he’s currently in his eagle phase. He also has a “lovely lady” on his right forearm.

I asked if the Chef has any food-inspired tattoos and was told those are in the works. Chef Avril is planning on getting a sleeve to describe his “journey with cooking” starting from the beginning and working to present day. He hopes to include images from his travels, including the four and a half years he worked in England and his love for Canada and his native France.

On Sourcing Great Fish:

Chef Avril found a fishery in Fogo Island, Newfoundland. The owner told the chef: “we are really traditional. We do things one way. I will sell you my fish under only one condition – you come with me and you’re going to go fishing with me.” And so he did. The Chef loves that the company, which has been around for generations, films their fishing excursions and sends him the videos. “You know they’re going to be on your cutting board the next day.”

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The Marriage Between Food & Media: Chef Mike Ward

Sydney-born Chef Mike Ward is not afraid to present an honest picture of the food scene. The Toronto resident and food journalist epitomizes the marriage between food and media, writing for various outlets and creating food content in a career he calls a “mixed and unusual bag.”

After high school, Ward had an Eat Pray Love moment, traveling throughout southeast Asia and India and noting that all of his memories from this yearlong trip were “based on stuff that I put in my mouth.” Thus was born a lifelong love of food and Ward cooked in restaurants for the next 10 years. At that point, he moved into a career in media, editing commercials; directing and producing lifestyle series on travel, food and home renovations; and working on sitcoms. But the way to this man’s heart was certainly through his stomach and he longed for a way to get back to his real passion: food.

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Ward, who serves as part-time Food Editor-in-Chief for Canadian Living magazine, explains that “a lot of people that are out there in the food space often approach it from a bit of an elitist standpoint and put cooking and the world of food on a pedestal.” He admires chefs like Anthony Bourdain who “speaks what is on his mind.” This kind of honesty is not always easy, especially for restaurant chefs who must advocate using only the best ingredients all the time to attract customers. Ward explains that “what a lot of people aren’t talking about it is that a chef is trained in the accounting of food – how to monetize food and develop a menu so that you’re generating revenue from it.” This is one of the reasons seasonal ingredients are a main staple on many menus; they maximize the restaurant’s food spending.

But chefs also understand “what the reality of food looks like to everybody.” Ward, for instance, says he cannot go to Whole Foods and spend fifty dollars on steaks every night. In his fridge, Ward always has condiments, wine, eggs and fresh herbs. Canned ingredients are also useful when cooking in a pinch. He suggests one easy side dish – a can of beans or chickpeas mixed with herbs and olive oil. Canned salmon or tuna mixed with herbs, beans, olive oil, salt and pepper is another great recipe – a salad that Ward estimates would cost $16.00 in an Italian restaurant and which you can replicate for about $3.00. And Ward has thrilling advice for the most amateur of cooks: “we’re intuitively born to know how to cook. What I mean by that is our taste buds tell us exactly what to do. If it’s not sweet, you add something sweet. If it’s dull, you add acidity.” To be sure, chefs’ training lets them “articulate or translate what our tongue is already telling us” but Ward advocates fearlessness when learning to cook as that’s how you push your boundaries and really learn. He calls his own cooking process surprisingly “unplanned and on the fly.” What becomes clear from talking to Ward is that food is a passion, it’s not fuel and it’s not something that must be stuffy and overly planned.

“People don’t come over for dinner for the food. They come over to your house for dinner to enjoy your company. I think the fondest memories we have in life are not the recollection of what we had for dinner it’s who you were with, it’s how late you stayed up, it’s the music you listened to.”

This warm, low-fuss attitude to hosting and creating is inspiring. Ward laughs “the more you feed them wine, the better the cooking tastes.” With that in mind, dinner’s still in the oven, would you like another glass of wine while we wait?

Photos courtesy of Mike Ward.

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Richard Irving, Executive Chef of The Ivy Restaurants in L.A.

Chef Richard Irving has impacted the L.A. culinary scene with enduring dining staples The Ivy and The Ivy by the Shore. In a city that’s constantly changing, The Ivy Restaurants are one thing that will never need a facelift; they’ve been popular with celebrities and foodies alike since the Robertson Boulevard location opened in 1980. Irving began the restaurants with his partner – in life and in food – Lynn von Kersting. After working in famed Le Restaurant (“one of the top two restaurants in L.A. at the time”), and opening his own dessert company, L.A. Desserts, which “sold desserts to some of L.A.’s best restaurants like the bistro, Valentino and Mr. Chow,” Irving decided to branch out with The Ivy.

I asked Irving why he thinks The Ivy has become an icon on the L.A. culinary scene. “We have some fabulous things that we serve there. The food is extremely fresh and delicious, yet simple. We have exquisite flowers there, the place is immaculate,” he told me. The Ivy has been featured in an array of films and is the real life dining choice of A-listers abound. Irving credits von Kersting for the restaurants’ exceptional beauty, but the food is all him. Not only did he always know that he wanted to be a cook, beyond a ”brief period as a little boy of wanting to be a cowboy,” but Irving was introduced to the field by his mother, Charlotte, herself a passionate cook. ”She spent several days a week at Chef Gregoire’s cooking classes and bought all her pots and pans from Dehillerin in Paris. I used to always love helping her in the kitchen when I was growing up… I started cooking at home from the age of four and have loved it ever since,” explained Irving.

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The old adage goes: “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” but though Irving is a passionate chef, he explains that maintaining The Ivy’s success is not exactly easy. ”We work seven days a week and have to be eternally vigilant,” said Irving, who is constantly “trying to improve everything, always trying to look to the best ingredients.” These high standards mean Irving and his partner have their own bakery, Dolce Isola, where they take their own hamburger buns, scones, sourdough bread and all of The Ivy’s dessert.

Irving is not just an L.A. chef with a knack for what’s popular in the City of Angels; he’s also a world traveler who derives culinary influence from his experiences abroad. ”I gain inspiration from southern Italy as well as Provence and India. As a family we spend three months in the summer in Europe, at our apartment in Paris as well as our villa Capri and practically everywhere in between, so those months are always filled with discovery of new favorite foods and flavors,” shared Irving, who learned to bake Parisian baguettes at a neighborhood boulangerie in Paris and real Neapolitan pizza at Di Matteo in Napoli.

Photos courtesy of The Ivy Restaurants.

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Chef Alois Vanlangenaeker of Positano’s Hotel Il San Pietro

Hotel Il San Pietro is situated in arguably the most picturesque setting in the world – Positano, Italy. Along the Amalfi Coast, tucked into the rocky cliffside, rests this prominent, luxury hotel and its two restaurants, one of which, Zass, boasts a Michelin star. Chef Alois Vanlangenaeker has been the Executive Chef of Il San Pietro for 11 years. “I could have stayed in Belgium and had my private life there,” speculated Chef Vanlangenaeker. But instead he was drawn to a more international, public chef’s life, as “traveling is a passion.” Vanlangenaeker began his career at the age of 19, when he started working in a Michelin starred restaurant in his native Belgium. Then, he moved to France to work in Michel Guérard’s kitchen, also Michelin ranked. From there, he moved to Sant’Agata, Italy’s Don Alfonso 1890, his third Michelin restaurant. From Italy to Tokyo to Jean-Georges in New York City, Vanlangenaeker experienced it all before landing at his current position in Positano. His favorite place, it turns out, is Positano. “It is an amazing spot,” he shared. “We have a quality of life that a lot of people dream of.” Though the work is difficult because it is crammed into seven months of the year, “having the ocean in front of you, having beautiful weather and beautiful vegetables” are worth it. At Il San Pietro, many of these fresh vegetables are grown on the grounds.

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Chef Vanlangenaeker enjoys spending his time (which is at a premium) with his girlfriend and going on walks with his two Irish setters. The chef also “loves photography” and spends time shooting and working in his darkroom. In the winter, he often works on cruise ships as a way of traveling while still cooking. Last year, for example, he traveled from Istanbul to Tokyo, Hawaii, Samoi, Kiribad, Fiji and Los Angeles on one ship. “Also in my spare time, I do things that normally chefs wouldn’t do,” Vanlangenaeker explained. Last year this meant doing social work in Africa with Doctors Without Borders.

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Chef Vanlangenaeker offers an interesting experience to the traveler who visits Amalfi during the slower months: cooking lessons. It is “very important… that people say at the end ‘wow, I learned something and this I can do at home’” he explained, saying that there’s no point to him showing off as “you would be impressed but you would never try it at home.” The first lesson is how to make fresh pasta and pizza dough and the next is all about the sauce. On the menu? Spaghetti with vongole, truffle spaghetti and risotto marinated in grilled vegetables. I’ll have to add that to my Christmas wish list.

 

A Few Additional Questions…

RW: What is in your refrigerator at home?

AV: My girlfriend always says my fridge is crying. There’s nothing inside because during the season I never eat at home so there’s nothing, just a few bottles of still water for when I come home in the evening and that’s it – finished. Only in the winter there’s stuff inside. In the winter there’s lots of stuff: some good cheese. I have some stuff in the freezer for if I have guests – some good fish that I keep frozen in case I have, on my day off, guests coming so that I will have something to prepare.

RW: What is your favorite thing to eat?

AV: I like everything to eat, but it has to be fresh…tomatoes prepped in some basil, some olive oil and some salt.

RW: What is the best advice you could give to someone cooking at home?

AV: If you have a good product, try to keep things as simple as possible – good olive oil, good fish baking in a pan with a side of tomatoes. This could be delicious if you do it in a proper way.”

Originally published on cuative.com.

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Karan Gera of New York City’s Monsieur Singh

The “frozen yogurt craze” pervades North America. But, Karan Gera offers an alternative – let’s call it a lassi pops intervention. Born in Delhi, India, Gera grew up on lassi. Years later, he owns a lassi pops business, driven by his belief that frozen yogurt is unhealthy. Why? First of all, “our bodies aren’t really designed to absorb cold yogurt,” and secondly, fruits and yogurts are incompatible foods. Enter lassi. A product of Ayurvedic medicine, lassi is yogurt fortified with herbs and spices that are said to help with digestion.

Whether or not you are a proponent of the benefits of lassi, you must admit that the Monsieur Singh lassi pops are über-tasty. And once you do, you’ll join the ranks of fans such as Martha Stewart.

Karan Gera is unlike many of the other chefs appearing in this series. Gera began his career as a brand strategist, not a chef. He worked for companies like BBDO and helped craft the images of brands including Pepsi and Gillette. He tells me “you have to be quite entrepreneurial to be a brand strategist.”

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It’s all about “having the right idea” and opportunity struck for Gera when he “was doing a product for a yogurt company and the job was to create an innovation strategy for that brand” that included a new product. Gera’s idea was for the company to create products with lassi. He pitched the idea to his company contacts, but it didn’t make it through the corporate bureaucracy. Gera believed so strongly in his idea that he decided to create the company himself. He returned to India to learn about Ayurveda in Kapurthala, an area known as the “Paris of Punjab” for its former king who was a “big Francophile” and the French architecture that resulted from his reign. This brings us to the name Monsieur Singh; ‘monsieur’ reflects the Parisian influence of Kapurthala, while Singh is a common local last name.

Upon his return to New York, Gera started experimenting with yogurt combinations. He “worked a lot in [his] kitchen…for a few months.” When his friend opened a spice store in Westchester, New York he got the idea of creating an onsite lassi bar. His product is now also carried at Smorgasburg, an exclusive outdoor open market that accepts roughly five percent of vendor applicants. “The response was very good,” explains Gera, who provides Monsieur Singh to six of the eight Whole Foods markets in Manhattan and Brooklyn. It’s sold in pints and four unique flavours: mango, honey lemon, pineapple banana and strawberry chai.

It’s amazing to see an idea like Karan Gera’s lassi pops become a fantastic, strong brand. Gera is a New York success story, an example of the American Dream. And, we’re excited to watch his brand grow and thrive. Who knew success could taste this good?

Originally published on cuative.com. Photos Retrieved from Monsieur Singh.

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Chef Molloy of Nikki Beach Worldwide

To be a chef is to be a world traveler, a connoisseur of food trends the world over and an appreciator of fine things. Such is Chef Brian Molloy, Nikki Beach Worldwide’s Corporate Executive Chef. Nikki Beach is a fine dining brand with clout on the international dining scene. Known for its good times and its impeccable star-studded locations situated in the world’s most beautiful destinations, Nikki Beach is a tastemaker’s favorite. Under the Nikki Beach umbrella, Molloy has cooked for Prince Albert of Monaco, various sheikhs and a plethora of A-listers, including Robert de Niro and Al Pacino.

Like Nikki Beach, Chef Molloy is very international. Hailing from Dublin, he has lived and worked all over – Australia, Germany and the 10 plus locations of Nikki Beach – including Cabo San Lucas, Miami, St. Tropez, Ibiza, Koh Samui, St. Barths and Phuket. Chef Molloy tells me that Nikki Beach has “certain signature dishes… on all of its menus throughout the world” and “creations of the region” at each location. His personal favorite menu item is the rotisserie format introduced to Nikki Beach in 2012 at the St. Tropez location.“Rotisserie is very provence, very light… the flavor is unbelievable,” explains the chef who is a firm proponent of “simplicity” in cooking, “because you want to be tasting the flavors of the products you have on the plates.”

Chef Molloy first got into cooking in his native Ireland when he left school and went to work in the kitchen of a top restaurant at the tender age of 14. When he was young, he “enjoyed home economics, which not many boys at that age do.” Now, he reigns over Nikki Beach’s culinary empire. He cites Australia as the country that has most influenced his palate and the way he cooks. There, Chef Molloy worked as the private chef for the country’s wealthiest resident at the time, the late Kerry Packer. When he was later introduced to Jack Penrod, owner of Nikki Beach, Molloy was induced to get onboard. That was 15 years ago, when Nikki Beach only had one location in Miami, and he has been with the company since. He credits his culinary excellence to his “great imagination” and the fact that he loves “tasting food” and trying different things. Every chef is different in the way he uses a different ingredient, says Molloy, “it can be very adventurous or I can keep it very simple. Both ways win.”

He enjoys the culturally different backdrops of the Nikki Beach locations and explains that they inform each location’s menu. Customers “want the experience, the culture of the place they travel to with the flair of the Nikki Beach concept,” he tells me. Molloy has trouble deciding on a favorite location, but ultimately lands on Mallorca for its fascinating and international “culinary scene.” Having said that, it’s easy to understand Molloy’s reluctance to select just one perfect Nikki Beach location.

Originally published on cuative.com. Photos Retrieved from Nikki Beach Worldwide.

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Chef João Dias of Montreal’s Ferreira Café

I never asked Chef João Dias of Montreal’s well-loved Ferreira Café what his middle name is, but it seems likely that it is “Passion,” or perhaps the Portuguese translation. Dias has loved to cook since he was “very young” and began by contributing to his mother’s culinary endeavors back in Portugal, especially during holidays. His grandparents were butchers so he comes honestly by his love of food. You might say this foodie upbringing was the prelude to his eight years at culinary school. After all, there aren’t many young children who love “tasting sausages” and other meats at the butcher. And Dias cannot imagine doing anything other than cooking, as he “prefer[s] stay[ing] 12 hours in the kitchen than six hours in the office.” And that’s no exaggeration: he arrives at the restaurant between eight and nine in the morning and leaves around midnight.

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Dias derives most of his inspiration from Portugal’s kitchens. He explains that the country itself is a place that is “rich gastronomically” and where the food has incredible variety. Though it can be more difficult to purchase choice herbs here, Dias finds this a minor inconvenience and some things, like fresh fish, can be imported directly from Portugal (Ferreira imports twice a week). Working in North America certainly has its rewards though, and Dias is pleased to be here, though he has only lived in Canada for 14 months. He explains that the main differences between being a chef in North America and Europe is that here there is more public exposure and the people are more open minded towards inventive food. This pleases Dias, who enjoys the freedom to “give wings to [his] imagination and make what [he] like[s].

The passion that João Dias exudes is truly inspirational. His bit of advice to culinary-minded readers is that, “when you [cook], do it with passion and love.” That is certainly something that Dias himself brings to the table everyday.

Originally published on cuative.com. Photos Retrieved from Luc Robitaille.

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Chef Rene Rodriguez of Ottawa’s Navarra

Ottawa restaurant Navarra has gone on the map as one of the country’s best eateries. Chef Rene Rodriguez, Navarra’s owner and culinary brain, was recently acclaimed as Canada’s Top Chef. Rodriguez, who was born in Canada’s capital but lived in Mexico between the ages of five and 17, explains that he derives his cooking inspiration from “anything that involves some type of art,” for instance the open markets in Mexico or architecture and food in Barcelona. Travel is certainly one influence, but music is also important to Rodriguez, who “always” has something on in the background while cooking; auditory favorites include Rush, Supertramp and U2.

During his upbringing in Mexico, Rodriguez tells me, he explored a new palate. The food there was always fresh and he especially loved the slow-cooked Bolognese pasta his mother made, a classic dish that is still a favourite though it doesn’t hail from Mexico. When he returned to Canada in 1990, Rodriguez knew he wanted to pursue a career as a chef. He started working in restaurants as a dishwasher and prep cook to save for Le Cordon Bleu. During our chat, it quickly becomes apparent that Rodriguez is, through-and-through, an artistic type. He tells me that if he weren’t a chef, he would have liked to have studied architecture, another creative and hands-on field.

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In the kitchen, Rodriguez’s favourite things to work with are fresh tuna, wild salmon, scallops and spot prawns. “I love raw preparations” like ceviche and tartare. He explains that this method of serving really brings out the taste. I ask Rodriguez what made him such a stellar contender on Top Chef Canada’s Season 4. He believes the fact he was “exposed to good food as a kid in Mexico” helped, and that the show inspired him “to reconnect with [his] background in terms of Mexican food.” Before, his cooking was more geographically disparate and on the show he realized the powerful influence of his roots on his culinary creations. Then Rodriguez tells me something that surprises me: the timeline on Top Chef is “pretty much the same” as the typical restaurant kitchen schedule. It seems like the pace is much quicker on TV, but realizing the extent to which these chefs speed along in the kitchen gives me a lot of respect for the profession. Chefs are given two hours: “it’s not that much different from working in a restaurant…you need to get things done in the least amount of time.”


The best cooking advice Rodriguez could give is that “whenever you want to… entertain people you need to cook for them something that you crave to eat that day.” It’s not all about impressing your guests; it’s also about being inspired. He also suggests you taste your food throughout the cooking process to “develop your palate.” In fact, he cites forgetting to take tastes as the most common mistakes among amateur or new chefs: “some young cooks don’t taste their food as they go. They’re just assembling food and putting things together,” laments Rodriguez. If I could cook like Rene Rodriguez, I’d take tastes too.

Originally published on cuative.com. Photos Retrieved from Rene Rodriguez.