Maverick Chefs 2014: 4 of Canada’s Top Chefs share their secrets and their recipes
The spirit of the maverick is one of staying true to an idea even though conventional wisdom may stand against it. It is the ability to see beyond the ordinary to what could be. The maverick, though, doesn’t just stop there. This is an individual who sets a course of action aimed at achieving that goal whatever the obstacles may be. Maverick chefs — John MacNeil, Matthew Carmichael, Murray MacDonald and Louis Bouchard Trudeau — do exactly that every day. Throughout their careers, these four have consistently pushed themselves toward excellence and, in the process, have inspired those around them to do the same.
Where does their passion come from and how do they nurture it over a lifetime? In the time I spent talking with these chefs, one thing became very clear: Not one of them is happy to just rely on doing the same-old-same-old day-in-day-out. These individuals make it a point to strive for inspiration and creativity. They find those qualities not only by pushing the boundaries of their own natural culinary talents, but also in a healthy variety of personal pursuits. Indulging in their hobbies is what helps to make them the mavericks they are. Whether it’s playing in a rock band, dabbling in design, cultivating sea life or being an enthusiastic researcher of all things culinary, pastimes create a necessary space in these chefs’ busy lives. Out of that space, clarity and new ideas emerge.
MacNeil, Carmichael, MacDonald and Trudeau follow their bliss and the result, for us, is pure mouthwatering delight.
John MacNeil, Teatro Restaurant, Calgary, AB
John McNeil may work his culinary magic in landlocked Calgary, but there’s a part of him that never left the maritime home of his birth. “I grew up in the small coal mining town of New Waterford, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia,” he says. For the last ten years, McNeil has been nurturing his passion for the creatures of the oceans. “I love aquariums, especially saltwater ones,” he tells me. “I used to have a 150 gallon [aquarium] in my tiny apartment, filled with bright colourful SPS hard corals that I grew from tiny fragments. I was ‘lobsterboy’ on many online forums, with many of my photos still out there on the Internet.” You might think that given his love of the sea, McNeil would insist on a career cooking nothing but seafood. Luckily, his hobbyist obsession informs his work in more ways than one. McNeil strives to master each cuisine that catches his curiosity. “[I’m driven by] the pursuit to be better and [to] keep pushing myself,” he admits.
Teatro, named in honour of the thriving theatre district in which it’s located, offers McNeil the perfect opportunity to combine his passion and talent. “[It’s] been open for 20 years, and has always had the same standards — high quality product and high quality execution,” he explains. That commitment to being the best is the essence of John McNeil.
Where did you get your culinary training?
The Culinary Institute of Canada, two-year program and in Utzenstorf, Switzerland at a Michelin Bib restaurant for a year and half. I would have loved to stay but my visa ran out.
What made you decide you wanted to be a chef?
First, I thought it would impress girls. It didn’t. Second, I thought it would be super easy. It was; it came naturally. Lastly, my father didn’t want me to work outside. He was a miner. He told me he never wanted his son to work in the damp and cold. Dad, I love you — thank you.
What’s your favourite country or region to eat in?
Spain, 1,000 percent. My fiancée (Alison Bieber, chef-owner Black Pig Bistro) and I spent a month there last year, eating and cooking our way through the Catalan region. It was unreal. We stayed with the Silvesters, a Spanish family who taught us some family recipes and some new techniques that you can’t learn in school.
What’s your favourite kitchen tool or gadget?
El Bulli straining spoon. It’s great for picking up encapsulations, straining minute sauces, even tasting.
What are you fanatical about?
Paying it forward and anything El Bulli. I have a cabinet filled with signed menus, wine and ice buckets, forks, measuring spoons, bowls and even a 24k gold straining spoon from the famous restaurant. Don’t forget the stripped rock from the pathway when I visited in 2013. I am a fanboy.
What music do you like to play in the kitchen?
No music is played in the prep kitchen. It can be a distraction and most everyone has different tastes. But in the past I have listened to everything from Dethklok, Pete Tong and Rancid.
What’s your favourite wine or drink?
Riesling any type, any glass, hook me up. But an ice-cold tall boy of Pabst Blue Ribbon is a sure winner in my book!
What’s an under-rated ingredient?
Sea salt. There are many different kinds. But they have different mineral qualities, sodium, chemical properties and tastes and textures. I can’t pick just one!
Is there a food you really don’t like?
Smoked salmon. I have eaten lots only to know how to serve it. But you will never find it in my fridge at home or on a camping trip.
What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve done while cooking (or biggest screw-up)?
One night I spotted a clear cambo filled with liquid. It was light brownish with some specks or sediment inside it. I thought it must have been a quick stock someone had forgotten to put away. There wasn’t a label on it so I tasted it. It turned out to be dirty cleaning water from the clean up. It wasn’t my finest moment when I realized what had happened.
You’ve got 24 hours left to live. What’s your last meal?
60 day dry age prime strip loin, cooked sous vide, finished on the grill and served with heirloom tomato salad, olive oil, basil and balsamic.
Where do you shop for ingredients?
I usually shop everywhere, from the local summer farmer markets on the side of the road to the giant superstores. Every place has something different to offer and some products can only be found in certain places. I’m usually all over the city as well as online.
Who do you admire most?
Ferran and Albert Adria. Their work is unreal and so passionate. Their focus is unmatched.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Nothing at all. I love everything about where and what I have done and everyone I have met along the way. I am who I am because of this.
Butter Poached French White Asparagus
- 1 l whole milk
- 450 g salted butter cut into small cubes then reserve in fridge
Bring milk to simmer, then whisk in small cubes of cold butter. Peel white asparagus, leaving 1cm from the tender tip.
Drop the peeled white asparagus into the milk and butter; cook until very tender, approximately 10 minutes.
Take asparagus spears out and drop them into the lemon butter (see recipe below).
- 1 lemon zested and juiced
- 125 g butter
- 1/2 to 2 tsp sugar (depending on the acidity of lemon) you want the finished sauce to be a little tart but not sweet or sour.
Bring lemon juice and sugar to boil, then whisk in cold cubes of butter. Once all is emulsified, add lemon zest and salt to taste.
Matthew Carmichael, El Camino, Ottawa, ON
Connecting past and present, function and form are central to the way Matthew Carmichael operates. “I love the process of figuring out how people live and how that fits into home design. It’s that injection of the old and the new,” he explains. Design and cooking have always come naturally and easily to him. Carmichael admits that while he may have some trouble retaining some information, like the science-based courses he took in university, he has no problem whatsoever recalling the detailed elements of design or the culinary arts. “I was just really good at it,” he says of his talents in the kitchen, and having just completed renovations on his 100 year old rowhouse, he’s come to realize that he has quite the knack for that, too.
Carmichael makes sure that his love of architecture and design are constantly incorporated into his work. When it came to designing El Camino, his first concept restaurant, Carmichael says, “I really wanted to get into the minds of the diners and not impose the space on them. I want them to bring their own meaning, and in that way, make the space.”
Who has influenced your cooking the most?
Chef John Taylor of Ottawa’s Domus Café.
What cookbook changed everything for you?
Marco Pierre White, White Heat.
What was your first job in a professional kitchen?
What’s your favourite wine or drink?
Chablis — I like a good crisp white wine. Also, Norm Hardie’s Calcaire is my favourite right now.
Is there something you refuse to have in your kitchen?
I hate all these gadgets you might find in a kitchenware store, like a garlic press.
What rule of conduct matters more than any other in your kitchen?
My staff needs to call me “chef,” not for an ego boost, but because I believe it’s important to respect the history of the classical kitchen.
What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you while cooking?
When I was at Susur Lee’s, I had to clean the fryer out every night. There’s a little tap that you open to let the oil out. You have to scrub it down, let the soapy water out, then rinse it with hot water. Afterwards, I forgot to close the tap. The next morning, I dumped all the fresh oil in, and it went right through and all over the floor. I did that two mornings in a row!
What makes your restaurant stand apart from the others?
The lack of pretension. I love seeing kids and seniors, then young adults later at night. We appeal to the whole spectrum of the public. I want everyone to feel welcome.
What are your plans for the future?
I’d like to open another El Camino-style resto and a ramen spot because Ottawa needs it. I love classical food, like a veal stock bordelaise, so we’re taking over the old Imperial bank on Spark St. We’ll focus on that kind of more traditional food there.
What do you eat for breakfast?
Mostly coffee, and I’ll grab something from Art Is In Bakery.
What was your favourite meal as a child?
My grandmother grew up in Calcutta because her father was a journalist stationed there. She makes curries and something that my family calls clam chowder, but it’s more like fish chowder.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
I’d love to be a residential architect.
Who or what is the greatest love of your life?
My girlfriend, Kelly. But right now, I just bought a 1970 El Camino. It’s a gorgeous car. I’m happiest when driving it with Kelly in the passenger seat.
Who is your favourite fictional hero?
Mr Incredible from Pixar’s The Incredibles. He can do so much, and I love the mid-century modern aesthetic.
What is your greatest regret?
Probably not finding cooking sooner. But, also wish I had done more travelling and staging earlier.
Scallop Crudo with XO Sauce, Lime Leaves & Thai Basil
- 100 g sea scallops (Ocean Wise sustainable, if possible)
- Fresh lemon or lime juice
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Maldon salt
- Lime leaves, julienned very finely
- Thai basil leaves
- Shaved radish
- Chives, sliced
- 1 cup dried shrimp
- 1 cup shallots, sliced thin
- 1/3 cup ginger, julienned
- 1/3 cup garlic, sliced thin
- 1 litre vegetable oil for frying at 350°F
- Palm sugar, made into a simple syrup
- Fish sauce, to taste
- Fresh red chili, chopped to taste
- 2 ripe Roma tomatoes, diced, seeds removed
Heat oil to 350°F. Fry shrimp, ginger, shallots and garlic until golden brown. Drain on paper towel; let cool.
Place in a food processor and gently pulse (not chopped too fine). Add palm sugar and fish sauce to taste.
Fold in some of the frying oil and red chilli to taste, and finally the tomato.
If the scallops are large slice them; drizzle with citrus juice, olive oil and Maldon salt.
Place a dollop of XO sauce on top of each piece of scallop. Sprinkle with lime leaf, Thai basil leaves and sliced radish.
Murray MacDonald, Fogo Island Inn, Newfoundland
“Picture this: 200 years ago in rural Newfoundland, a bunch of things had to happen together. You had to fish and salt cod; you had to have a garden growing root vegetables and a root cellar to store them in the winter; you had to keep some livestock, forage wild berries, make and bottle preserves. Flour, grains, molasses, salt and rum had to come in on the merchant vessels. If all of this didn’t work together, you were dead. That was life in rural Newfoundland,” explains Murray MacDonald, executive chef at Newfoundland’s modern Fogo Island Inn.
So, given that climate, MacDonald should be thrilled to be a chef at a time when modern conveniences and at-the-ready ingredients from anywhere in the world are easily available, right? Not so. MacDonald is a locavore at heart whose creativity drives him to use his store of ingredients in new and very sumptuous ways despite the challenges. “It ain’t easy,” he admits. “The main thing is to have a culinary vision. Also, the menu has to change all the time. I like to say the menu changes with the wind and the tide.” MacDonald works with local small farmers for vegetables and meats, and all the seafood he uses comes from the Fogo Island Co-op. Beyond that, he reaches back into Newfoundland’s history, sourcing products from the province’s traditional trading partners, like Portugal and Spain.
Some discover their creative leanings once they’ve landed in the kitchen. For others, creative expression is a deep-seated part of their very being. MacDonald fits into the latter bunch. He’s been singing and playing the guitar in rock bands since he was 13. Music gives him a creative outlet and lets him express himself in ways not possible in a restaurant setting. “Playing music is a great stress reliever after long days in the kitchen. There is just something about cranking up the Marshall half stack and letting it rip,” he says. I asked him how his musical talent informs his work in the kitchen. “Chefs are just creative people that love to express themselves and work with their hands. And let’s face it, chefs are the new rock stars.” To his customers, MacDonald’s culinary creations positively sing in their mouths.
MacDonald may be Newfoundland born and bred, but it was a desire to see the world that attracted him to the life of a chef. Having cooked in, and travelled to, many parts of the world including Bermuda, the Grand Cayman Islands, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Mexico and Vancouver, I wondered what enticed him to go back home. “It’s just one of those things,” he tells me. “Newfoundland is always in your blood. You can never shake it. So when the opportunity came up to pack up the family and move back home, I couldn’t pass it up.” He continues, “We’re just passionate people, cooking great food while introducing people to the one thing that is dearest to my heart — my love of my home province, its people, history, culture and food.”
Louis Bouchard Trudeau, Le Bouchon du Pied Bleu, Quebec City, QC
Louis Bouchard Trudeau is a research buff. “I can spend hours searching the Internet,” he says. “Before the Internet, I would buy books or borrow them from the library.” Strange sort of hobby, you might say. Maybe, but it’s one that has served Trudeau very well. “It was because of the research I did on charcuterie that I started making my own,” he admits. Trudeau explains that such easy access to so much information has helped him evolve as a chef. He suggests that it’s improved the industry as a whole, too. “It’s changed perceptions, including my own,” Trudeau says, “about how and what to cook. Now, everything’s possible. Before, a chef had to work in the right kitchens in order to gain experience and credibility. The food coming out of those kitchens was less unique, too. Now, my influence comes from everywhere … from the home cook to the professional chef.”
Trudeau’s love of learning hasn’t abated and neither has his drive to test what he’s learned. Seven years ago, he and his partner Thania Goyette researched then began a catering business that continues to this day. Three years ago, he began making and selling his very popular charcuterie. Two years ago, the pair opened Le Bouchon du Pied Bleu. Trudeau continues, “I love how researching forces me to constantly question what I thought I knew. Take molecular gastronomy, for instance. I really like how scientists are now interested in quantum culinary phenomena as much as the designer is enthralled by the aesthetic of the plating. It’s an evolutionary process of continual learning.” Trudeau likes to experiment with molecular gastronomy, but doesn’t do the spheres or the gels at Le Bouchon. “Here, we’re more interested in tripe,” he tells me, “in both senses of the word!”
Trudeau and Goyette fashioned Le Bouchon after a Lyonnaise-style “café-buvette” — a café in the morning and a wine bar in the evening. I asked Trudeau why he was so attracted by Lyons. “The cuisine of Quebec,” he explains, “is very reminiscent of the cuisine of Lyons. It’s one that’s both comforting and made for sharing.” Rustic, authentic and thoroughly delicious is what his customers say.
Trudeau chose to call his restaurant Le Bouchon du Pied Bleu (translated loosely as “the cap of the blue foot”) after a very tasty type of mushroom that grows throughout the eastern stretch of North America. The idea of honouring that particular mushroom started to take form when Trudeau and Goyette first launched their catering business. They brought on a third partner, a colleague who sold mushrooms. “We would dream,” Trudeau says, “of one day opening a boutique where we could sell our charcuterie and mushrooms. And that’s what happened a few years later. A year after that, we changed the name to Le Bouchon du Pied Bleu!”
Stay tuned for our 2015 Mavs!