Friday, January 21, 2011

Canadian Celebrity Chefs Event: Chef Michael Moffatt

The Canadian Celebrity Chefs Event at Ottawa's NAC is being held Monday, January 24. Eight of Ottawa's top chefs will be paired with eight celebrity chefs from across Canada. These chef pairs will be doing live cooking demonstrations followed by a time for Q&A. The day ends with an evening reception where we'll get to taste the creations from these culinary wizards, each dish paired with an appropriate wine.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Chef Michael Moffatt of Beckta's and Play Food & Wine, who recently won the Ottawa Gold Medal Plates competition and is one of Ottawa's top eight chefs who will be participating on Monday.

Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Ottawa.
Did you eat your veggies?
I did actually. When I was very young, I probably didn't. My parents always tried to make me eat green beans. They weren't my thing. But eventually I ate vegetables almost to the exclusion of meat for a long time.
When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
I cooked when I was young, when I was a teenager. And then I got into the front of the house, bartending. I really loved to bartend. I love the connection to people. Then I took a job out of the industry for seven or eight years. In my mid-twenties I decided I wanted to go back to the hospitality industry. There were two things I loved to do: bartend and cook. Bartending would have been a bad choice. It comes with a lifestyle. So the cost would have been high. I decided to cook and see how that went. I've been at Beckta's almost eight years now. I worked in New York before this. The connection with Beckta's is the former chef, Steven Vardy. He and I went to cooking school at Algonquin together.
Do you have a favorite wine?
I'm a big pinot noir fan. But having said that, the best wine I've had recently is Organized Crime Pinot Gris from the Niagara region. Fielding Estates has a great Pinot Gris as well that we used for the Gold Medal Plates.
How often do you change your menu at Beckta's?
Over the course of a year, we'll probably make a hundred to a hundred and fifty changes. It's not wholesale changes; those are very taxing on the kitchen. But a dish here, a dish there. We try to follow the seasons as much as possible. There are times when we change a lot of things. Like come Spring we'll change the whole menu five times in three months.
Where is your favorite place in the world?
I like Italy for its regions. There's nowhere that cooks more regionally than Italy. The people in the North don't eat pasta and the people in the South don't eat rice. They harvest from their own backyard, which I respect. But I love the flavours of Asia. I love the flavours of the South. One thing about working in New York that I loved was my exposure to more South American style cuisine.
Is there one area that's influencing you more right now?
I've been thinking a lot about Latin countries lately. Not so much Americanized Mexican which we're all very familiar with but also some of the authentic Mexican cuisine like Puerto Rico. They do a fruit and a spice that I really like, especially this time of year. In the winter there's nothing I like better than something that has a bit of heat but also the fruit. For them, they have citrus all year round but for us it's pineapple time. So I think of pineapple and I think of some of their interesting dishes like a pineapple stock with chillies.
Are there any foods you just don't like?
Coconut. It still shows up on the menu. A chef has to put his personal tastes in the food, you can't be restricted. It's not that I hate it; it's not that I won't eat it; it's just not a flavour that really resonates with me. There are very few things I don't like.
What do you think is the hardest dish to cook?
Scallops.  They're either really good or really bad. There's no margin for error. Ten seconds in the pan too long and they're over-cooked. Most of the new cooks in the kitchen, what I get them to do is chop chives to show me their knife skills. Everything has to be a certain size and uniform. You get to see two things: knife skills and their attention to detail.
Do you value quality over the time it takes?
Absolutely. I had an instructor once tell me to take the time to get good and then get fast. There are a lot of fast cooks out there who aren't very good. Take the time to get good. Learn your lessons properly. Then learn to do it faster. That's the solid basis there. You can get faster and faster, but once you get fast, it's very hard to slow back down and re-learn your trade and speed up again.
Do you have turned vegetables at Beckta's?
No, but I can turn them. When I worked out West I had a chef who made us turn Chateau potatoes. 150 pounds a day. Potatoes are 10 cents a pound. This is a life skill. This is a skill you'll have forever.
What is going to be the next big thing in the food world?
More small restaurants and support for these small restaurants. We're just a couple small restaurants. It's great to see Murray Street expanding. It means the support for these places is great. It's nice to see a few more empire-building chefs in this city. Ones that don't just want that cozy 30-seat restaurant that everybody tells you they want. It's nice to see chefs try to expand and raise the stakes for everybody.
Are you thinking of expanding?
I would say that Play is doing quite well, and we're a lot farther ahead after two years than we were here. So I wouldn't rule it out, but are we actively searching? Who knows?
What do you do for fun? Do you get days off?
I get days off. I've got a family. I've got a four-year old. Spending time with him is my fun. I play hockey on Sunday nights after everyone goes to bed. The family time (that I miss during the week) keeps me going.
What do you most love about your job?
The people I work with. About 30 people work here and 50 downtown at Play.
I split my time half and half. I'm downtown every day for lunch and probably four of the five nights a week I'm here at Beckta's. The nice thing about Play is that when I work at lunch, we can iron out any problems. Go into the night and get everyone set up with my Chef de Cuisine and my sous chefs and we've had a service under our belt, we've done a bunch of changes and we just slide into it.
Beckta's demands a little more. We have a table d'hôte menu for our parties upstairs, a tasting menu, an à la carte menu that changes all the time. There's petit fours, canapés. It's much more involved. We still have a chef's tasting menu that we're potentially expanding. We're creating another tasting menu, looking forward into Spring. It's a constant challenge. My cooks are all here because they want to learn, they want to do great things. My obligation to them is to keep pushing. We change our menu so often because we get bored quickly. We cook the same thing for a couple weeks, and then we're looking for what's next.
What are you looking forward to most about this Celebrity Chefs Event?
Besides the after party? Working with the other chefs. Working with Anthony Walsh. We competed against each other at the Canadian Culinary Championships in 2008. Of all the chefs that were there, he and I were the most similar in personality. We were there to do a great job but also to have fun. Anthony is an incredibly well-established chef. Very successful. He's a corporate chef for all the Oliver & Bonacini restaurants, about 13 restaurants now. Anthony and I are fairly compatible. We have some of the same challenges.
How did you come up with your menu for the event?
We had some initial conversation and there was very little back and forth. We're similar in our styles. When I read the menu from Canoe, I see a good representation of Canadian but I also see similarities in a stylistic sense. We have compatible palates.
Menu from Anthony Walsh | Michael Moffatt for the Canadian Celebrity Chefs Event
Drunken squab + Newfie screech | tatin of sunchokes | foie gras crepinette
09 Cabernet Franc Sabrevois, Domaine Perrault, Navan, Ontario
What We Ate at Beckta's
Clockwise from top left:

Laurentian Free-Range Chicken with Filbert & Edamame “Fried Rice”, Butternut Squash, Chiffonade Peas and Smoked Shiitake Jus
‘AAA’ Alberta Beef Tenderloin with Dauphinoise Potato, Sweet & Sour Onion Jam, Thyme Roasted Carrots, Mini Sylvetta and Sauce Robert
Crème Brûlée with Toasted Cardamom, Cranberry “Yolks”, White Chocolate Curls, Fresh Fruit 
Fresh Fruit with Mango and Lemon Sorbet

$145 for the full package (demos and reception)
$99 (demos only)
$75 (reception only)
Monies raised are in support of the NAC's National Youth and Education Trust, which furthers artistic education, training and mentorship for young Canadians.

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