Alright, imagine you are an Executive Chef who recently took the reigns of a decades old restaurant from another well respected chef who left a tremendous legacy. You are in the process of modernizing your restaurant to establish it as a fine dining destination in its own right, your having blazed quite the trail in your previous restaurant. You previously earned the prestigious 4 Diamond award from the CAA/AAA. Your tenure begins the same time a global recession sets in.
Got it? Now, for Spring 2010, you introduce a 5 course tasting menu, called Taste5. It has no set menu, but is tantamount to “omakase” in a Japanese sushi restaurant. For $42.95 (before taxes or tips), patrons put themselves in your hands and those of your Chefs and your cooks to serve them an inspired set of dishes using the best ingredients available.
If you are Michael Blackie of the Le Cafe restaurant in the National Arts Center (NAC), you supplement the media release by inviting 10 bloggers, each allowed a guest, into your kitchen. There, you hold an event to show off your staff, your restaurant in transition, and how a potential Taste5 menu comes together.
Unorthodox? Yes, but this is the same Executive Chef who installed a web cam, called cafecam in his dining room level kitchen to showcase finished plates as they are set down for service.
As one of the bloggers who attended the generous event, I am extremely grateful to have been given the opportunity to meet the people involved and learn about how fine dining works at the NAC.
First, we received invitations from Jennifer Covert (coordinator of the event and marketer for the NAC). She warned us not to wear our finest that evening. Then, Jenn and I arrived somewhat early.
After chatting with the Maitre’D at Le Cafe, we were brought 2 stories underground, into the theater’s bowels. After we stepped off the freight elevator, we saw the Chef’s Table, just one of the additions Chef Blackie has made to his 40 year old kitchen.
This is the Chef’s Table of a chef who walks around with an Apple Iphone, strategically placing himself in specific locations so he can get a Wifi signal. This is a chef who spent 22 years, honing his skills in professional kitchens in Toronto, Acapulco (Mexico), Hong Kong, Denpasar (Indonesia), and Ottawa. This is a chef who re-engineered both how food is made (CombiTherm Ovens) and how food is brought up to his dining rooms in the NAC: think Christmas tree dish holders and electronically controlled heated carts. This is a chef who replaced the electric ranges on his hot line with induction (Garland) because the technology is more energy and time efficient. This is a chef who had a custom piece of machinery built to expedite plating by employing a conveyor belt (patent-pending, of course).
This is also a chef who made fun of Chef Michael Smith because he hadn’t seen a sauce gun before he set foot in the NAC kitchen to cook for a PEI event at Le Cafe.
Sorry Chef Smith, we were told to include this in our posts.
As for the kitchen, it is in the process of having a complete makeover. It includes new walk-ins, new freezers, and new stoves. The banquet flatware and dishware have been replaced with something more modern. There is now a variety of plates to plate food on. Chef Blackie wants the tiled walls upgraded and non-skid put in on the floors. Would you believe he has equipment there that dates back to Expo ’67? Owing to its heritage, the NAC kitchen even has its own laundry facility. The NAC does its own linens.
When the rest of the bloggers assembled, we were broken into teams: Crabby, Flamer, Melange, Bush, and Crack. Each team was assigned a specific course and a brigade chef, Chefs Sharma, Bento, Cook, Morris, and St. Louis respectively. We were put to work.
The bloggers: Paola (@cestboncooking) from C’est Bon Cooking, Shari (@whisk_food_blog) from Whisk: A Food Blog, Rachelle from Rachelle Eats Food, Jodi (@simplyfresh) from Simply Fresh, Lana (@lana_stewart) from Apron Strings, Robyn (@mintyfresh) from Minty Fresh, Shawn (@shawndearn) from MediaStyle, Matthew (@mtkayahara) from Kayahara, and Heather (@aftertheharvest) from After The Harvest.
With the majority of the mise already done. We were mostly tasked with finishing and plating. Though the chefs assigned to our teams did demo some of the steps required by the recipes we were given along with our aprons and tea towels.
Team Crabby (the team Jenn and I were assigned to)
We were tasked with blending together already measured ingredients to make what is essentially a crab cake mixture using a Thermomix. A Thermomix is a neat piece of professional kitchen equipment that cooks and blends at the same time. Then, we plated. The brandade crab galette was served with sliced leak at its base, broth around it, and caramelized corn kernels sprinkled throughout. It was garnished with a fried basil leaf (crisp) and fried celery root.
Wine Pairing: NV Prosecco La Robinia, Italy
On their own, the individual components, especially the yellow curry paste and fish sauce flavoured sweet corn broth, would be too strong. Put together, the salt cod and crab meat brandade, coated in crisp fried panko worked.
This team was tasked with putting together and plating a slice of soy marinated foie gras and duck confit torchon with a bruleed fig. The torchon was served on butter fried brioche and was accompanied with a dressed baby watercress salad. To brulee the fig and finish the torchon, a kitchen torch was used.
Wine Pairing: 07 Pinot Gris, Burrowing Owl, Canada
The marbled look of the torchon slices came from the marinade that includes soy and kecap manis. Chef Blackie actually corrected my pronunciation of kecap manis, he having spent time in Indonesia where the sweet and thick soy sauce is used as a table condiment. The correct plating of this dish is salad to the left.
The torchon of foie and duck was incredibly rich and savoury. I found myself breaking pieces off the slice and pairing them with bits of fry bread and peppery green. The dressing from the salad helped to cut the richness.
This team was tasked with putting together and plating a cauliflower and black sesame puree, wasabi “crack”, and crisped portions of salmon. Garnishing were sauteed mushrooms and fried lotus root chips. The salmon was served atop a head of shanghai bok choy.
Wine Pairing: 08 Huff Estates South Bay Vineyards Rose, Ontario
I really should not complain about the doneness of the fish, but I found it bordering on overdone. To any other patron it would have been perfect. I prefer my salmon slightly pink in the middle. The combination of flavours and textures however was great.
Interestingly, when I asked Chef Blackie why many of his dishes are served with Asian greens (e.g. yu choy at Christmas for the lunchtime table d’hote), he gave me a knowing smile and said, “they’re cheap!” Clearly, Jenn and I need to find better suppliers for our everyday greens! When I asked about gai lan (Chinese Broccoli), he told me you will find neither broccoli nor green peppers in his kitchen. Gai lan is permitted. Though, he is expecting fiddle heads to grace his plates shortly.
This team was tasked with putting together and plating seasoned and seared beef tenderloin, pulled beef cheeks, and short rib. The beef tenderloin was served on a piece of Jerusalem artichoke and garnished with fried leeks. The pulled beef cheeks were mixed with roasted pearl onions and garnished with yellow beet chips. The short rib was plated on sweet potato mash, sprinkled with pistachio, and then drizzled with braising liquid.
Wine: 07 Cabernet Sauvignon, Galilee, Golan Heights, Israel
This dish was meat overload, but oh so good. The rib was meltingly tender and savoury. The beef cheeks were a little on the tough side, but deeply flavourful. The beef tenderloin was slightly more than medium-rare.
This team was tasked with plating sliced spring rolls stuffed with fruit over a bed of tropical “cubic” consisting of kiwi, pineapple, honeydew, cantaloupe (musk melon), and strawberries. Accompanying, in-house made banana ice cream.
While we ate courses 1 through 4 at the Chef’s Table, we moved into Le Cafe proper for dessert. It was here chefs and restaurateurs taking issue with food bloggers “documenting” food was raised. Because we were somewhat disorganized serving dessert, the ice cream had already begun to melt. Yet, many of us pulled out our cameras to take pictures. By the time we got to eat, the ice cream had lost its intended texture. Chef Blackie doesn’t mind the cameras, he being proud of his dishes.
Jenn and I had attempted a dessert spring roll like the one served, several years ago. Unlike ours, Chef Blackie’s recipe worked, combining roasted banana with sweet pineapple, everything bound together slightly by the semolina.
Please note that team members weren’t restricted to their dishes. We all participated in the platings. Here is Jenn and I “at the belt” for Courses 2 and 4 respectively.
And, here is some of the mise for Course 4
The wine pairing were chosen by NAC Sommelier Tegan Schioler, who was on hand for the event. She patiently introduced the wines with each course.
Throughout the multi-course meal, Chef Blackie made himself available for questions. Interesting tidbits? He and Chef Sharma worked together in Indonesia. They had no idea they would work together again at the NAC. Chef Blackie is continuing to revisit the menus, sizing down portions for theater-goers who are either on their way to or on their way from performances. An entire rack of lamb for instance is not appropriate later into the evening. Caesar salad has been relegated to lunch and may be eventually removed. Screech cake may follow. Chef Blackie wants to continue renovations of Le Cafe moving the bar and entrance so they are both more accessible. If you ask for fries at Le Cafe, the NAC kitchen will make them, but they will be served off plate. The same kitchen will also cook a rack of lamb well done if so requested.
Chef Blackie also told us he typically works 12 hour days, 6 days a week. He has two kids. And, his favourite protein is a two bone prime rib roast his wife of 15 years made with just salt, pepper, and a little olive oil.
So why, does a very busy Executive chef take the time to make small talk with 10 food bloggers when he has a massive kitchen and a brigade of 26 chefs and cooks to look after? I think he asked himself, with the increasing democratization of food thought, why wait for food bloggers to come try his new tasting “menu.” He would just end up explaining everything to them one at a time. Instead, he gathered a number of us together on a traditionally slow night, showed us how his kitchen works, and took the opportunity to determine how passionate we really are about food.
I think that while we were treated to a grand meal, which the NAC hopes we will post blogs about, it was food bloggers who were reviewed this time around. Chef Blackie more than likely found out how we ticked and what he learned will affect how he engages us next time.
I hope we left a good impression.
By the end of the event, my cheeks were sore from smiling. I had such a good time, I did not know hours had flown by. This must be what going to Disneyland feels like.
My overall determinations? There is an army of people behind the Michael Blackie “MB” brand. Chef Blackie, himself, has quite the culinary vision for the NAC and he has the tenacity to make it happen.
Thank-you to Jennifer, Natalie Peachy (a fellow member of Team Crabby), Sommelier Schioler, Chef Blackie, and his tremendously patient brigade. It was an evening to remember.
53 Elgin Street