We first met Justin Tse (@justintse) during his summer internship at the venerable Courtyard Restaurant (21 George Street) four years ago. Back then, social media was very new and Ottawa’s chef-entrepreneurs and restauranteurs were following the global trend of dabbling in it. They created Twitter and Facebook accounts, slowly acclimatizing themselves to the dynamic nature of communicating with potential customers on social networks. Several added blogs to their online properties, hoping to shape their restaurants’ developing online personas.
To support them, we created a blog post that listed restaurants, their official twitter accounts, their chefs’ twitter accounts, and any other accounts that tweeted on behalf of the restaurants. I originally listed Justin as chef for the Courtyard, which his real chef Michael Hay (@michaelthehay) thankfully found amusing.
Justin had just survived a week’s stage in the Courtyard kitchen, earning him his internship.
He has since risen through the ranks, training with Quinn Davis and becoming the pastry chef. It has been two years since Justin finished the culinary program at St. Lawrence College in his hometown of Kingston. It has been two years since he returned to Ottawa to work for Hay. Then, the Courtyard was newly renovated, having recovered from a fire that shuttered the restaurant for almost six months.
Pastry was furthest from his mind during his studies, Justin already a veteran of the hot line, preparing mostly savoury dishes. He has been cooking since the tender age of 10, his family, parents and grandparents, owning and operating three Chinese restaurants in Peterborough and Kingston.
Mind you, Justin wasn’t cooking at home when he started. “I was born and raised in the kitchen”, he said while ordering the tortilla soup at Corazon de Mais (55 ByWard Market Square) in the ByWard Market.
“As soon as I could work, I started in a restaurant kitchen.”
As Jenn and I tucked into a quick lunch of soft tacos with the cook we always saw in the Courtyard kitchen during brunch, lunch, and dinner services, he admits his mom doesn’t cook. Dad is the chef/owner of Chinese Palace (2151 Bath Road, Kingston), an 88-seat restaurant that has been open for 30 years. It is very family-oriented, Justin’s cousins and elder and younger siblings also working long shifts there.
It was during his formative years in Kingston that he learned to power through 18 hour days. He traded an acceptance to George Brown College in Toronto for culinary school closer by, a part time job at the Ambassador Conference Resort (1550 Princess Street, Kingston), and shifts at his father’s restaurant. He was always working. In Ottawa, it was so rare not to see Justin in the Courtyard’s kitchen window we were not the least bit surprised when he ended up in the Globe and Mail one week, someone chancing a shot of him smirking.
In fact, during our chat, ever organized, Justin’s trusty iPhone sounded alarms, one after another. Time to wash down the kitchen. Time to start this prep. Time to check on that. It was his day off.
We were surprised when Marysol Foucault announced Justin would be joining her at her week-old restaurant venture Odile in Gatineau. As he explains it, just as he stepped out of his comfort zone to work for Hay, working for Foucault forces him to do it again. The Courtyard is a fine dining establishment that is slowly changing its reputation as a special event venue. People get married there. They make reservations for first dates, birthdays, and anniversaries. Slowly Ottawa is realizing the Courtyard has a good regular menu of dishes with modernist cuisine twists. People are starting to come in for the food.
“At the Courtyard, there is so much detail and care put into dishes”, exclaimed Justin. “Working there gave me a whole new outlook on food.”
He expects to have similar revelations in his new position. After he took his last call from the Courtyard’s liquid nitrogen supplier, Justin put down his phone and joked, “Yup, doubt there’s gonna be any liquid nitro at Odile.”
At Odile, Justin expects to take a step back from employing an immersion circulator and get back to the basics. “Marysol makes high end food. It’s local,” he said. “…just good food!”
He expects to learn a lot from Foucault, apprenticing to catch up with her other staff. Still, he wants to get up to speed fast and be a big part of Odile’s opening.
She has big plans from brunch and lunch menus that change weekly to tackling dinner with a liquor license.
At the Courtyard, Justin learned a lot about hydrocolloids. At Odile, he expects to learn a lot about pork.
When asked about working with the very attractive staff at Foucault’s restaurants, Justin admits he’s not quite sure how his girlfriend will feel, but they frequent Edgar (60 Rue Bégin) for brunch. Edgar is Foucault’s first restaurant.
When asked about heading to yet another city to cook, Justin hopes to pick up some French.
Good luck Justin!
We will miss your desserts at the Courtyard.
But, we expect to see snapshots of you in a frilly apron from your first day!
Update: While Justin did not forward us snaps of himself in a frilly apron, we did drop by Odile for brunch. So, here are shots of the dishes he and Marysol are cooking up on weekends.
47 rue Montclair (Montclair & Berri)
Hours: Wednesday to Sunday lunch/brunch (with dinner to come)
Tags: Courtyard Restaurant, Edgar, featured, Gatineau, interview, Justin Tse, Odile