Last Monday, many of us who follow food in Ottawa were taken aback by a media release that landed in our inboxes. It was penned by Genevieve Rochon, long time manager of the venerable Courtyard Restaurant (21 George Street). Murray Wilson (@murray_wilson) has been hired as Executive Chef, replacing Michael Hay (@michaelthehay) who steps down officially on June 24th.
Hay has been at the helm of Courtyard for four and a half years, presiding over its two kitchens since Marc Lepine left to open the the National Capital Region’s modernist cuisine outpost Atelier Restaurant (540 Rochester Street). Of note, Hay re-opened Courtyard after a fire destroyed its kitchen just a few weeks after he celebrated the restaurant’s 30th anniversary with a “decadent” dinner event.
In hindsight, Hay’s departure seems almost planned. Wilson re-joined the ranks of Courtyard’s talented brigade, becoming its Sous after Curtis Luk left for Kitsilano, British Columbia to cook with fellow Top Chef Canada 2012 contestant Trevor Bird at Bird’s Fable Restaurant. Hay gave Wilson free reign to create this summer’s menu, Courtyard’s menu changing four-times a year. Wilson’s new menu is a departure from Hay’s spring one. That is, beyond employing newly available seasonal ingredients.
During his tenure, Hay re-visioned the food at Courtyard, working tirelessly to change its reputation for being just a special event space: somewhere people get married, somewhere people have their first date, somewhere people celebrate their anniversaries. He was known to create great dishes with subtle molecular twists. No matter how many immersion circulators he had in the back, his dishes were always accessible.
Wilson vows to build on what he describes as the “bedrock” Hay laid down. Good friends for the past year and half, Wilson wishes Hay the best on his moving into the kitchen at George Monsour’s popular Backlane Cafe (1087 Wellington Street W.) in Ottawa. Both chefs want to eat at each other’s restaurants in coming months.
Wilson, who has worked in the professional kitchens of Gordon Ramsay (Claridges) and Duncan Welgemoed (Five Horseshoes) before coming to Ottawa, was a finalist in Masterchef: The Professionals in 2008, competing with many talented British chefs. At Bistro at Hotel du Vin, he earned 2 AA rosettes and learned how to prepare high end food in very large dining rooms not dissimilar to those at Courtyard.
[Photo courtesy Chef Wilson]
When he arrived in Ottawa, Wilson actually worked a couple months at Courtyard part-time before moving onto Atelier, becoming Lepine’s Sous. He was a member of the Lepine’s team that took the gold medal at this year’s Canadian Culinary Championships (CCC). The CCC is a national competition amongst regional qualifying chef teams who compete successfully in specific cities. The component “challenges” of the national competition are judged by a panel of respected food writers, food critics, and fellow chefs.
At Courtyard, Wilson wants to establish a direction for the restaurant to become one of the best in the city.
“In a year’s time, I want to be able to look back and see significant progress”, said Wilson before an evening service.
Courtyard will stay an a-la-carte restaurant. It will maintain its good relationships with local and sustainable suppliers, especially Organic Ocean. Already, the summer menu employes ingredients from the ByWard Market’s farmers’ market. The berry dessert with strawberries compressed in chartreuse and black pepper on the dinner menu, for instance, changes to feature whatever best fruit Wilson and his cooks find in the market each day. Its apricot streusel is likely a nod to New York’s Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant whose cook book Wilson feels is the “French Laundry” of his generation of chefs.
Like Hay, Wilson wants Courtyard to be known for its good food and service. Wilson wants to grow Courtyard’s loyal following. He will introduce a new flexibility to the menu, tailoring dishes for his guests’ dietary needs. If you call ahead, he will happily prepare dishes or tasting menus that are vegetarian or gluten-free. Wilson loves working with carrot, mushroom, and squash.
“I hope to see people come in and enjoy the food,” exclaimed Wilson. “This is what we’re here for.”
That said, expect to see more European influences on the menu than in the past. His smoked mackerel appetizer with iberico and pearl onions ($14) is an example of this pairing.
“We smoke the mackerel in-house old school…in a box!”
Old school, however, is paired with new school as Wilson is known for using modernist techniques with classical flavour combinations: beef and horse radish, peas and parma ham, salmon and cream cheese, and “Old Bay” and crab. His coconut dessert ($10) exemplifies this with its component aerated carrot cake, coconut ice cream, young coconut, coconut foam, and black salt.
Wilson’s new salmon main ($28) also exemplifies this theme. While the sockeye salmon fillet is perfectly poached in olive oil infused with cardamom, it tastes “smoky.” The smoke comes from the cream cheese under the salmon. The dish also features carrots, two-ways, glazed and pickled.
On his to-do list, Wilson is looking for a Sous. When we interviewed him, he had two strong candidates already.
On his wish list for the kitchen, a roto-evaporator and pacojet. Though, Wilson finds it already well equipped. Think good tools in creative hands.
As for upcoming events, Wilson confided he has a few ideas, but people shouldn’t expect another Eleven Madison Park tribute dinner anytime soon. He needs to concentrate on overseeing the transition at Courtyard for the time being.
Good luck to Courtyard’s new Executive Chef.
Rest assured, we will be checking in on you!
21 George Street
Tags: ByWard Market, Courtyard Restaurant, featured, Michael Hay, Murray Wilson