Chances are good that you’ve noticed a shift in menu fare lately – more like a sea change, really. Filet mignon is no longer king. Instead, you’re likely to nosh on sweetbreads, heart and brain. Better yet, the chef will have proudly made all the charcuterie, maybe even the bread, himself. This year’s Maverick Chefs are leading that cross-Canada charge. Brayden Kozak, Brandon Olsen, Ségué Lepage and Dale MacKay have, in one way or another, revolutionized the way Canadians think about and enjoy food. They have embraced the beauty and simplicity of old, artisanal methods making as much by hand as possible despite the small, cramped kitchens in which they work their magic.
They haven’t accomplished such a feat alone, of course. All four are quick to highlight the contributions of family and fellow chefs in directing them to a path of exploration and discovery. Now, they’re paying it forward – to us. When was the last time you ate a meal that revealed the chef’s heart and soul? Try an order of tongue on brioche or re-imagined poutine and relish an animated conversation with the chef in the process.
It’s that dedication to handcrafted products that sets these chefs apart. They are fearless in their pursuit of quality, ethics and taste. Eating at their restaurants, where the ambiance is at once lively and intimate, is like unwrapping a present containing something handcrafted just for you. Brayden, Brandon, Ségué and Dale have mastered the art of making people feel warm and happy. Drop by and have a taste of food that’s made with love.
Chef de Cuisine – The Black Hoof
When Brandon Olsen sets his sights on something, there’s no way that it’s not going to happen. Take his experience at the French Laundry in Yountville, California. With only one year of culinary school under his belt, Brandon decided that he wanted to stage (work for free) in that very upscale and famous restaurant. Competition was stiff. Give up the dream, his friends told him. So, Brandon began writing letters to the French Laundry’s Chef Thomas Keller, and kept it going until Keller could no longer ignore Brandon’s determination. “For me, culinary school is a waste of time,” he explains. “I learn more, and more quickly, if it’s hands on.” Call it his driving force, that insatiable thirst for knowledge and limitless persistence are part of the reason he’s living his dream today. “I hit a point in my career where I realized I didn’t want to do the same things over and over like a machine,” he says. That’s when he fell in love with charcuterie. Brandon took the methods and practices of this ancient art to heart. The Black Hoof has become known for favourites like Roasted Bone Marrow, Blood Custard and Smoked Sweetbreads that Brandon creates, cures, tests and perfects in the restaurant’s very own curing room. He feels that “Watching people eat charcuterie that we’ve made is very satisfying. There’s a certain level of pride, and it makes me happy when I can serve my own charcuterie.”
A true chef, he suggests, is one who constantly re-evaluates himself and learns new things, Brandon tells me. He clearly fits that description. But, charcuterie is just the start. Brandon’s goal is to become completely self-sufficient, making as much of the restaurant’s food as possible right to down to the bread. With that kind of single-minded dedication there’s no doubt he’ll succeed.
Where did you get your culinary training?
George Brown for a year, then just working at restaurants.
What’s your favourite type of charcuterie?
Terrines, just because I don’t have to wait as long to see if it worked out.
Who has influenced your cooking the most?
Dave Cruz and Grant Van Gameren
What made you decide to be a chef?
I got into cooking because I needed a way out of my house at the time. It was a way to release my stress and tension, and I fell in love with it.
What’s your favourite country or region to eat in?
I love eating in Napa.
What music do you like to play in the kitchen?
We play a lot of Motown, late 60s and early 70s Soul.
Do you have a guilty secret ingredient?
What’s your favourite wine?
Dessert wines like Sauternes, Tokaji, Icewine – something super sweet.
Name an overrated ingredient.
How about an underrated ingredient?
Do you have any rituals you have to follow before you start cooking?
Not really. I just need a coffee before service.
What skill does someone most need to work in your kitchen?
What’s the most embarrassing thing that you’ve done while cooking?
I was at Ad Hoc. Our kitchen was about 100 degrees. I was trying to pipe buttercream, and it was just not working. Dave was not happy with me. I was already pushing a 10-hour day. I basically stayed all night piping cupcakes to order because it was so hot.
Do you have anything surprising in your home fridge?
There’s nothing in my fridge but a half finished box of Chapman’s ice cream.
What do you eat for breakfast?
Coffee, muffin and some yogurt.
What’s your favourite meal to cook at home?
Grilled cheese sandwich using Wonder bread and Kraft singles.
Where do you shop for ingredients?
Kensington market or bodegas by my house, Sanagan’s Meat Locker, any independent grocer that has nice produce.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
Ski instructor maybe.
Liver and Onions
Duck liver Mousse
1 cup Butter
1 cup Duck Fat
1 lb Duck Livers
6 Egg yolks
2 cups 35% cream
1 tbsp Salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 cup Brandy
1. Pre heat oven to 300°F.
2. Heat cream slightly (no more than to body temperature); set aside.
3. In a blender, combine butter and duck fat; add livers and blend till smooth. Add egg yolks, and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl then add the brandy and cream. Whisk till the mixture is well incorporated. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve. 4. Lay two layers of plastic wrap into a terrine mould. Pour liver mixture in and cover with foil. Place in a water bath in the oven, and cook until the internal temperature reaches 150°F in the centre. Let cool overnight.
Roasted Cipollini Onions
1 lb Cipollini Onions (peeled, root still on- holds the onion together while cooking)
4 tbsp Butter
4 tbsp Honey
½ cup Chicken Stock or water
Salt to taste
1. Pre heat oven to 350°F.
2. In a medium pan, over low-med heat drizzled with a slash of olive oil, start to roast the onions until dark golden brown on both sides; season with salt.
3. Add stock, butter and honey. Place in oven and cool until tender.
4. Remove onions to a plate. Reduce the liquid until it becomes a medium to heavy syrup; add onions back in and let cool.
1 cup brown bread
1. Over low heat in a pan drizzled with olive oil, crisp up the bread crumbs until golden brown. Season with salt and drain on a paper towel.
1. In a pan set over med-high heat drizzled with a splash of olive oil. Add mushrooms and sauté. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Add roasted Cipollini onions and their roasting liquid. On a plate, place the liver mousse, and pour the onion mixture nicely around it. Garnish with the bread crumbs and a piece of chervil.
Head Chef/Co-owner – Three Boars
You can call Brayden Kozak crazy, but thorough would be a better description for this consummate professional. That’s the only explanation for doing what would no doubt make other chefs squirm. One very busy night, Brayden changed the menu mid-service. “We’d sold out of a third of the menu. It’s embarrassing when the server has to tell customers that we don’t have certain things,” he says. So, he took advantage of a lull to alter the dishes. “I knew what I was doing,” he assures me. In fact, changing the menu frequently to feature fresh, local ingredients has become a point of pride for Brayden and co-owners Brian Welch and Chuck Elves, and something that continually entices customers to return to see what delicious food they have created.
Innovative is another word that describes Brayden. Three Boars opened with a vision to provide an alternative to the typical offerings in Edmonton. Inspiration came from a video called The Kill Floor by Kevin Kossowan that detailed the story of meat wasted because many restaurants only buy expensive cuts like filet mignon and sirloin steak. Believing that this practice was unethical, Brayden and his team prefer to source local suppliers for the off-cuts that are typically left behind. Building those strong relationships has meant that Three Boars is able to consistently feature the freshest and most flavourful offal. “I wanted to exit the gate with something that would let people know what we were about. The pig’s head bahn mi was kind of like the winner,” he explains. “I couldn’t think of a pretty name for it. It feels wrong and disrespectful to cover up what it really is.”
Introducing diners to a menu featuring off-cuts isn’t even Brayden’s most significant achievement. Three Boars also brought tapas-style dining to Edmonton. “Having a huge entrée that you eat by yourself seems a little ridiculous to me,” he explains. “Make it fun and approachable. I think that comes across with our customers.” Three Boars is packed every night and patrons look forward to all the tasty fare Brayden and his team cook up.
Where did you grow up?
Which cookbook changed everything for you?
The French Laundry Cookbook
What was your first job in a professional kitchen?
Pan guy at The River City Chophouse
What’s your favourite kitchen tool?
What are you fanatical about?
What’s your favourite drink?
Beer, especially ESB (extra special bitter)
Is there something you refuse to have in your kitchen?
Is there a food that you really don’t like?
What rule of conduct matters more than any other in your kitchen?
Keeping your cool.
Where do you shop for your ingredients?
Italian Centre shop, Old Strathcona Farmers Market, smaller suppliers.
What’s the most embarrassing thing that you’ve done while cooking?
Coming to work super hung-over. I couldn’t keep it down. I really disappointed my chef. I’d get to the line, then I’d have to curl up. It was pretty horrible. I haven’t repeated it since.
What are your plans for the future?
Open up other dining experiences. I also want to provide help for new and up-coming talented chefs in the city. Maybe even open up a food truck.
What do you eat for breakfast?
Toast or grilled cheese and lots of coffee
You’ve got 24 hours to live. What’s your last meal?
Whole roast suckling pig
What was your favourite meal as a child?
Nalesniki. They’re savoury crêpes filled with cottage cheese, covered in cream and baked.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Spend time with my daughter.
Four Whistle Farm Duck Breast with Wild Mushroom Risotto and Miso Broth
2 Duck Breast, cleaned and scored
4 cups hot chicken or vegetable broth
3 Tbsp light miso paste (shiro miso)
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1 shallot, finely diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup Shiao Hsing wine
2 Tbsp malt vinegar
1 cup mixed wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp butter
1. Dissolve the miso paste in hot broth and set aside.
2. Heat oil, shallot and garlic in a large non-stick skillet and sweat until softened. Add mushrooms and cook until soft. Add rice and toast until white and opaque. Add wine and vinegar, cooking until absorbed.
3. Add enough broth/miso mixture to just cover rice (about 2 ladlefuls) and stir until absorbed. Repeat until rice is cooked through and creamy. Reserve a small amount of broth to finish the plate.
4. Meanwhile, heat a cast iron pan in a 450°F preheated oven and place the seasoned duck breast skin side down and roast until the fat has rendered, becomes crispy, and the meat is medium rare. Set aside to rest.
5. Finish risotto with the butter and adjust seasoning. Plate risotto in a shallow bowl and top with thin slices of duck breast. Pour a small amount of broth around the risotto and garnish with leaves of baby basil and Maldon sea salt.
Owner/Head Chef – Le Comptoir – Charcuteries et Vins
At Le Comptoir – Charcuterie et Vins, the restaurant tables take on symbolic significance. They’re not tables so much as they are chef’s block-style countertops. You feel like you might be sitting at Ségué’s own home kitchen counter listening to the sounds of sizzling coming from the pans heating on the stovetop in front of you. The idea of home, and thereby family, is fundamental to what chef and co-owner Ségué Lepage is about. He was cooking in his parent’s kitchen by the age of five. “In my youth, my parents grew fruit and vegetables, raised chickens, ducks and a cow for milk. I helped my father to make bread, and he also produced honey and maple syrup.” That early introduction to quality products was something Ségué never forgot. Neither was his deep respect for the whole animal. Ségué has become known for opening his customers’ eyes and palates to tasty creations like porchetta di testa (pork roast made with the head of a pig). “People are very impressed with the cotechino (Italian stuffed sausage) that we serve hot and crispy on the charcuterie platter,” he tells me. Ségué’s family has not only been fundamental in developing his culinary imagination, they have become a daily part of Le Comptoir. He co-owns the restaurant with his brother, Noé, while his other brother, Jasson, helps Ségué make the charcuterie. “We work together most of the week,” he says, “which is great!”
Ségué is nothing if not passionate about cooking. I asked why he would go to such lengths to produce his own charcuterie when he could surely find high quality artisanal products at his fingertips. He exclaims: “It’s no trouble – I take pride in my work! I only bring raw products into the restaurant, and we transform everything. If I had more space and the right oven, I would produce my own bread too. Cooking is fun!” Le Comptoir’s customers aren’t the only ones who have taken notice of Ségué’s considerable talent. Last year, he earned an invitation to cook at the Gold Medal Plates competition, a culinary fundraiser in support of Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes. “Unfortunately I did not win, but I’m proud of my team and what we served,” he admits. Since Le Comptoir – Charcuterie et Vins was designated project number one, what does Ségué hope to accomplish next, I wonder. “Open project number two and number three, and create new ones,” he says. “Make cheese, produce apple cider and eau-de-vie, export my charcuterie to France! Sail the oceans for a year. And more … I’m only 33 years old.”
Although projects two and three have yet to be clearly defined, Ségué understands exactly what is most important to him. “The three projects are different but have the same guideline: the maximum use of exceptional, natural, organic and local products. So the name and logo become a guarantee of quality.”
Owner/Head Chef – Ensemble Restaurant and Bar
If it weren’t for his awesome way with food, I might be inclined to suggest that Dale MacKay’s work ethic is the reason for his success. He is a chef who, when looking to the future, aspires to maintain his diligence and honesty, and do what he loves in a positive and authentic manner. Oh, and change Canada’s culinary landscape while he’s at it. “Canada’s major markets are saturated, almost spoiled by the choice of restaurants and culinary talent available to them. Canada has an enormous wealth of fantastic chefs and extraordinary ingredients, but that wealth isn’t necessarily shared coast to coast. I’d like to see that change,” he explains. Dale has proven that he’s more than capable of accomplishing such a task.
The cooking bug bit Dale at a young age while working as a dishwasher. It didn’t take him long to go from flipping burgers to camping out behind Gordon Ramsay’s Chelsea-based restaurant. Dale’s is a story of ultimate belief in oneself. Having seen Ramsay’s Boiling Point on television, Dale recounts, “I spend every cent I had on a one way ticket to England.” At only 19 years of age, he was granted a “one day stage (no pay gig) to see if he liked what I was made of.” That one day was all it took for Ramsay to see Dale’s potential. Years later, Ramsay put Dale in charge of opening six of Ramsay’s new restaurants in England, Japan and New York.
Dale opened Ensemble Restaurant and Bar in May of 2011 and followed up with Ensemble Tap (eTap) in December of the same year. I asked him how he came up with that name. “I knew for a very long time that if I ever opened my own place it would be called ensemble. I am a team player, and the English translation of the French ‘ensemble’ more or less means that a group of artists is participating together in a creative endeavour, and that no single one of them is more important to the end result than the others.” As much as he loves to cook, the people in Dale’s life are what ultimately matter to him the most. He cites that support network as his primary reason for entering and ultimately winning the inaugural season of Top Chef Canada. “My son Ayden,” Dale says, “taught me so much about what is important … about working extremely hard for something or someone you love. You can apply all of that to every aspect of life – cooking or whatever.”