Quality, but hold the fuss: John Morris, NAC’s interim executive chef, simplifies Le Café’s food

NAC Le Café executive chef John Morris has simplified the menu in favour of a ‘Canadian contemporary cuisine’. Photo by Ron Eade

OTTAWA — The two-for-one Le Café specials are gone. So too is the trademark MB Cuisine logo that once adorned the menu of the National Arts Centre’s dining room.

Also missing is the distinctly East Asian flair that punctuated Michael Blackie’s three-year tenure as executive chef before he stepped down in early November to develop his own business, MB Cuisine, and work on his television prospects.

Meanwhile, on Elgin Street, sous chef John Morris has stepped in as interim executive chef, a title that’s widely expected to become permanent when management makes it official.

Morris, 37, born in Bathgate, Scotland, and raised in Ontario, has some 20 years experience, including as sous chef when Blackie opened Perspectives, the restaurant in the four-diamond Brookstreet in 2003.

He spent some time at Kananaskis Lodge in Alberta, at Caesars Hotel and Casino in Windsor, and was executive sous chef at the Ottawa Marriott Hotel before returning to work with Blackie at the NAC in 2009.

Within days of stepping up as interim executive chef, Morris set to work simplifying the menu and presentation of plates.

Arcane, if not confusing, references to “plum paint,” “duck elixir,” and “rice bomb” are now purged from the pages. Also jettisoned was an odd flirtation with the “Café Cam” where images of someone’s dinner were streamed live over the Internet as plates were passed from kitchen to servers in the dining room.

Morris is the first to concede he follows in big footsteps — those left by iconic executive chef Kurt Waldele, who ran the NAC kitchens for some 30 years before he died in 2009 from cancer, and more recently Blackie, who succeeded him. But make no mistake, the new menu launched last week is all Morris — that is, decidedly and proudly “Canadian contemporary cuisine” with new vegetarian offerings, tried and true favourites such as traditional steak tartare and rack of Ontario lamb, and wild pan-seared salmon, for which fisherman Rick Burns in British Columbia is identified by name on the menu.

Here the wild and sustainable salmon is the same served by Culinary Team Canada at the Culinary Olympics in Germany, and at the Canadian High Commission in London. The Caesar salad comes with Canadian back bacon, his rich, earthy wild mushroom chowder features chunks of mushrooms and crispy wild Manitoba rice as garnish. Morris is particularly delighted with his new pâté de foie, an almost rustic three-layer dish served in a jar — the bottom is a rich, creamy mousse of chicken liver, the centre layer is duck rillettes, and the top is red currant jelly — served with toasted crostini.

Below is an edited interview with Morris, in which he talks about the NAC dining mandate, what his customers are looking for, and his philosophy about what it means to serve contemporary Canadian cuisine.

Q: How do the demands of Le Café’s diners at differ from those at other restaurants in downtown Ottawa?

A: The people who come to dine with us want to have a good meal, as they do anywhere … What’s different is the style of service, where we have to adapt to a different timeline. Le Café is unique because you have a show and pre-theatre crowd. Some people who dine have all the time in the world, whereas others want to make the theatre. So you want a luxurious dining experience and not feel rushed, but at the same time you know they have a time limit.

It’s a balancing act where you invite 200 people over to dinner and they’re showing up generally between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. and curtain time is 8 p.m. For them to get to the show at 8 p.m. they still have to get upstairs, they have to pay their bills. So our goal in the kitchen is to get all the hot food out by 7 p.m. If we do that, we have succeeded in giving them a good experience without feeling rushed. But that means we’ve got to move.

That timeline affects everything else right down to the menu planning and equipment you buy, the amount of people you have on deck to perform these tasks.

Q: How does that affect your menu choices?

A: This leads me as a chef to want to keep things pure, to keep flavours pure and simple, give people quality and don’t fuss with it overly. If you want to deliver something quickly, then you don’t want to go with too many touches on a plate because if you do, that hampers your ability to deliver the best.

The one thing we take pride in is we do everything à la minute, from plating to sauces coming off the stove, all of it done and plated in the moment. For us, your steak comes off the grill, it goes on the plate and it’s going out. We just don’t want to have too many steps along the way. So, what are we putting on the plate? You’re leaving out a lot of extraneous garnishes and stuff like this. Hey, I’ve been working in fine dining most of my life and we’ve made many beautiful garnishes and fussy food, but I think in this day and age not everyone is looking for that.

Q: What do they want?

A: What they’re really concerned about is quality, they want to know where their food is coming from. If it’s seafood, they want to know it’s sustainable, if it’s wild. You use as much local produce as you can get. So it’s important if you are going to leave certain things off the plate then you better make sure those four or five things you are putting down have to be bang-on.

Q: To what extent do you feel obligated to showcase Canadian cuisine using Canadian ingredients?

A: That’s a huge deal for me, and for the arts centre. Every chef will bring his own style to the menu, but here at the arts centre the mandate is to showcase Canadian talent … I want to reflect that in Le Café. I’m a Canadian-trained chef, I did my apprenticeship in Alberta, I’ve travelled throughout Canada and cooked with people from across the country. For me, I feel more than anyone that I can use the entire palette of the country, and that is encouraged. Canada has a rich culinary history and it gets better as time goes by. So I want to showcase that. I’ve got some favourites from my travels across the land and I want to pull some of those elements into our menu as well.

Q: How do you want people to feel when they dine at Le Café?

A: I want people to feel the warmth, and I want them to feel welcome, and once they get the menu I want them to feel inspired and enticed … To me, natural is always better. Don’t get in the way as a chef, don’t over-manipulate things. Seek out the best quality you can, then coax out the optimum flavour.

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