James Bratsberg didn’t start off with a passion for cooking, but he found himself quickly falling in love with it. He simply dropped a resumé off at a restaurant because he was looking for a job as a young man. The restaurant he worked at had hired too many dishwashers so, as Bratsberg says, he was “thrown into doing crème brûlée and cleaning oysters for my first day. I just fell in love with it overnight!”
Canada's Chefs in Conversation: James Bratsberg, Ottawa ON
Chef James Bratsberg combines respect for high-quality ingredients with a delicate approach that showcases those ingredients at MeNa in Ottawa, ON.
Parisian gnocchi - spring peas, sweet corn kernels, peaches and cream corn flan and crispy parsley
From the very beginning, Bratsberg had positive influences on him as a chef. He talks about Matt Cassidy, who was a sous chef at his first restaurant, and says, “ he took me under his wing. He beat me up a lot but he built me up a lot too. He’s no longer cooking but we’re still friends.”
Dominique Moussu was another chef who shaped him. Moussu was at Teatro in Calgary at the time. In fact, Bratsberg cites him as one of the major influences in his life and says that it was Moussu who taught him to love food. He continues, “I know it sounds cheesy but that’s just how chefs talk every moment of every day. He’d constantly be reading cookbooks or looking at restaurants online, so he’d always pop up with some random idea to inspire me.”
Further along in his career, the chef talks about working under Scott Woods who was the chef at Lucien in Toronto. He says that he had no idea what he was getting into, but “it turned out to be a huge shaping point in my career because the entire kitchen was full of guys who were there really early in the morning, no talking, heads down and all working.” He adds that a good part of the experience was being the least knowledgeable person there.
The process of creating a culinary identity can take many years and Bratsberg says that his is still under construction, but he explains that he likes to make food that is “pretty humble in its roots and somewhat delicate.” He adds that he wants to enjoy the flavours of properly cooked ingredients and not “mask too much or use too many spices to overwhelm everything.”
Ingredients are a big part of Bratsberg’s approach to the dishes he creates. He admits that he’s still building up a portfolio of farmers and purveyors but says, “There are a couple of farms that do deliver and they have some of the coolest stuff, so you can go to them and ask them to grow something you’ve seen online, for example, and they’ll say that they can try to grow it.” He adds that he wants to find a small lot for the restaurant so that they can start a small garden of their own.
Seared duck breast- Nantes carrots, quinoa, orange demi glace
Roasted leg of lamb - Baby Fennel, pickled Patty Pan, burnt marjoram demi.
The actual process of creating new dishes can start with some strange inspiration for Bratsberg. He explains, “For instance, I was watching a crappy horror movie with my wife and I brought up Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and the next day I created a dish with quail and roasted beets inspired by the movie’s theme.” He says that, at other times, the inspiration comes from reading cookbooks including classics like Escoffier to see how they approached recipes and the techniques that they used to create them.
Having a motivated and positive kitchen environment is important for Bratsberg because he says that he enjoys “being around people who are passionate about what they do. If I can pass that enthusiasm onto other people, be that our staff or our diners, that would be great.”
Teaching is also important for the chef. He uses the example of two of his young cooks who’d never cooked with foie gras before and says, “ I’m going to teach them how to play with foie. I think that’s what I’d like to do here. I want people to have fun, to love what they’re doing and to feel the desire to be creative.”
As for his personal sources of inspiration and motivation, Bratsberg mentions reading about other chefs and points out, “I’m a bit of a cookbook fiend and I love reading about what other chefs are doing, where they’re at and where they’re going. I don’t even necessarily look at them for ideas, I look at them for the stories that they tell. I think chefs now are trying to do so much more than just cook. They’re trying to connect with people and connect with the land.”
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