Canada's Chefs: Joe MacLellan, Halifax NS

by Krlmagi

Using foraged ingredients and delving into preserving, pickling and curing are all part of Chef Joe MacLellan's unique approach to food.

Starting as a dish washer in his mother’s professional kitchen was Joe MacLellan’s introduction to the culinary world. One day, a cook called in sick and MacLellan took his place on the line. Even though he ended up simply buttering toast, MacLellan enjoyed the experience. He chose to go to culinary school but initially it wasn’t out of passion.

However, once he started the culinary program, his passion was kindled by two cookbooks: Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook and Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of A Chef. Keller’s cookbook, in particular, excited MacLellan. He explains, “That cookbook blew my mind with what was possible with food. I was at a point where I was working at pubs and frying chicken so that was amazing.”

At that point, MacLellan applied himself diligently to his studies and his reading and finished culinary school. Ever since, his career has been driven by his desire for constant improvement and the pleasure he takes in learning new ways of approaching food.

Chef Joe MacLellan
Chef Joe MacLellan

Two of Canada’s most prominent chefs played a crucial role in MacLellan’s culinary education. The first was Marc Thuet who he considers the most important culinary figure in his life. He went into Thuet’s kitchen as a “cocky kid who had some hotel experience” and emerged as a chef. MacLellan learned many classic French techniques from Thuet but, “they kept evolving and progressing with my time in his kitchen. I started at the bottom and left as sous chef in two years.”

 Chef Lorenzo Loseto is the second chef who influenced MacLellan’s approach to food and cooking. The chef calls him a relentless, creative genius. The kitchen at George is also where MacLellan learned about different cuisines from all over the world due to Loseto’s interest in many different culinary styles. He adds, “ It was a tough kitchen, I’m not going to lie. Every day was a struggle to get ready for service and that’s what Lorenzo wanted. He was there to push you and he was there to push himself!”

Right now, MacLellan’s approach to food and cooking has been informed by a summer spent foraging while he prepares to open The Kitchen Table in the fall. He’s taken the wild mushrooms and other wild plants and canned them, pickled them and preserved them. MacLellan lives in the country so he can walk out into the woods and find all of his ingredients to make a dish. Nova Scotia has a short growing season so the idea of preserving all of summer’s ingredients for the winter is appealing to him. It isn’t a revolutionary approach but the chef feels that it returns to intelligent approaches to food that have been lost.

Deer & It's Diet: 6 month cured wild deer bresaola, wood sorrel, moss, blueberry.
Deer & It's Diet: 6 month cured wild deer bresaola, wood sorrel, moss, blueberry.
Christopher Young

While MacLellan doesn’t believe in having a ‘signature dish’ he talks about a dish that he’s been working on that showcases his current approach to food. It’s a wild mushroom tart that avoids the clichés of that dish in several ways. The tart shell itself is made from smoked porcini mushrooms that have been confited in sunflower oil, strained, pureéd and dehydrated. At a certain point in the dehydration process, MacLellan forms the smoked porcinis into a circular mold to make the tart shell. He continues, “You can deep fry or sear the shell in a pan. It produces a crispy, smoky, umami-flavoured crust that I fill with tiny chanterelles and garnish with pickled reindeer moss and some birch syrup.”

The whole process of writing menus has evolved for MacLellan. When he started out in more senior chef positions, he would create fresh menus every day by using the outdoors as a concept. He’d go into the woods and forage or visit markets and create dishes in a spontaneous way. Now he’s taken a more analytical, thoughtful approach to cooking. The new restaurant will only have eight course tasting menus so MacLellan is exploring the progression of dishes throughout a meal. At the same time, he’s simplifying the dishes themselves to create more direct food.

Slightly smoked trout, coffee miso, charred pickles, salmon roe.
Slightly smoked trout, coffee miso, charred pickles, salmon roe.
Christopher Young

Passion is the defining trait that MacLellan hopes to have as a chef because “at the end of the day you don’t make a lot of money and you don’t get a lot of social time” so one has to be driven by passion. He also strives for constant improvement and a strong work ethic. He says, “If you’re not continually pushing yourself, you almost become stagnant as a person. I’ve always adapted to my surroundings no matter where I’ve been or where I’ve cooked.”

Surrounding himself with committed, creative and passionate cooks is important for MacLellan. Without people who can help create an environment that encourages creative cross pollination, MacLellan doesn’t feel that a chef can reach his or her full potential. He feels that with a great team in place the possibilities for creation are endless.

Constant learning is what drives MacLellan in his career as a chef. He explains, “I like the idea of cooking as a creative outlet and it keeps me fine tuned to keep on pushing myself. I feel like I’ve really progressed in my career but some days it’s like, ‘Wow! I still have so much to learn!” Yesterday I found out that I could eat chokecherries and I really had no idea. I found out that wild bay leaves grow near my house. It’s not just learning about ingredients, it’s learning about  things like lacto fermenting. For me, it’s all about learning and being creative!”

 

This article is based on an interview conducted with Chef Joe MacLellan on August 24. 2015.

Pickled and oil preserved smelt, fresh cheese, fried bone, dill.
Pickled and oil preserved smelt, fresh cheese, fried bone, dill.
Christopher Young
Updated: 08/28/2015, Krlmagi
 
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Laureen Bolyd on 08/27/2015

This is such great news Joe. Congratulations to you! We can/'t wait to visit your new restaurant and try your wonderful creations. xo

Sandra Jamieson on 08/27/2015

This is so awesome to hear of Joe opening his own restaurant. Glad to hear he is doing so well....very well deserved. I worked with Joe in Guysborough few summers ago. Truly talented guy who is striving to use our own local foods. Congratulations on your own restaurant Joe!!!

Adrienne Betts on 08/27/2015

Joe is one of those amazingly creative chefs who also has the rare gift of being super approachable and collaborative with front of house staff. I had the pleasure of working with Joe a few summers ago in Guysborough and have been wondering where he was these days. I'll definitely be looking forward to trying out his new restaurant!

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