Combining the best local ingredients with an approach that emphasizes their flavours and puts modern twists on classic dishes, Chef Stephen La Salle creates his take on contemporary British cuisine and gastropub food. For him, showcasing the love and passion that local producers put into what they raise and grow is crucial. He is also a chef who has a deep respect for seasonality and an interest in being part of a culinary community.
Canada's Chefs: Stephen La Salle, Ottawa
Chef Stephen La Salle creates modern British cuisine using seasonal, local ingredients at the Albion Rooms.
Chef Stephen La Salle at work.
1. When and how did you start down the path to becoming a chef?
I got a summer job at a fish store in the Byward Market*. I worked with fish all the time so I immersed myself in it. I'd be selling the patrons the fish and they'd be asking nineteen year-old me how to cook it.
I took that and ran with it, taking fish home and learning how to cook with it. On quiet weekday mornings the chefs from the embassies, the ambassador's residences and the Supreme Court popped in. I'd ask them what they were making so that exposed me to prominent chefs.
I got tired of going to night school so I made the jump to culinary school. Once I was enrolled, I transferred over to the fish market's restaurant side and that was my first kitchen job.
2. How have your culinary experiences moulded you into the cook you are today?
There's definitely a few chefs that shaped my career. I learned a lot of things from Charlotte Langley while I was at the Whalesbone. I learned a lot from Jason Duffy during my time at the Arc. I really grew up as a cook at the Arc. Jason really taught me about flavours and the passion of pairing two flavours together. I learned a lot of cool new dishes and that really encouraged me to progress.
Most importantly, it has been my peers from culinary school. All of the classmates challenged each other and the passion for food really took a hold of me when I was with those people. You always learn from the people you're with. You kind of hash it out and develop your own style when you're in this open forum with your peers.
3. Talk about your view of cooking and of food currently.
I want to be honest about where my ingredients come from, honest about how I cook them and honest about how I describe them.
I like our dishes to speak for themselves and make sense to the guests, I like them to be seasonal. I take a lot of influence from the food scene in London and British gastropubs.
When I was younger and I heard Herve This (a well-known French culinary scientist)talking. He said that cooking is really about three things - love, art and technique. The one thing that really stuck with me was the love aspect of it.
I really like to engage with our patrons. I instil in my cooks the fact that our job is to make people happy and we do that by cooking. I think a lot about who we're cooking for and I want them to know that we're cooking with love. It kind of sounds hokey but it can make a huge difference on the plate.
*Byward Market: A large market located in downtown Ottawa.
Roasted cauliflower, saffron mayo, raisins, croutons, pine nuts
4. Why is working with local produce and local suppliers of importance to you?
There's so much love and passion where local products enter the restaurant. Some times the job's almost done and its my job to just showcase that ingredient on the plate. Having something that's been taken care of and nurtured so well just makes sense to use. Using local products isn't really a decision any more, it's a given.
Great local ingredients have great local people behind them. If I get a compliment on my steak I can say its my farmer Kevin that just put a lot of love into it. There's a sense of community in Ottawa and some of the restaurants are using the same farmers. It's all a community of restaurants and farmers and chefs which is really cool.
5. How do you build relationships and connections with those suppliers?
Some of them I approach at farmer's markets, some of them I approach after trying their products. It's one on one, chef to farmer. The farmer that's feeding the cows is the same one who is texting me to ask if I've got what I need that week. I like to showcase the farmers and growers too. I'll put their names on the menu. It's a great relationship to have because they'll find something special for you sometimes. I look at it like they're doing something for me and I'm doing something for them back. It's a two-way street.
6. In the culinary world, what fascinates you most these days?
The decline of fine dining and the elevation of food that's not fine dining but a great middle ground. A lot of people are making really great honest food and there's a lot of love going into it.
Chef La Salle's tourtière scotch egg with pork, red deer, wild boar and duck.
Don Chow of Foodieprints.com
7. Talk me through the process of creating a dish from your initial ideas through to the finished plate.
In coming up with an original dish I'll probably start off with two to three flavours as the principal ones and then branch off into a couple of other elements. I look at textures, colours, styles and balance. Sometimes I'll chart out all of my options and then reduce them to their elements. I usually start with something that excites me. It might not be one specific thing but a combination of things. It might be something that I read, saw or tasted. If its something more classic, I'll think of ways to make it more exciting for me.
8. What are the elements that make up a good chef and a good restaurant team?
I think that humility goes a long way. One of the things that I like is looking at getting a good grasp on the bigger picture in the context of the restaurant. People come into a restaurant to enjoy themselves and be happy. The food is only a part of that experience. There's also beverages, service and ambiance. Taking care of those other elements can really inspire you not to create just a good plate but a good experience for the guest. Always thinking about the guest and how to elevate their experience will inspire me to create great food.
9. When you look for ways to stay fresh and motivated, what are they?
I read and I eat out. Occasionally I challenge myself and say,"I'm tired of this dish, I want something new!"so I'll try something different. I take inspiration from my peers as well. Nothing is really static about food. That great piece of pork belly in your fridge today isn't going to be so great in a week. Things always change. Seasons always change and there's always new produce and you don't have to do the same thing as last year.
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