From an early age, Chef Kai Salimäki was drawn to food and cooking. He spent his summers as a child in Finland with his grandmother who introduced him to Finnish cuisine with its game meats, seafood and preserves. Salimäki says that his parents were responsible for introducing him to the culinary industry. He was thirteen years old and asking them for pocket money so they got him a job working in a family friend's restaurant. It was the place he got his first taste of professional cooking.
Canadian Chefs in Conversation: Kai Salimäki, Calgary AB
Chef Kai Salimäki combines a love of locally sourced ingredients with a flair for pairing flavours while creating accessible food at The Block in Calgary.
Chef Kai Salimäki
As he progressed in his career Salimäki says he was influenced by some great chefs. He never attended culinary school, but says,"it was basically all self-teaching and learning from those chefs."
He says that the first chef who exerted a strong influence on him was an Edmonton chef named Peter Johner whom Salimäki credits with teaching him basic skills and some more refined techniques.
The second chef that he cites is Marcus Jeni who was a gold medal winning chef at Silver Springs Golf Course. He also mentions Chef Justin Leboe of Model Milk and says, "Chef Leboe’s pedigree alone is just awesome. He really put me to the test and expanded my culinary horizons.”
Salimäki goes on to talk about his current approach to food and cooking. He says that his initial influences were Italian and French but that he's, "gotten away from the heavy-handed sauces and deep reductions on everything" and focused on a fresher direction. He says, " I love using as much fresh and local produce as I can, so I use seasonal ingredients and get everything I can out of my suppliers.”
The inspiration to create new dishes comes from many sources for Salimäki. He explains that he looks to see the trends and ingredients being used in places like Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver. He adds, "There’s constant reading, even watching TV sometimes, so I’m always looking.”
Once he has the ideas, the chef lays out his approach to creating a new dish. Salimäki says he likes to play with flavours and tries to, "hit the main notes of sour, salty, sweet and bitter." He says he's also looking for a balance of textures as well as making sure to incorporate greens or some other "raw form" on the plate to add freshness.
Spinach salad - house bacon, pickled red onion, poached egg, goat cheese crouton, simple vinaigrette.
Wild B.C. sockeye salmon - piperade, basil aioli, arugula and crispy pancetta
Salimäki points out that while “farm-to-table” is trendy, he's been working in that fashion for the last ten years. He says that using locally sourced ingredients has gained recognition lately but he's been using local suppliers like Poplar Bluff for potatoes and Hotchkis for tomatoes for many years.
The biggest appeal of locally sourced products is quality for the chef. He feels that freshly farmed produce has much higher quality as opposed to the products that are trucked in from California. He adds, "Its great to be able to curb refrigerator trucks traveling for fourty-eight hours, produce that was picked three weeks ago, and wasn’t fully ripened on the vine or in the ground."
Salimäki talks about the traits that he aspires to have as a chef. He says that he tries to keep a level head and respond in an even-tempered way. He says that he loves his current crew and continues, "They’re great and they respond to me, so I don’t feel that I have to yell at them." He adds that having a calm quality helps him show a younger generation of cooks the kind of attitude that is important in the kitchen.
Another factor that Salimäki considers is the fact that he's in a service industry. He explains that in his kitchen, the customer is always first and also points out, "I’ve been in plenty of kitchens where ‘no’ comes first and that doesn’t make any sense to me. We’re in the service industry and we serve people."
In terms of his kitchen team, the chef says that the first trait that he looks for is passion. The kitchen staff, for him, has to love the food that they're putting out. Rushing is something that Salimäki doesn't want to see and he also encourages his staff to be, "constantly tasting everything. They have their tasting spoons on every station and nothing leaves the kitchen without me or them trying it first.”
Motivation and inspiration comes from many sources for Salimäki. He say that he honestly loves what he does to the point that he wakes up every day thinking about the features he'll create for the week. He says that he went to school to study computer science but discovered his true passion in cooking. He adds, "My motivation is my family and I want something that will help them in the long term. I want to be prosperous and perhaps maybe one of my children will follow in my footsteps or want to run the business one day.”
Butterscotch pie - vanilla whipped cream, toffee crumble.
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