Chef Conversations: Jonathan Harris + Suyeon Myeong, Chelsea PQ

by Krlmagi

Chefs Jonathan Harris and Suyeon Myeong create unique cuisine that showcases the plethora of farm grown ingredients around them at Ma Tante Carole in Chelsea.

Suyeon Myeong and Jonathan Harris fuse their individual experiences with a shared passion for local ingredients. Harris has wanted to be a chef since he was a child. He was inspired by the TV chefs he watched growing up.

As he got older, he combined a love for travel with his passion for cooking. He explains, “Wherever I went, I knew I could get a job. The more I learned, the more I loved it and the more I wanted to learn.”

In Myeong’s case, she started out working in a café kitchen and discovered a passion for cooking there. She says, “I really liked the discipline and the ability to create something for yourself and see people enjoying what you made. You can see people’s reactions right away. I went to Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and then I got a job at the Courtyard in downtown Ottawa. I really liked the experience of working with the team there.”

Chefs Suyeon Myeong (left) and Jonathan Harris (right)
Chefs Suyeon Myeong (left) and Jonathan Harris (right)

Myeong and Harris talk about the chefs who were strongly influential on their culinary attitudes. A short stint working with Chef John Morris at the Ottawa Arts Centre had a strong impact on Harris. He says, “He showed me what a modern kitchen can be. It can be polite and it can be really enjoyable. His passion for Canadian ingredients was a strong influence on how we’re approaching the food at our restaurant now.”

Myeong mentions Chef Michael Hay at the Courtyard in Ottawa as a mentor. She says, “He didn’t try to intimidate people or throw pans at them. He was very good at delegating tasks and giving you a chance to improve yourself without threatening you. He empowered me to evolve as a cook in the time I was working there with him.”

The approach to the food at Ma Tante Carole starts with the ingredients for Myeong.  She says, “We try to focus on the ingredients themselves. We look at the flavours and the textures of the ingredients. Instead of planning the menu to make it prettier or to sell, we focus on what the ingredients can bring to the table.”

Harris adds, “We’re really fortunate to be located in a rural environment. We have so many local farms at our disposal so I guess our whole idea is backwards. We don’t create menu items first, we bring in the products and then figure out what to do with them.”

Both chefs take a hands-on approach at the restaurant. Harris points out, “We do all our own butchery after we get the meat from local farmers. We break it down ourselves. We make all of our own bread as well."

Letting the ingredients shine is another important aspect of how Harris and Myeong approach food.  Harris says, “We try not to transform things too much because sometimes you get a Globe carrot and its the sweetest carrot you’ve ever had so all you have to do is pair it with the right things.”

Their main rationale for using local ingredients comes down to flavour according to Myeong. She says, “When things are in season and available from close to us, they taste so much better that you don’t want to think about using any other ingredients.”

A dish by the chefs.
A dish by the chefs.

Harris adds that it’s about finding people who share their passion for local ingredients. He says, “We want to find people who do things as well as they can. It would be a lot easier and we’d make a lot more money if we bought chicken breasts that were always the same size, but for us it was never about being rich.”

A good example of how the chefs craft a dish was a roasted celeriac salad created by Harris. Myeong talks about it and says, “I think the dish is really killer. John thought of a dish based on an old school Waldorf salad that used celery and walnuts, but instead of using celery we baked a whole celeriac in a slow oven for a long time.”

After that, Harris took the juices given off by the roasted celeriac to make a vinaigrette. He combined it with Blue Haze cheese and also added an apple jam to the salad made with a small amount of sugar and a large quantity of apples. Myeong says, “It gives you a pure apple flavour. We also grated the walnuts onto the salad. When you grate the walnut, it looks like snow and it just melts in your mouth when you eat it.”

Patience and a willingness to teach are important factors in a chef for Harris. He says, “One thing that all chefs should remember is that we’re influencing the future of our industry right now. The choices we make and the things that we teach people now will dictate what happens in the future of our industry.”

He wants to emphasize the importance of teaching a new generation of cooks about the basics. He says, “I think it’s important to show people real things like making sauces from scratch and finding things that are close to you.”

He goes on to say, “I think the industry is hurting right now and it’s not a good thing. TV has really hurt our industry and we need to go back to the basics. It’s not about how famous you are, it’s about how well you can cut shallots.”

Some of the locally grown vegetables used by the chefs.
Some of the locally grown vegetables used by the chefs.

Myeong points out, “We try to keep our staff involved. At the end of the day, you have to have happy staff or it will affect their work. We try to get them out and go to Chinatown or to a market, to taste stuff together and talk about new ingredients.”

Passion and a willingness to learn are the most important traits Harris and Myeong look for in their kitchen team members. Harris says, “We’ve only owned our business for a year now so every day is something new to us. We never want to be only as good as we were yesterday, we want to be better.”

Two other important factors in the team are a solid work ethic and dedication according to Myeong. She says, “Some people don’t want to wash dishes because they feel it isn’t important but when you think about it, it’s a very basic thing. Some people don’t want to do dirty jobs but it’s impossible to avoid.”

Harris finishes, “You can’t expect someone who’s been out of school for six months to know everything you know but what you can expect is that they want to learn everything that you know.”

Both chefs are excited by the potential for positive movement in the culinary industry. Harris explains, “We’re seeing a shift towards more local products and a shift towards more sustainable ingredients. We are in the entertainment industry but at the same time it’s nourishment. We have a responsibility to guests in finding those new ingredients.”

He adds, “I think the ingredients and the people we surround ourselves with are all the inspiration we need.”

Myeong says, “I try to get out of my comfort zone and work with new ingredients and find a different way to cook them. There are a lot of outlets on the Internet to find new recipes or see what a chef somewhere else in the world is doing with an ingredient.”

This article is based on a phone interview with Suyeon Myeong and Jonathan Harris conducted on March 8th, 2016 and recorded on that date.

Updated: 03/15/2016, Krlmagi
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