James Bratsberg and MēNa
As I knock on the door at MēNa to have a chat with James Bratsberg, I see him approaching and think to myself, “Now that dude looks like a fucking Chef”. He’s got on his whites that are crisp and pristine with a MēNa patch on his sleeve looking ready to take on the day. I’ve know James for quite some time now. I knew him during his days at Eighteen where he would always have 3 or 4 cookbooks at his station; I’ve always felt that James is a student of the game. Through his time travelling to top restaurants around the world to the collection of cookbooks you’ll find on his shelves in the kitchen at MeNa, there is no doubt as to why James is the success he is today.
I love stepping into a kitchen with a Chef as they tell me about their food and how they run their line. A theme that I’ll continue to talk about at S/os is culture. What kind of culture is created in each restaurant varies, and differs each in its own unique and positive way.
As James is showing me around the kitchen we talked about how lucky he is to turn MēNa into a creative playground. Not bogged down by restrictions or in some cases even food costs, he is able to bring to your table exactly the vision that he has set forth without limits. That is something that he stresses he does not take for granted because he knows that many Chefs that are still doing awesome things are not afforded that same kind of opportunity most times.
For the young cooks that come through MēNa it’s a very different experience because of this. It’s a chance to really show what you, as an individual, can do creatively - to realize that this is not just a job. You have to work hard and push everyday to maintain your spot in a high level kitchen. There are kitchens that have 5 or 6 cooks that come into work with ideas, suggestions and a solid work ethic each day. These are the cooks that wake up in the morning and the first thing to enter their minds is what next they can create. Then there are some that come in to log their time, do the bare minimum, and collect a paycheck thinking that it’s just another job. These people will drown, and they will do it quite quickly. A small lesson for those that want to cook professionally at a high level. The three things James wants to teach his cooks is Finesse, Quality, and Speed. When there is a 12 course tasting menu and the timing between each plate is 10 minutes max you better have those three things going all throughout service, starting from setting up your station to when you’re scrubbing it down. This is how James keeps his cooks interested and excited, by testing the limits of their capabilities and providing the opportunity to see how far they can go. Through this, he can see the quality of cook he has in his kitchen. It’s all about how well you can manage when you’re in the weeds.
MēNa provides a tasting menu each service with a bar menu added, and brunch on the weekends! The advantage of a tasting menu allows James and his team to use only the freshest ingredients. Literally the freshest…No I’m being serious I mean so fresh that I hear that most times their staff meals are pretty wicked. The biggest advantage that the tasting menu allows for, is for James to have fun with different ingredients and concepts, but never for them to stay stagnant. Each dish on his tasting menus are telling a story. Even when you’ve seen the same ingredient on your 7th plate as you saw on your 2nd, that ingredient still serves a purpose on each plate in a different way. It also alleviates the stress of making menu decisions and allows guests to leave everything in the hands of people that want to create an experience for you. This should be the whole point of dining out. The only choices you need to make at MeNa are how many courses you’d like and if you want a wine pairing with your food. It doesn’t get much easier than that! It’s allowing yourself to trust in the Chef’s vision and enjoying the moment.
As James has travelled and eaten around the world, he wants to bring his collected experiences of a high-level of dining to the Capital. He is so committed to this standard that when you walk into MēNa, you are getting Michelin-style service. This goes back to him having all of the creative control that goes into knowing each step that needs to be taken to create this experience for the guest. As we’re talking, I bring up a Marco Pierre White quote that James finishes for me because he has it tattooed on his arm, “Perfection is a lot of the little things done well.” From how James conducts his kitchen, to the knowledgeable Front of House staff forging relationships with each guest so they becoming more than just diners. This level of intimacy with guests is something that James has experienced through travelling, and is one of, if not, the top priority for him to bring into his restaurant.
While James works hard for each guest, it was interesting to talk about the important role reviews play in his success. As MēNa has formed its identity as a fine dining restaurant, it doesn’t shy away from its price point. When you are entering a restaurant about to spend your hard earned money, it is hard to do that on blind faith. So when you are considering your options, reviews become a tool for you to gather insights on what kind of dining experience you can anticipate. As there’s always going to be reviews, what Ottawa lacks is the high level reviews and guides that you find in major cities comparative to the Michelin guide. That’s the ultimate level of fine dining that James wants to be judged on as a Chef. Him and his team are always looking to what they’ve done well and where they can improve with what each guest has to say about their experience. The harsh reality of what each Chef and restaurant has to learn in this craft is beautifully summed up in a quote by Chef Marco Pierre White when he says, "Once you accept you are being judged by people who have less knowledge than yourself, then what's it worth?"
It’s beyond fun talking to James about cooking. He knows exactly what story he wants to tell with his food. He creates an environment in his restaurant that you don’t have to go to London, France, or New York to experience. You can find it in a beautiful 30 seat restaurant in Ottawa’s Little Italy. If a guest wants to know what’s happening beyond the line, Chef James loves touring people around the kitchen even during service. He’ll tell you what his Sous Chef is plating next, or what fish they’re smoking and how long they’re aging their beef for. That’s who James is! That’s why I always say goodbye to James thinking the same thing I do when I say hello, “Now that dude is a fucking Chef”.