Oz Kafe Chef's Night
It all finally hit me. The non-stop running around for the past two weeks, lack of sleep and going hard trying to prepare for a night I consider to be an honour. This fuckin’ cold has got me knocked out on the first real days I have off to relax and unwind. Fret Not! With my trusty Buckley’s by my side, a comfy couch and a stocked fridge, I’m ready to recoup and in the process write about my experience doing my first ever Chef’s Night at Oz Kafe.
Being a part of a Chef’s Night at Oz Kafe is almost a right of passage for cooks in our city. On the last Monday of each month, Oz Kafe hosts a Chef/ restaurant to take over their kitchen and present a coursed menu for $40. Pretty amazing deal if you ask me, and the calibre of talent that has participated in these nights make it an even more worthwhile event to get out and dine.
After attending about a dozen of these events over the years, I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere these dinners provide, especially from an industry perspective. Even the fact that there are late-night seatings only serves to show the understanding in giving the same opportunity to those of us working our own dining experiences, as those fortunate enough to have a coursed sit down dinner at a normal hour.
In July I took the liberty of calling Oz to see if there was an opportunity to have my own Chef’s Night. I was happy to hear that not only was there a chance to do one but that both August and September were open. Now, given the busy season and the time I felt that I needed in order to pull this off the right way, August was a little too soon for me. It didn’t make sense for me to rush into it with how crazy busy summers are for us at Sidedoor. I commend all of the Chef’s that do a Chef’s Night in these busy summer months as I cannot imagine how hectic the weeks leading up to it can be when each table is constantly being flipped over for the next guest in restaurants of their own,while still having to think about this unique off-site night.
Being ready for September was a blessing. Not only did it afford me the time to wind down from the busy summer months, but it also allowed me some space to reach farther and really do something different than what I’ve been doing at Sidedoor for the past six years. Don’t get me wrong, I love our style of food and cooking, but I was interested in testing myself and pushing off to try something new and different.
To date, there have been three dinners that really shaped my idea of what I wanted to do for my own Chef’s night. One of them was at the now-closed but never forgotten Melo’s and the other was a more recent Chef’s night.
My former Chef Jordan Holley took over Melo’s Kitchen for a dinner that blew me away and one that I still think about often. I spent the majority of what I had in my bank account that evening because I needed to order quite nearly the entire menu it was so damn good. He’d been my Chef for around two years but this was an opportunity where I saw him showcase a different story than what I had ever seen him cook when we were at Social together. It was an amazing and intimate night, and it opened my young palate to something completely new and different than what I was used to.
A second Melo’s take-over with another former Chef of mine, Warren Sutherland. A similar story here, we had been cooking a certain style of food for two years (at the Smoque Shack) but this time, when the opportunity to assist him was presented to me, I jumped at the chance to help and observe what Chef Warren had in store. His menu hit a lot closer to home for him that night and once again proved how you can be committed to a certain cuisine for a period of time yet still be able to show guests that there’s always a different story to tell.
Lastly, but most certainly not least, a recent Oz Kafe takeover night where Chef Michael Korn and his crew from Whalesbone absolutely blew me away, as I’m sure they did with everyone dining that night. That event was an eye-opener of what I needed to bring to the table if I was going to be part of the same company putting on a meal the way that they did. But I’m super competitive and although I have never considered competing with others in that sense, for sure I’m always competing with myself.
I loved taking on the challenge of doing a Chef’s Night at Oz. It was a chance for me to show a style of food that meant so much to me and one that I’ve never really had the right space to showcase before now. Being an Asian-style cook for the closer part of a decade, making the choice to go in a completely different direction for this dinner was for two reasons; to go back to my roots, and to show myself that whenever I choose to, I can do something that’s different than what resides in my comfort zone.
Before I talk about the food, I NEED to talk about my crew and those around me that made this night not only possible but a total success. I can’t state this enough: it was such an honour to be able to do this and for Oz to host these amazing nights goes to show how awesome our culinary community is. There was a night in December of last year when Chef Ben and I were at Oz Kafe and had a couple of drinks into us when I had first talked to him about my idea of doing a Chef’s Night. Without hesitation, he offered his help if the day were to come when I actually went through with it. Well, when I made the call he was the first person I asked, remembering that conversation, (and it was quite the night that I’m shocked that I could) I pulled my card out and Chef accepted. Matt Walker has helped me with a few of the events I’ve put on for Sauce / on side, and he’s the homie that shows up to lend a hand whenever I need so he was an easy choice. Matt’s supportive of S/os and what I try to do with this little project so it was amazing having him along for this. Rowan Dowd, who had recently left Sidedoor for the 23rd time, in this case to help build schools for children in Africa through his church. He had only been back in Ottawa for a few days when I called him up and asked if he wanted to be a part of the crew and with no questions asked, he gladly obliged. He and Matt killed it on the dishes that I assigned them for service. Lastly, although I feel I can’t, I will try to put into words the appreciation I have for my good friend Anthony Moneck for coming down from Toronto to be a part of the special night with me. Through our time at Sidedoor together we’ve bonded over food, drinks, sports and many “Jim and Tone Adventures” no matter where we find ourselves. Many of these conversations we’re not legally allowed to print in case we ever decide to run for office somewhere!
Thank you to all of the guys that helped to make that night so special!
And now to the food! I knew right off the bat that Portuguese cuisine was always going to be the style I was going to offer. It was a new story I wanted to tell and I’m so happy it was the route I landed on. There were things on the menu I was super confident in executing and then there were the recipes that were going to be the first time I’d ever attempted.
The first two courses were dishes I had brainstormed quicker than I thought. All the flavour combos I wanted to use seemed to work so well with each other on paper, and I was happy that they also came together seamlessly on the plate. Our first course was a seared scallop, shiitake mushrooms and local peaches. Simply, the peaches really shone on the plate as they were tossed in cinnamon and the natural sugars came out as we par-baked them. Each component on the dish was there to be just what they were and once you tied all of them together they paired up perfectly.
I love brussels sprouts and whenever I go out to eat and I see a brussel sprout salad on the menu, I'm always going to give it a try. Eat your veggies kids and if you’re picky then brussels are the veg for you. Although I do love them roasted I used the brussel leaves as a salad and I matched those up with a bunch of fun things all in a bowl. A burnt honey dressing with honey I got from a farm in Quebec. Local peaches that we vac’d in rice wine vinegar, salt and sugar. Pecans were soaked in SpiceBox Whiskey, tamari and maple syrup. And for the first time, I made almond cheese and was pleasantly surprised with how it turned out seeing as (and I know saying this is quite blasphemous as a Chef) I’m not a big cheese person.
Working with Octopus for the first time was a great learning experience. It’s always been a protein that I’ve been in close proximity to in the kitchens I’ve worked in but that someone else has processed and worked with. Needless to say, it was slightly intimidating to work with a protein being used for one of the main courses for the first time, on the night before the big dinner; but I think luck was on my side and a bit of skill I’ve accumulated over the years. Making sure I used a couple of tricks I had acquired on how to best tenderize the octopus, I knew the crucial part was the right timing on the braise and with about 4 hours in a pot filled with a bunch of goodies inside (red pepper, sherry vinegar, tomatoes, garlic, onions) I’m happy to say that the result was what I had wanted and it was this dish that turned out to be the talk of the night. Another key piece to the success of this dish was a healthy drop of good ol'Jimmychurri (which is basically a chimichurri but how could we not call it by it’s new christened name!)
The night before the dinner Tony and I went out to have some food at Whalesbone where our friend Chef de Cuisine Michael Korn runs the kitchen and as Tony and I were going through the dishes we felt we might be missing something on the octopus dish and were rifling off ideas. Shishito peppers were mentioned and I was automatically down to put them on as a finishing component but it was the night before the dinner and there wasn’t a hope that we would to be able to source them. Enter Chef Korn, who stopped by our table to ask us how our food is and the three of us start talking about Oz Night. I send out a shot in the dark, and I asked Chef Korn if he had anywhere in mind that would sell peppers to us, like tomorrow. Well, it just so happened that he was getting a delivery the next day from Terramor Farm and knowing they had shishito’s available Chef Korn added 200 pieces on for me and that all goes to show you the community we have in this city and one I wouldn’t trade for any other culinary city in the world.
The chicken main course was a vehicle for sauces. A perfectly grilled chicken breast to help showcase the two sauces I was serving it with which ended up representing the Portuguese flag in their colours. First, a red wine reduction sauce using Julia Florista, nothing fancy but makes you feel like home. Secondly, a kohlrabi tarragon sauce with coconut cream, and that’s all I needed as the natural sugars made this a surprisingly easy sauce, little to no work. All I had to do was stuff these three versatile ingredients in a pot, simmer and blitz.
Lastly for dessert was a dish in which I was able to honour my Vavo (Grandma), by recreating her arroz doce (rice pudding). Yes it is the cliche you hear from so many Chef’s but I did grow up eating so much of Vavo’s cooking and the only regret I have was not learning to cook her specialties from her. She passed when I was 12 years old and wasn’t thinking about cooking food in the same way that I was devouring all of it. Now, I’m not skilled with my pastries so it was even more nerve-racking to make this dessert work than any other dish on the menu. With the addition of an orange caramel and a sponge toffee that Tony made, it was an unreal ending to a menu I’m incredibly proud of.
Oh ya, did I mention yet this dinner was a sold-out affair?! That just isn’t possible without the amazing support of everyone coming out and sharing that special night with me. From friends and family to a little Birdie who got a special order of chicken fingers and fries (my personal favourite as well) the love and support I felt is real and I hope everyone who attended could taste my gratitude in each dish they were served. Thank you to all of those I get the honour of calling my pal.