Chef Michael Hay of the Courtyard Restaurant knows more than a thing or two about making culinary magic. This acclaimed young chef is just 27 years old but has been cooking professionally since high school and his passion for producing inventive, delicious food is constantly increasing.
Known best for his creative and playful approach to cooking, Michael is a big fan of applying modern cooking techniques to a wide range of seasonal ingredients.
You've spent the better part of the past dozen years in restaurant kitchens. What inspired you to become a chef? I got a job as a dishwasher in a Kingston restaurant at age 15. I asked the chef if I could cook instead and he kind of took me under his wing, training me from scratch. I was pretty much hooked. I flirted with academia for a bit when I moved to Ottawa in 2002 but cooking won out.
Can you recall one event or person that had a big impact on your chosen career path? I remember watching the TV show Cook Like a Chef with Rene Rodriguez, who had just recently graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa. It was shortly after that that I decided to pursue my passion for food full-time. Although I'd had no formal training at that point, I did have seven years of hands-on experience and found some great mentors. Happily, a few years later I actually ended up working with Rene at the Black Cat Bistro.
You are admittedly a fan of what you describe as "modern cooking", which uses unique new techniques and specialized equipment to produce surprising and delicious results. How did you get interested in this culinary alchemy? When I was working under Chef Marc Lepine here at the Courtyard a few years ago, the atmosphere in his kitchen was really supportive. Marc was very creative with his flavours and presentation, while still using traditional techniques. We began exploring modern cooking together, buying interesting ingredients like xanthan gum and agar agar, then playing around with them, as well as experimenting with sous vide cooking. Modern cooking, what some refer to as molecular gastronomy (not a name I prefer), is really just a tool to make things more delicious. Having a new toolbox to cook with definitely helps us make magic in the kitchen; meats cooked sous vide are more unctuous; ice cream made with liquid nitrogen is smoother.
Do you think your relatively young age is an asset as you continue to experiment with new ideas? Absolutely! Because of my youth, I place a high emphasis on having fun in the kitchen, which gives me the desire and energy to be creative. I want to play around with ingredients and methods to make food that is more interesting or visually appealing while still being delicious.
You've made a commitment to developing seasonal menus at the Courtyard. What is your design process? It's actually quite calm and controlled, and done very much in collaboration with other senior members of our team as we discuss, distil and create. My food brain never turns off but I can't write a menu at home, sitting at my desk - I have to be on my feet, in the kitchen. I set myself a constant challenge to keep things fresh, as well as to keep our staff motivated and on their toes. We started working on our spring menu in November so we'd have lots of time to develop and test new dishes.
How do you stay on top of the ever-changing culinary world? I probably spend 10 hours a week reading cookbooks and blogs and I often use Twitter to ask questions of famous chefs regarding techniques I want to try. I also enjoy learning from talented people via YouTube. I love that the food world is becoming so open source. My learning journey is ongoing and I feel very blessed that this is my life.
Roasted mushrooms with pine nut and cherry purées plus herbed butter
Chef Michael Hay of the Courtyard Restaurant offers up this beautiful plated appetizer as ideal for a midwinter dinner party. The purées and juniper herb butter can be made ahead. Note that juniper berries are available locally at the Herb & Spice on Wellington Street. The dish serves 6, with additional garnishes left over for other uses.
Pine nut purée
1 cup pine nuts
1 ½ tsp fresh garlic, minced
1 tsp butter
2 tbsp sliced shallots
1 tbsp minced fresh thyme thyme
1 cup pine nuts
1 cup water
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Sweat the shallots and garlic in the butter until they are translucent. Add in thyme and pine nuts and toast briefly until fragrant. Deglaze the pan with water and reduce the heat to medium. Simmer for 30-40 minutes. Purée in a food processor or blender until smooth. Add just enough water as necessary to adjust the consistency, making it close to whipped cream. Store in a ziplock bag, in the refrigerator.
Juniper herb butter
1 pound butter, at room temperature
½ bunch fresh thyme, finely chopped
½ bunch fresh sage, finely chopped
1½ tbsp ground juniper berries (grind in spice grinder or with a mortar & pestle)
1 ½ tbsp roasted garlic butter
Add all ingredients to food processor and purée until thoroughly combined. Roll into logs approximately 1.5 inch thick. Refrigerate until solid, about 2 hours. Cut into ¼ inch (1 tbsp) slices. This butter is delicious in many different soups and sauces; refrigerate remainder for up to 2 weeks or freeze for longer storage.
½ cup dried cherries
2 tbsp shallots, sliced
2 tsp butter
1 tsp black pepper
1 oz Madeira
Sweat the shallots in the butter until they are translucent. Deglaze with the Maderia and cook off the alcohol. Add in cherries and water. Bring to a boil then simmer until reduced by one-third. Purée in blender or food processor until very smooth and jam-like. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Store, covered, in refrigerator.
6 king oyster mushrooms, whole
24 chanterelle mushrooms, stemmed
12 clusters beech mushrooms
12 bunches Maitake mushrooms
2 tsp clarified butter
2 tbsp juniper herb compound butter (see above)
2 oz Madeira
To clarify the butter, melt it in the microwave then strain it through cheesecloth to remove the white milk solids. Clean the mushrooms of any dirt then break them apart in your hands so that they retain some of their natural shape. Heat the clarified butter in a large skillet on medium-high heat. Once it begins to smoke, add the mushrooms. Stir occasionally and allow the mushrooms to caramelize to a deep brown on all sides. Add 2 tbps of the juniper compound butter to the pan and stir gently as it melts. Reduce heat to medium; toss the mushrooms in the butter and allow the spices in the butter to toast for 2 - 3 minutes. Add the Madeira and stir gently to reduce the liquid and glaze the mushrooms. When they are glossy and coated, they are ready. If desired, add in some minced shallots and chives for added texture.
To plate the dish:
Using a large serving spoon, drape 3 oz or so of the pine nut purée across six plates. Arrange the mushrooms across the pine nut purée. Dab 3-5 small dots of cherry purée on top of the mushrooms. Garnish with grated Parmesan cheese.