Standing the heatPublished on July 31, 2008

  • Margaret McCormick says she loves the creativity she finds as a chef, especially when it comes to trying out new flavours and ingredients in the kitchen. Photo by Darren Brown

Whether it's putting the finishing details on a three-tier chocolate ganache wedding cake, checking on the presentation of stuffed peppers served on a bed of minted rice, or making sure the beef medallions with a burgundy mushroom sauce are done to perfection, Margaret McCormick is a master at multitasking.

What may seem like complicated preparations for an elaborate feast are all in a day's work for the executive chef at the Holiday Inn and Suites.

While the 50-year-old says she revels in these daily challenges at the busy downtown hotel, her real sense of fulfilment comes from trying new flavours and ingredients. In fact, Margaret has been experimenting in the kitchen since she could barely see over the oven, thanks to expert instruction from her mother and grandmother. An early connoisseur of baked goods, anything sweet was at the top of her list. "Desserts - that's where I got started," says Margaret. "My grandma made the best fudge in the world. It took me about 30 years to finally get the feel of what her fudge was."

As a child with 11 siblings, two parents and a set of grandparents all living at home, Margaret grew up preparing feasts for large crowds. Meals were a big affair at the farmhouse in the small town of Alexandria, located about 50 minutes east of Ottawa, and Margaret always tackled the duty of satisfying everyone's hunger around the harvest table. "We had big gardens; we'd raise our own beef and pork, and milk our own cows," she says. "When I started cooking (professionally), I didn't realize how much I had learned just from everyday life. For a poor family, we had a lot of food."

But even with all her experience in the kitchen, becoming a chef wasn't always at the top of Margaret's list of future careers. She planned to go into the army out of high school, but the birth of her daughter changed her course. However, her passion for cooking and preparing food still lingered, even when she owned a fabric store in her 20s. The busy mom of four eventually started working part-time at a couple of restaurants and soon decided to enrol in classes at Algonquin College. By the time she reached her early 30s, Margaret had finally decided to pursue her childhood passion for creating in the kitchen.

After graduating in 1994, she began cooking at several hotels part-time, but Margaret's big break came when she accepted the position as sous-chef at the Camelot Golf and Country Club in Ottawa's east end. Her career as a full-time chef was then finally a reality.

As an executive chef, Margaret is also blazing a path for other women to follow in Ottawa because there are only a handful of females leading the city's top restaurants and hotel kitchens. In fact, the career as a professional chef remains a non-traditional role for women, listed with construction work, mechanics and firefighters in labour statistics. Only a small percentage of females in North America are employed in the top ranks for the food service industry as executive chefs and head chefs. However, Margaret says she knew she could take on the male-dominated world of cooking. "Even when I was in school, there were very few females," she says. "(But) students were surprised that it never made a difference though if you were male or female; as long as you could do the job. There was no chauvinism. I've never experienced it anyway. If you can do the job, that's all that really matters."

As executive chef at the hotel, Margaret's daily duties include everything from ordering supplies, organizing the food for special functions, planning menus and preparing meals for hotel guests. From ensuring holiday brunches go off without a hitch to creating a satisfying room service menu and crafting an inspired menu for corporate conventions, Margaret leads her talented team through its paces each day. She also teaches a food demonstration class to first-year culinary students at Algonquin College twice a week.

But what's her real challenge? Margaret says it isn't the complex meals she has to dish up or juggling her hectic schedule - it's co-ordinating her crew of 12 employees. "It can be very difficult to have a team of people. That's the hardest part of the job. It's not the work but getting people to work together," says Margaret. "There are always personalities that will conflict. I've been lucky because most of my staff is very even-tempered, but once in a while somebody will get riled and I'll have to deal with that. I don't believe in screaming and yelling like (British celebrity chef) Gordon Ramsay."

Margaret's niece, Tarah McPherson, has been working with her since the age of 15 and she can testify to this sense of calm. She describes her aunt as highly organized with a "get down to work" style that is effective in the kitchen. Tarah says Margaret rarely makes mistakes, but she does remember one incident that kept everyone chuckling. "One day we ended up making 200 salads and we kept asking the servers when the salads were going out for this big event. Turns out, there weren't any salads on the menu," Tarah says with a laugh. "But working with her is just like working with anybody else. The only difference is you can't really complain about the boss when she's your aunt."

Margaret is also known for her easygoing and approachable personality, says Yvonne Kerridge, the food and beverage manager at the Holiday Inn. "As a person . . . she really makes me laugh. She's so unpretentious in everything that she does," she says. "What you see is what you get - she's real. If you were to see her in the street, she'd be exactly the same as you see her here in the restaurant."

Margaret also prides herself on balancing the demands that come with running a bustling kitchen with her other full-time job - her family. She commutes every morning from her hometown of Alexandria, where she has lived most of her life, and she still resides in the house where her father was born. After raising four kids and taking care of many grandchildren, Margaret continues to enjoy whipping up favourite dishes and testing out new recipes on the throngs of family and friends who come by to visit. "The kids still want their home-baked cookies," she says with a laugh.

But cooking isn't the only thing that keeps this energetic chef busy. "On my days off, I do love gardening, I like to sew. I recently took a course on soft-sculpture dolls and when I retire I'll do a lot more of that," Margaret says with a big smile. "But I'm too young to retire."

At 50, Margaret is celebrating eight years at the Holiday Inn, but she doesn't see any big changes on the horizon. "In five years, I'll still be working here at the hotel, and teaching at the college. The Holiday Inn is one of the best places I've worked," she says. "Unless I win the lottery (that is), then I'll travel. But I'll keep on testing things out in my kitchen at home. I'll never stop cooking and learning how to make new things."

Margaret's favourite places to shop in Ottawa:

"I find my gadgets everywhere. Any kitchen store has a good selection of useful tools. I go to places like Sears or stores at the mall and get some great finds." Ma Cuisine domus C.A. Paradis

Favourite gadgets:

"It's not so much the pretty equipment I look at. I like the really functional items. My favourite are the really deep dish pie plates. They don't look pretty, but they're so handy to have around." Garlic Press Anything made out of stoneware Whisks New spatula that withstands 500 degrees of heat Food processor

Favourite herbs and spices:

"I grow them all in my garden at home, so I'm used to using them. I love fresh herbs. I'm a big fan of Indian food also, so cumin is at the top of my list when it comes to spices." Cumin Basil Oregano Chives Dill Savoury Rosemary Written by Daria Locke

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