#goldmedalplates Chefs from Canada will meet in Kelowna from February 9-11, 2012 to compete in the Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championships. I sent them some questions prior to the challenge. Here’s the scoop on Chef Mike Barsky for Bacalao Nouvelle Newfoundland Cuisine.
What was your first food memory?
Sneaking peanuts in the shell from the huge bulk bin at Knob Hill Farms shopping with my mother. They were delicious!!!
What was in your elementary school lunch kit?
Peanut butter and jam sandwich and an apple.
Where did you first learn to cook?
My first job in high school was in a bowling alley and I made burgers and fried food. While it wasn’t that particular food that inspired me… I think it was the joy of feeding people that got me hooked.
Did you attend culinary school – if so, where?
George Brown in Toronto
Where has been your favourite place to work to date and why?
Having our own business is an incredible experience. We’ve been open four years now and we have such a wonderful clientele… they have become family. Being able to create food for people, hear instant feedback, and see cleaned plates coming back to the kitchen… that’s why it’s wonderful to be a chef!
Who in the industry taught you the most?
Charlie Hansji – he was the executive sous-chef at the Four Seasons Inn on the Park in Toronto when I was an apprentice. He was hard-core, an incredible chef and taught me the discipline of being a chef.
What is your favourite style of cooking?
Nothing beats fresh, local and seasonal. I prefer complexity of flavour over complexity of the plate. Tasty food, focusing on local, innovative but with a nod to the traditional food of Newfoundland. That’s what we do.
What is your favourite ethnic cuisine?
Hard to pick one… but probably authentic Chinese. So much variety!
What ingredient(s) can’t you live without?
Butter! We have the most delicious butter made here in Newfoundland – must be something about the terroir. It’s called Spyglass, and it’s full of flavour with just the right amount of salt. Scruncheons run a pretty close second – that’s salted pork fat, rendered out to be salty crispy nuggets. And third, probably chile flakes. So versatile – they add a little background of piquancy to any dish without overtaking it.
What are the most essential tools for cooking?
A good, sharp chef’s knife will do practically any job. And a good pair of tongs become an extension of your hands. A heavy-bottomed pot and a good non-stick pan for omelettes and you’re set. Oh – and I do like to have a decent fine mesh strainer around.
Do you have an unforgettable taste combination?
I love the classic combination of rosemary and lamb with grain mustard.
Ingredient you can’t get enough of?
Garlic. It’s the foundation for everything!
Ingredient that will never touch your lips?
Funny – I love all sorts of food but just don’t enjoy olives. I love all kinds of olive oil, even some tapenades, olive bread, just not olives. Wish I did because my wife loves them and I feel I’m missing out!
What is your most prized possession?
It would have to be my restaurant. It’s a dream come true.
What basic recipe/s do you advise for cooking novices to learn as a starting point?
Soup is a fantastic place to start. Making a delicious pot of soup offers the chance to really understand the layering of flavours. How sautering onions or browning mushrooms tastes so different from just throwing them in boiling liquid. How a stock enriches the flavour. How cooking out dry herbs and spices in the oil distributes the flavour. How simmering changes things. The acid-sweet-salty balance. Viscocity. Soup tells a lot about a chef.
What’s your go-to comfort food?
I really love a feed of fish’n’chips ‘deluxe’ which means with gravy and savoury dressing – made with Newfoundland summer savoury, a culinary staple here. Home cut fries, probably fried in lard, battered fresh cod. Malt vinegar. Breakfast of champions!
What’s your favourite cocktail?
Screech and coke. Really. I know you probably expected something more exotic. The delicious caramelly flavour of the dark rum with lots of ice and not too much coke (don’t want to drown it!) A slice of lime of I’m feeling fancy.
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
Tiramisu. And homemade cookies. My wife, Andrea, makes all our desserts at the restaurant. When I need a sugar fix, I ask her to make me some cookies – I love anything with chocolate.
What’s your definition of a perfect meal?
One I didn’t have to make! People think chefs are picky and are nervous about cooking for us. But for me, the pleasure of sitting down to a homemade meal with family or friends is perfection.
What do you always have on hand for last minute entertaining at home?
We don’t get much chance to entertain – we have Mondays off but we usually have a nice meal at home. My wife, Andrea, is a good cook too. She loves a well-stocked pantry so we have all kinds of olive oils, vinegars, pastas, rices, spices and herbs, ethnic sauces and seasonings, dried mushrooms and chiles, etc. With just a few fresh ingredients, we can whip up a fabulous meal any time.
How do you unwind after service?
We live in Petty Harbour, a 15-minute drive from the restaurant in St. John’s. The scenery is breathtaking. The moon over the water as I drive around the harbour. Behind our house, there is a waterfall. After the beautiful drive and then the first sound I hear out of the car is the running water. If there’s a clear sky, I take a look up at the night sky away from the city lights, on my way in the house. I’m pretty much unwound by then and then I sit in my recliner chair, the TV on, and I fall asleep almost instantly.
Most overrated food trend?
Molecular gastronomy. Adding chemicals seems counter-intuitive to me.
Favourite culinary destination?
Hard to pick just one. Newfoundland has an amazing and growing culinary scene. But if we’re thinking about travelling… New York City offers everything you could think off – all within a subway ride. France is incredible – go twenty minutes into a neighbouring town and find yet another local specialty! Spain has to be the most food-centric culture, though. Tapas is practically an Olympic sport. We were in Barcelona year before last for three days and we went three times to La Boqueria – a market with what seems like hundreds of food counters, each one with its specialty – from the gorgeous Iberico ham to fresh fruit or vegetables to bread. There were several stands that sold nothing but salt cod – in all its different cuts and forms. Amazing!
Most memorable meal last year?
Bouillabaisse in Marseille. We were staying in Cairanne, northern Provence, and drove down to Marseille to stay the night and have authentic bouillabaisse at Chez Fonfon, famous for it. The way they do it, it’s almost like a ritual. We got to chatting with this lovely local couple at the next table. At the end of the meal, the server wheeled out an enormous cheese display on a marble slab – I’ve never seen so much variety all in one spot. It was raining cats and dogs outside and we were sitting in a window overlooking the water and all the little boats, bellies full of warm soup.
If you weren’t a chef what career would you have pursued?
I really love music. Probably a musician. I played trombone in highschool!
What would you eat at your last meal?
Cantonese chow mein – something about the crispy noodles, wok-charred vegetables and the wonderful variety of meats and seafood!
Who are your dream dinner companions?
I really enjoy a night off, dinner at home with Andrea and our dog, Lola and cat Maximus. They have their dinner when we do.
What do you do in your off time?
There is very little of that because we own the business – we serve lunch or brunch and dinner every day except Mondays. But we live in beautiful Petty Harbour (about 15 minutes from St. John’s) so walking the East Coast Trail or down to the beach with our German Shepherd, Lola, and picking berries in season is wonderful. We hardly ever get a chance to go to the movies so that’s a great treat!
Where do you eat in your city when you are not working?
We mostly cook at home on our night off… Andrea and I enjoy the chance to cook together, chill out with a great bottle of wine and spend time with our dog and cat. When we go out, there are a bunch of places we like. We try to support the restaurateurs who also dine with us. It’s a nice network.
Are there some regional dishes your city is known for?
Newfoundland has a traditional cuisine with plenty of traditional ingredients. Jiggs Dinner is salt meat and root vegetables cooked in a big pot with pease pudding (yellow split peas cooked down to mush and seasoned with butter and pepper). Served with the “pot liquor” and a sweet-sour vegetable relish known as sweet mustard pickles. Cod tongues are a local delicacy.
What is the dish/dishes your restaurant is known for?
We do an innovative interpretation of Newfoundland cuisine. The Jiggs Dinner Cabbage Roll is our appetizer-sized version of the traditional NL meal. Our salt cod fritters with lemon-green pepper corn aioli might be our most popular appetizer. Probably the caribou medallion with partridgeberry sauce is our most popular main course.
What dish will you be cooking for Gold Medal Plates?
It’s a tasting of Newfoundland Goat. We recently hooked up with a farmer who raises goat and a young chef here recently started making goat cheese. The dish is goat meat four ways: seared loin, panko-crusted rillettes, pickled tongue, brain mousse, crumbled goat-cheese sablé, saffron goat milk pudding, turnip Parisienne, petals of Brussels Sprouts, partridgeberry & Pinot Noir demi.
Why did you choose the particular wine/beer pairing for the dish?
We chose the Pelee Island Pinot Noir Reserve from Ontario. Goat and goat cheese have a gaminess that is echoed in the wine. Tanginess of the cheese and the bright acidity of the wine are a natural pairing. Also the lightness of the meat matches the medium body of the wine. It works!
What ingredients have you brought with you?
All the important Newfoundland ingredients! The meat, cheese, turnip and partridgeberries. Brussels sprouts are out of season now so we will get those in Kelowna.
Who have you brought with you to assist?
Our sous-chefs Ivan Kyutukchiev and Matt McDonald. And my wife and business partner, Andrea Maunder. (She is a wine expert.)
For the black box competition are there any strategies that you will employ to succeed?
From what I understand, timing is the most challenging factor. We will try to make dishes that are executable in the timeframe but will be tasty for the judges.
What challenges do you have to face as your travel to another destination to cook?
For us, it’s one end of the country to the other! There is a 4½ hour time zone difference and lots of connecting flights. Packing all our ingredients, too. We will be quite the spectacle at the airport toting our three huge coleman coolers on wheels instead of suitcases!
Who do you see as the toughest competitor this year?
To be honest, we haven’t really had time to look up the other chefs. I know that Rob Feenie has competed in the championships a couple of times, and being from the area, he will have the advantage of familiarity. Mostly, I’m looking forward to meeting the other chefs and seeing what they do, seeing what trends are happening in their necks of the woods!