Michael Blackie – Executive Chef and Co founder of NeXT
Michael Blackie is an executive chef and co-founder of NeXT, one of the hottest top 10 new restaurants in Canada.
His culinary line reflects an over 30 years cooking experience on 3 continents. A balance between Canadian roots with a strong influence in both Asian and European cuisines.
“Trends are for food critics. I don’t manage my menus, I create dishes based on memories, desires or inspiration.”
We met him for an interview.
Today you are Executive Chef and Co-founder; when did your chef journey begin?
Fate, I wanted to become a mechanical engineer and follow in the footsteps of my Father who worked for Pratt & Whitney, I started my first year in engineering at Humber college in Toronto I was 3 months into the program and literally in the middle of my physics class I realized this was not my calling. I got up from my desk walked out and went home, frustrated with my direction my mum Edith looked at me and said, “Good, so now are you going to be a cook Michael”. Yes my mother knew it I just needed to realize it was my calling. I’m driven by the pulse of the business, It is always changing and never is a service the same the rush of creating something that is bound by instantaneous results and is created within a short period of time generates a rush of satisfaction, there is nothing more rewarding when a guest speaks to you about a meal you created for them and they are talking about a meal you created 8 years ago. That truly is what food memory is about and drives me everyday in personal gratification when it comes to be a chef.
Where did you learn to become a chef?
I worked pretty much every restaurant in my hometown Oakville in the early 80’s I studied at George Brown Collage in Toronto and took the 2 year culinary management program graduating in 1987.Having always had an interest in cooking this is the early days of my young chef live, I was very lucky to work at the Windsor arms hotel and was able to do my apprenticeship there.
Can you tell us something more about the chef education system in Canada?
Chefs are required to gain 5000 hours to be able to write your red seal under the Canadian governments apprenticeship program. If you get over 80% you can get a red seal which means your certificate allows you to work in all provinces. I have always believed in the program and helped over 100 young chefs gain there hours working with me and verifying their time with me. I always say to these young chefs, It you want to travel you need accreditation you need to be able to prove to other countries that potential employers are actively looking to hire you that you have credentials that are equal to or better than what is available as a measured standard , Otherwise you won’t get a proper legal visa and the offer for a job wont be genuine, ensuring you are being hired in a fair mutually beneficial setting is paramount when working for anyone. Sadly, there are 1000’s of “chefs” in Canada, but mainly do not follow this simple step. I hear it all the time, I’m better than that. Remember, yes it will be very important the chefs you work for and what you do for them but having government accreditation coupled with a post-secondary diploma will open so many doors for you, you frankly won’t believe the opportunities that will fall in your lap with these advantages in your pocket.
Cooking schools are amazing in Canada, we have many great choices and all I have listed here accept International students. I myself am a Graduate from “George Brown Collage” based in Toronto, having completed the 2-year culinary management program. The Dean of George Brown College is John Higgins. Other great schools in Canada include, “Niagara Falls Culinary Institute”, Dean Craig Yuledale runs a fantastic program. “Humber College” in Toronto Dean Rudi Fischbacher has developed a incredible program for cooks . Here in Ottawa we have “Le Cordon Blue” Director of operations is Hervé Chabert an incredible pastry chef by trade . Algonquin college is also based here in Ottawa, Cory Haskings, is one of the instructors of the culinary program and is a CIA graduate who has played a very active role in shaping the Ottawa culinary field. I have hired cooks from all these schools It’s a basic when you want to be the best, hire skilled workers, keep them for a short time, 2 years let them milk you for all you have and then help them get to their next level post, After all, no matter your title or what restaurant you own, end of the day its about the people you help and If you can do your part to better the future of cooking no matter were you live you will leave a legacy that lives on well beyond your career and life time, isn’t that what living is all about in the end. “Teach, Inspire, let go, Repeat”
Toronto: what are the special dishes out of this region?
Specialty regional food is not something you can define Canada about, regional cuisine is really harking back to the simple times of hospitality were food could be defined in such terms. Toronto is Canada’s biggest cosmopolitan city in Canada it represents the diversified cultures that have made Canada what it is today, as a young chef growing up in this region in the 90’s you could literally head to different enclaves of culture in the city where you could absorb yourself in a specific culture, Little Italy on the Danforth, Chinatown on Spadina, or hang on Queen street and explore the hip trending restaurants, Toronto still has these areas but the area has grown so much that its no longer seeking out a region its now about seeking out Great chefs doing something unique, a kick to a traditional plate a twist to something country based, This goes hand in hand with the rest of the world as we get bigger we also get more diversified in what our guests want, Exposure to creativity will fuel the bellies of our guests for ever as long as chefs get board by the dishes they create with.
With the Fairmont group you worked in Acapulco, Mexico. Before you moved there; have you been aware/ cooking Mexican food?
I took this post as the main purpose of me becoming a chef was for travel and exposure to culture that I had already seen in Toronto, Acapulco was one of the first places I visited on my own in my 20’s and it was amazing to land my first expat post in the city. A holiday town this is where I leaned humility and started to understand the blessed life I had lived in Canada, I bonded deeply with my culinary and service team this is the place in were both Jillian my wife and I had our children, Liam and Annabel. I was hired specifically for my strengths in North American cuisine and naturally culinary management skills I had developed working at the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto Ontario.
Which ingrediencies did you appreciate most in Mexico?
Acapulco was a wealth of culinary knowledge although I was hired to ensure and teach the team in Mexico North American fare, in reality the guest visiting the hotel wanted and craved for traditional Mexican food, I turned to my chefs in the kitchen of the Pierre marques with a simple request each would showcase two dishes that there mothers taught them up to and including home favorites, this is when the exposure to Mexican cuisine the took root, The Chefs of this humble kitchen showcased incredible flavors and techniques, from Barbacoa, Sopes, taco al pastor, Huachinango a la talla , Mole, Pozole, Tamales, this list went on and on. In exchange for these dishes I made a simple pack with my team you teach me to speak Spanish and I’ll give English classes every two weeks. Guess what inside of 14 months I was fluently speaking Spanish with a Acapulqueno accent.
Later on you moved as Executive Sous Chef of the Mandarin Oriental hotel to Hongkong: Your first impression?
My opportunity to go from the Beaches of Mexico to one of the Best hotels in the world was steeped in a desire for over 7 years, I was fortunate to work under Rudolph Blatter my executive chef at the Westin Harbour Castle. The two of us had a strong desire to work in Hong Kong. Two years into my Mexican Post, Chef Blattler who we kept in touch regularly reached out to me and asked me to join him in HK. Together we helped each other make this dream a reality. Having run culinary operations at the Westin Harbour Castle the volume was almost the same however the food was incredibly different with 8 outlets.
You headed 8 outlets with 131 cooks: you felt more like a manager than still being a chef?
Managing 131 cooks didn’t change my attitude towards food, in fact it actually expanded it I would spend all day tasting food from one sauce pot to a cutting board to a complete sample of a new menu, understand the difference between a cook and a chef, a chef leads a team , inspires and allows his cooks to cook, But more importantly set the tempo of speed, change and what the guests should feel when then eat his or her food.
How did you manage the requirement/ balance between traditional and emerging food market trends?
Trends are for food critics. I don’t manage my menus, I create dishes based on memories, desires and inspiration.
Did you have time to learn traditional Cantonese cooking while working in Hong Kong ?
We had a traditional Cantonese kitchen that was managed by an entire Cantonese team the chef didn’t speak English. Communication was a best hand gestures and a lot of laughing, they probably thought I was crazy, I would spend hours watching their service , the system of organization would make most European and American chefs crap themselves. Sections are divided into, Chopper 1 and 2 they assemble raw products. Then there is Wok 1 and Wok 2, then BBQ and Steamer. The Executive chef stands in the middle of it all yelling out in Cantonese thru the entire service , passing plastic cafeteria trays laden with all ingredients scaled out in order of cooking format that the choppers put together, in turn the other stations cook the food. Every stack of ingredient has some clothes peg that gives name of dish. It was very enlightening for to watch it. I would assist my dim sum chef as well they were so fast! I have had chefs all over the world share with me their dishes, and in turn I have shared my dishes, that’s the best part of cooking, language means nothing just taste.
Your time as Executive Chef at The Oberoi Group in Bali: Was it the relaxing part after Hongkong?
The pace was very different, you can’t measure a job by well, we did 30 million here and only 2 million here, anything I do I give my whole heart I have never been just a chef to those who employed me I always strived to understand support the entire chain of development, look for opportunities and if there were areas that needed improved then I took it upon myself to make those opportunities a reality. Remember you are just one person there is only so much you can achieve, I would definitely say I had a bigger impact on the Oberio, the Brookstreet, and the NAC for sure. They needed guiding direction and shaping .
Back in Canada as the Executive Chef of the Brookstreet Hotel; did your style of cooking/ creating menus… has changed / been influenced from your time in Mexico and Asia?
Chefs develop their style by not only the chefs they work under but more importantly the people they are exposed to , the places they visit live my today vision of food is all about food memory there is no experimentation it’s just solid food , my cuisine is about being eclectic, nothing earth shattering as my mum Edith would say , “Thanks be praised my belly is raised without the aid of man”.
Your restaurant The NeXT was rated as one of the hottest top 10 new restaurants in Canada by Urbanspoon. You call it a sharing concept and the casual dining room is redefining suburban dining. What do you mean by that?
Chefs across Canada and north America are struggling with the associated costs of having a downtown restaurant, when in fact most of your guest who come to your restaurant don’t even live downtown. setting up shop in the west end of Ottawa, was a no brainer, my building is on the edge of the city, It is literally surrounded by over 300,000 houses. People have access to chain restaurants in the suburbs but there is nothing to choose from other than the go to places, IE: the Italian restaurant, the Chinese restaurant the Greek Restaurant the list goes on and on. Providing a setting in the suburbs that allows people to come to a place that is relaxed casual accessible and ever changing is what people really want I hear it all the time, “thank you so much for doing this , I cannot tell you how much we appreciate you being out here it means so much to our neighborhood and we are very proud” that statement I have heard 100 times and I never get tired of it. It makes me appreciate the efforts my team and I make every day to make this place called NeXT a reality.