Interview with Chef Ryan Hotchkiss
What does an executive chef actually do?
I’m essentially the ideas guy; everything you see on the menu is my idea, other than the couple [of items] carried over from the last menu. I’m in charge of supplying all the ingredients, sourcing out the best [food] that we possibly can, staffing, making sure there’s an overall good atmosphere for everybody working back there.
What exactly does it take to be an executive chef?
A good attitude and just hard work throughout your culinary training. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be the best chef. Obviously that helps, and that’s gonna [affect] how successful you are, but a good attitude is probably by far the biggest thing you need.
Where did you train?
I attended NAIT. I worked at a lot of restaurants in BC and Alberta. I’m constantly reading, constantly watching YouTube. You could probably learn more from that than you could from culinary school, to be honest. I took my Blue Seal, which is business competencies.
What are your influences?
You can be influenced by anything. You start out as a kid, and you have your few dishes that you like to cook and your few experiences, like cooking with my dad and gardening with my mom... and then you go to culinary school and you think it needs to get really intense, and it needs to get so much more intricate, when it really doesn’t, and you just end up getting convoluted. And eventually you just go back to being quite simple.
What is the one thing you always aim to do as a chef?
Number one is always being as tasty as possible, obviously. Intriguing but straightforward, accessible but not boring.
What made you want to work at Central?
My background is fine dining, but the days of fine dining aren’t necessarily over. People need intriguing food at more accessible price points, and I think that was the big thing. Central basically gave me the opportunity to full-on take the menu over, and I thought that was a good idea... you get to affect more people this way. You get to get your food out to more people by being accessibly priced.
What were your goals with this menu?
My goals with this menu were to kind of get the ball rolling and get people to think about not having to order the same old stuff when you go to a pub. There can still be chef-driven menus and food-focused menus that we can do on a larger scale, simply because of who we are, where we’re located, things like that. So right now we’re just trying to push people’s envelope a little bit, but I think we’re gonna keep going with it, and hopefully just keep pushing people’s boundaries with what they can expect from pub food.
What was your biggest challenge while creating this menu?
Having people miss their old things from the old menu! And still trying to win them over with your own food. The first couple weeks were probably the hardest...You know, they’re saying, “Why’d you take my favourite thing off there, and your stuff’s not that good...” Well, give us a little time.
Do you feel this menu makes a particular statement?
Probably that we can do chef-driven menus and food-driven menus with ideas like seasonality and [locality] and still do it on this type of level.
What’s your favourite item on the menu?
I love the carpaccio. The tomato-watermelon salad’s pretty good, too.
From drinks to dinner to dessert, what would you recommend as a meal?
I’m an IPA guy. I also like Hefeweizens, we’ve got a lot of good Granville beers... don’t be afraid to order some of the stuff you wouldn’t normally order on the menu. Just ‘cause you see a chicken sandwich on there and you think that it’s safe or whatever, you know, try something else... Our chocolate dessert is awesome, but our citrus dessert’s really good, too.
Why is carpaccio such a popular item in restaurants lately?
I think maybe it’s just kind of trendy, although it’s not anything new... But I think ours is a little bit different because it really goes away from the norm of what you’d expect from carpaccio. It’s Asian-influenced, rather than being Italian-influenced, which is quite a bit different, but still really good.
Why do you use root chips, as opposed to the more conventional potato chips?
It’s just something that we can do. ‘cause we don’t cut our own fries... so this is a way for us to show you that a bowl of fried root chips can still be done well. It’s something that’s fairly straightforward, but still quite complex in that you have to fry it properly, and you have to store it properly... We like to use other things, lotus root, taro root, purple sweet potato, things like that. It’s just a little more interesting than just doing some basic fried chips.
Did you deliberately design the menu to be gluten free, or was that just a coincidence?
It is a little bit of a coincidence, simply because when you do start making more of your stuff in-house, a lot of pre-made sauces are heavy on gluten items. And yeah, it is a big thing, but it mostly stems from knowing exactly where your food comes from. We’re more than willing to switch something... if you have a sensitivity, we can make you happy. Somehow, some way, we will. We’ll make you happy.
Do you have a personal philosophy where local suppliers are concerned?
Our pork was alive on Tuesday, and we get it on Thursday... We know where it comes from, we know how it’s treated, we know what’s going into it, and it’s all about just giving the customer the best product we can possibly find. And people have long thought about Edmonton as this place that’s hard to get things, and yes, it is, but there’s still a lot of amazing farmers and suppliers and purveyors that are putting out this product. We simply have no choice. We have to support them, because it’s the best that we can get.
Do you prefer to make modern or traditional dishes?
It’s a little bit of both. It’s definitely traditional technique mixed with a little bit of modern technique as well. The traditions, they still produce really good flavour. People look at modern technique and think that it’s modern in the sense that it’s, “Wow, you’re using a water bath to cook a piece of meat,” whereas using a grill to cook a piece of meat is just as molecular in its science.
Is there one dish you always wanted to make but were never able to?
I would love to use uni, which is sea urchin roe. A lot of offal would be nice... which are organs and things like that, which most people have never really thought about. They’re unbelievable. Things like sweetbreads... sweetbreads [are] probably the easiest to get people hooked on.
What do you do in your downtime?
I golf a little bit, and that’s probably the only thing I do outside of anything else related to cooking. Constantly reading, constantly on YouTube. I just want to know how chefs think. I can’t just take their dishes and make them my own; I have to think for myself, too. So I just try and get in their head[s] a little bit.
Do you have any comments or perspective on the local food scene in general?
The Edmonton scene right now is great. I’m so happy to be where I am right now. There’s so many good cooks out there, and they’re all doing such an awesome job, and it’s nice that we’re becoming more of a cohesive group than seeing each other as competition... We should all just be creating a really cohesive Edmonton food scene.