Our next Chef of the Week manages not one, but four restaurants for an ever-growing hospitality group.
Allow us to introduce you to Michael Hay.
Overseeing the menus of four restaurants is a big job, but it’s a position that District Chef Michael Hay of Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants strives at. Born in Kingston, Ontario, Hay moved to Ottawa to study English and Humanities at Carleton University before realizing his passion for great food. He honed his skills at various restaurants in Ottawa, before moving to Chicago and gaining experience at Michelin-starred Moto Restaurant.
And like all great leaders, Chef Hay worked hard to get to the position he is in today. After moving back to Ottawa, he led two restaurants to become the top ten in Ottawa, competed in the prestigious Gold Medal Plates twice, and helmed the kitchen at Canteen, where his hard work and talent did not go unnoticed. After earning much recognition in publications like NOW Magazine, Toronto Life and Zagat, he was promoted to District Chef.
We had the opportunity to talk to Chef Michael Hay about how he got his start in the industry, how to make the perfect roast chicken, and why you need to ditch the fancy kitchen gadgets.
How did you get your start in the industry?
When I was 14 years old, I asked my parents for some pocket money and they told me to get a job. So I went out and started working full-time as dishwasher at a high volume Italian restaurant in Kingston, ON. I was working full-time throughout high school and I thought that cooking seemed easier than dishwashing. It turned out it certainly wasn’t easier, but it was way more fun. I somehow convinced the chef to let me learn how to work the pizza station, and by the time I left for university I had a good foundation in cooking fundamentals.
How would you describe your culinary style?
That’s a moving target, as it depends who I am cooking for. When I was younger I, to an extent, cooked mainly for myself and for my ego. But now that I am a little older, I always cook with my guests in mind. What do they like to eat? How can I surprise them? How can I do something a little better than what they have had before? My wheelhouse is Italian, French, modernist, and Middle Eastern, but I also have great love for vegan, vegetarian and alternative eating preferences. Peter Oliver has a great way of describing the cooking style I aspire to as “the real deal”.
What’s your favourite dish on your current menu and why?
Well, currently I have four menus! So I would say that my favourite thing to eat are the specials of the chefs with whom I work. At O&B Oakville, it’s Chef Jon Harris’s roast chicken with Montreal steak spice, fries and gravy. At O&B Yonge & Front, its Chef Joel’s mussels cooked in blonde ale and country bread. At O&B Bayview Village it would have to be Chef Omar’s jerk-spiced baby back ribs, which he serves every Saturday night (pro tip: order these in advance because we always sell out). And at Beaumont Kitchen, Chef Suyeon has a way of turning out very delicate and flavourful seafood dishes.
But the short answer would be our eggs Benedict on a housemade scone with griddled hash browns. So good.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about the restaurant industry?
There are no short cuts. If you want to get good at something, you need to grind it out, put your head down, and focus on what you are doing. If you want to get really good at cooking, you need to put on blinders and pretty much only focus on that for a number of years.
What’s your go-to meal to cook at home?
Roast chicken. I buy a chicken almost every week from some farmers in St. Lawrence Market. It’s my Sunday ritual. I roast it in salt and olive oil until the skin is crispy and the meat is juicy and tender. It makes my place smell amazing. Then it gets turned into all kinds of chicken salads throughout the week for post-workout meals.
If I have company over and I want to really impress people, it’s a handmade pasta. People love the magic of eating freshly made pasta with some fresh tomatoes, basil and parm.
What are three restaurants our readers need to try before they die?
- Lula Café in Chicago. It s a perfect neighbourhood third place. You can go for coffee, breakfast, lunch, or indulge in a full-on tasting menu.
- Corazon de Maiz in Ottawa. It’s run by husband-and-wife team Eric and Mariana, and they make everything fresh daily from scratch –even the salsas. When I go back to Ottawa it’s the first place that I always visit. Their tortilla soup would be my last meal!
- Magnolias in Charleston. I only went there once, but it was a perfect restaurant experience. After being blown away by the food, the service, the ambience, and the history of the place, the dishwasher came out and sang happy birthday to the table adjacent to us. He was a professional soprano. Total layup.
What’s one tip our readers should know to up their own game in their kitchens?
Find a farmers market and get to know the supplier there. Buy what looks, smells and tastes the best, and then take the produce home and cook it simply. While it’s true that most home cooks can not cook like a chef, your cooking game will be improved by 100% just by starting with amazing products.
A second tip would be to stop buying useless kitchen gadgets. All you need is a knife, some pots and pans, maybe a colander, and you are good to go.
If there was one thing in the restaurant industry you could change, what would it be?
I would change the archetype of the chef who works 80 hours per week, smokes, drinks, and eats like a glutton. Food is the staff of life and for me, food is about nourishment and bringing people together. I used to be like that when I was younger, but I still see chefs behaving with no regard for their health. In order to take care of your kitchen, your restaurant, and your guests, you need to first take care of yourself. In the last five years, food media has made more of an effort to highlight chefs with a healthy lifestyle, and I think we need more of this.
How do you think Toronto (and/or Canada’s) culinary scene will evolve in the future?
Well I am really fascinated by QSRs (Quick Service Restaurants); the fast casual. I love Flock, iQ Food Co., Busters Sea Cove, The Dirty Bird, the various poke bowl spots. I would love to see even more diversity within this sector. I like the idea of restaurants just having one, two, or three things that they do really well and just focus on that.
Concurrently, we need more fine dining temples. I’m done with tasting menus in 40-seat restaurants with uncomfortable chairs and poor lighting. Culturally, it’s important for cities to have places where food is cooked at a high level in a well thought-out environment. Alo, Leña and Buca all spring to mind as great examples. There was a reaction against that sort of restaurant in the last decade, but I think its time to reignite that romance.
To keep up with Chef Michael Hay, follow him on Instagram at @MichaeltheHay.
Are there any other chefs you’d like to see profiled? Let us know in the comment section or tweet us at @ViewtheVibe.