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11 Questions with Michael Olson

Chef Professor & Author,  Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College. 

1.  You helped start the farm to table movement in Niagara. What is your take on the food scene in Niagara right now?

In many ways I have seen Niagara mature as a food destination hub and we have a good roster of talent out there putting in their time. There is room for small, simple chef-driven restaurants to focus on stripped down, flavour forward kitchens without the usual trappings that drive prices up and profitability down. However, some of the established places need to remind our city neighbors that we are down here open for business as Niagara is not getting as much attention as it could through Toronto based media. We actually need a couple of new voices to champion the community efforts.

2.  Describe a favourite day or night in Niagara.

A great Saturday starts with a walk along the old canal then about an hour or so at the Welland Market to catch up with our farmer friends and buy incredible fresh produce. Then a stop at Celi & Presti for mixed olives, a run to Niagara Sausage to get a pork shoulder or roaster chicken and then on to Muileboom Greenhouse for tomatoes and cukes. The Big Green Egg is loaded with charcoal for a low slow cookout then dinner with my family and a taste of some of Jon Downings’ hop blaster beer and a glass of wine from one of Niagara’s many viti-magicians. We have a lot of favorites but lately have been keen on Tawse and Megalomaniac reds and the Charles Baker Riesling.

3.  What is it like to train the next set of future chef leaders?

I think these young people are just great. Their energy and enthusiasm is a metaphorical Red Bull and inspires me to read and keep on learning to try my best to pass along practical wisdom. I see my role in educator as nothing more than a small positive influence to encourage someone to dig deep, get passionate about the craft, and make their own way. Our social communication is changing rapidly and technology makes us always wanting faster, bigger, stronger but I encourage students to remember the basics and pay attention to civility, kindness and good manners. In the light speed days of texting and video conferencing, a simple hand written note card saying “thanks, it was nice to meet you” carries more weight than you might expect.

4.  If you can give an aspiring chef some words of wisdom, what would it be?

Read everything you can get your hands on, keep a journal of your food experiences, travel, taste and keep smiling. Your food tastes better when you are happy.

5.  Do you have a favourite eating/drinking hang out in Niagara?

The Welland Café on East Main for Huevos Rancheros and the corn tortillas at Tortilleria Tepoztlan on Hartzel Road in St. Catharines.

6.     Is there a food experience that is missing in Niagara right now?

I would like to see a German schnitzel house to show off farmhouse cooking that goes well with Niagara Riesling and beer. Our pal Wolfgang used to run a “broom house” restaurant in Germany that was a seasonal kitchen on a vineyard serving simple sausage, potato salad, schnitzels, roast, apple strudels… I am getting hungry just thinking about it. There would be room for shared tables, rustic settings and an honest welcome.

7.  What has been your most recent inspirational dining experience?

I’m a little bit like a Northern Pike, in other words my favorite meal is the last one I just had! I must say that the biggest impact recently was at a senior’s home, seriously. An old friend called from his work place to ask if Anna and I would come by to judge an apple pie contest and dinner at a senior’s home called Seasons. Of course I thought it would be a little visit and we would just push the food around the plate then go home for dinner. I guess I have a poor opinion of how food in hospitals and care homes seems to be the last consideration and expected tasted mush. I hate this as I see food as such a big part of wellness and basic quality of life.

When we arrived, the place seemed more like a small hotel and everyone seemed somehow chipper and pleasant. I have never seen a cleaner kitchen and was absolutely blown away by the food quality. The chefs were working the line like it was a special occasion at a high end restaurant – nicely done salads, home made soup, meats and fresh vegetables cooked to order and delicious potato pancakes. It really made an impression on us and there was clearly a feeling of dignity in the dining room.

8.  Moving from local to global… what’s it like to film for the Asian Food Network?

It is a lot of fun and completely crazy. AFC is based in Singapore and has 45 million viewers across Asia and they are nuts about food. Canadians worry and talk about weather while Asians spend that energy talking about food. Instead of “man, it is cold today”  it is “what do you mean the noodles at X are delicious – you have to try them at Y” and so on. Anna has a very strong following in Malaysia and Philippines so we were blown away by the crowds and support. We were chased through a mall in Manila like it was an episode of The Monkees, ha ha.

We met so many interesting and kind people and visited some amazing culinary hotspots, both fancy and basic. A man on the streets of Kuala Lumpur making a laminated dough (Roti Chanai) on a tin table than took as much skill as a Michelin starred pastry chef, ladies in rural Philippines making duck egg rice paper wrappers to go around hand made candies, Singaporean British dishes like Cereal Prawns (crazy combo on prawns, butter and oats, it works) and eating fresh picked jade rice and drinking hot chocolate under cocoa trees in Pampanga.

The experience was rewarding and humbling all at once. We have been fortunate to be able to travel through work and never take anything for granted. Doing work while traveling is grounding as you do not just have your rose-coloured tourist glasses on, you deal with problem solving and realistic conditions. I think part of it is fulfilling our desire to promote Canadian culture to other countries. Asia does not know a lot about Canada but they it is wide open, clean and fresh – a place for opportunity.

9.  Of all the places you have been, what is your favourite culinary destination?

I can’ t just pick one but will suggest that Barcelona knows food. We have a couple of favorites that are simple, fast and so delicious. Tapas at Cuidad Contal with Mackey Hernandez, the greatest bar man in the world, and a little joint in Barcelonita called La Vassa D’Oro where chefs and bar men in military jackets do seafood and one of the most amazing meat dishes ever to come off a flat top griddle. Solo Mio con Foie is as good a flavor as we’d tasted – a couple of thick cuts of beef tender seared then a whack of foie gras added and a rain of onion put through a cheese grater. It sounds fancy and decadent but is simple put on a small white side plate and the place looks like a diner that sells Toasted Westerns. Unbelievable.

10. Do you ever need to use a cook-book? And if so, which one?

I actually use cookbooks all the time for reference and inspiration. I have never been one to copy a recipe directly into my repertoire but see elements that I bring into my style of food. I learned a lot from Smita Chandra’s Cuisines of India and also from my wife Anna’s Back to Baking. I got a gift of a German book in 1987 from an old friend Susur Lee that I have referenced over the years, mostly for the photos as it is written in German – Essen Wie Gott in Deutschland has been a never ending inspiration for menus.

11. If you weren’t a chef, you would be a ……

I originally was going to be a doctor and still like the idea of helping people but I also have an entrepreneurial fire in me that might be a combination of freaky artist and culinary antique dealer, ha ha. My latest project is buying and refurbishing antique deli slicers to look like vintage motorcycles, all polished up, powder coated in bright colours, pin striped and I had a logo decal made up – Olson Hardware – my dad Max had a hardware store for 32 years and he gave me a lot of what makes me “me”.



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