Friday, September 3, 2010

Meet a Gold Medal Plates Ottawa Competing Chef: An Afternoon with Chef Michael Moffatt

The following guest post continues a series of “Meet a Gold Medal Plates Competing Chef” interviews you will see on the Fridays leading up to the Gold Medal Plates Event in Ottawa. It's from the wonderful people at foodiePrints.

For the second installment of "Meet a Gold Medal Plates Ottawa Competing Chef", Jenn and I visited
Play Food and Wine at 1 York Street. This is one of the restaurants we always recommend to people who visit Ottawa and stay in the ByWard Market area. It is one we recommend to friends who just want to gather together, eat great food, and drink great wine.


Downstairs Dining Room



Because Play serves "small plates", tapas-style dishes, the restaurant can accommodate just about any palate. Best of all, it lets patrons sample a number of dishes instead of enforcing a rigid appetizer, main, and dessert sequence. Of course, recommended wine pairings are listed on the menu.

There, Jenn and I had lunch towards the end of service, meeting Play's gracious owner Stephen Beckta. We shook hands with its Wine Director Grayson McDiarmid. Like Beckta, McDiarmid is a trained sommelier. He is also the voice behind Play's Twitter account

Jenn ordered the quail and the steak frites.

Quail on house creamed corn with roasted green onion, local peach relish

Grilled and soy marinated hanger steak frites with 4 kinds of mushrooms and house aioli

Cost: $22.60 (because of the 2 plates for $20 lunch special, after taxes, before tip)

Afterward we declined dessert and Chef Michael Moffatt (Executive Chef of both Play and Play's sister restaurant,
Beckta Dining and Wine), joined us for an interview.

Chef Michael Moffatt

Chef Moffatt can be best described as disarmingly friendly. The interview felt more like an easy conversation. He, effortlessly answering questions and offering wonderful insight

What's your philosophy when it comes to food and your restaurant?
According to Chef Moffatt, "Everyone deserves a great meal." He feels strongly guest experience should be paramount.

"It's not about the chef or entitlements. It's about guests and their preferences."

"Food should be about memories." While, restaurants can't compete with food-related memories from anyone's personal history, they can leverage them to create great guest experiences.

What inspires you? How do you come up wth ideas for the dishes you create?
True to his food philosophy, Chef Moffatt draws inspiration from taking great ingredients and presenting them in a new way. All the while, he likes to stay true to the essence of his ingredients. Change the texture a little. Highlight a different flavour or textural aspect.

When we pressed him for an example, we gave him a scenario of encountering great produce in the ByWard Market. He answered with the example of a jalapeño. Jalapeño oil has a unique flavour. He recently made "onion" rings out of fresh jalapeños, which he battered and deep fried. Topping a tomato salad with his jalapeño rings caused it to absorb some jalapeño oil, imparting heat.

I know your menu changes at both Play and Beckta often. What's your favourite dish from both menus and why?
Chef Moffatt admitted there is a lot on both his menus he likes. If he were to choose one current dish at Beckta, it would be the British Columbia Spot Prawn appetizer for its uniqueness.

At Play, he could not really choose a dish, but said the Ling Cod stands out. He remarked at the dish pairing cheese with fish.

Incidentally, Stephen Beckta's favourite dish on Play's menu is the Pork Belly.

These happened to be the dishes I ordered.
Ling Cod on grilled honeydew with house ricotta mixed with grape fruit zest and spicy pistachios

Pork belly served on wilted beet greens with a miso and plum sauce

Cost: $22.60 (because of the 2 plates for $20 lunch special, after taxes, before tip)

What's the ingredient you can't live without? (other than basics)
After qualifying what was meant by "basics", Chef Moffatt immediately replied "Mushrooms. I love mushrooms." His favourite variety is shiitake.

At Beckta, all the entrees on his menu, save for 2 exceptions, have mushrooms. 50% of Play's menu has mushrooms.

Is there anything you won't eat?
"Yes. I won't eat horse." Accordingly, horses have been domesticated for too long. There is too much human interaction.

Do you have a guilty food pleasure?
"My favourite is grilled cheese sandwiches. And, Doritos. Although I haven't eaten those in a while."

He enjoys pizza, but "who doesn't?"

What was your most memorable meal and why?
Chef Moffat asked "eaten or cooked?" Generously, he responded to both.

"Cooked" would be a dinner he prepared Thanksgiving 1999 for his 92 year old grandmother before she died. Then, he was new to the restaurant industry, "young" (as he put it). His grandmother ate every bite, refusing to believe he had prepared it.

"Eaten", he has two.

The first, was eating one of
Atelier Restaurant's tasting menu with Stephen Beckta. There, his most memorable dish was Chef Sarah Allen's popcorn and beer soup. Chef Moffatt likes how Atelier's dishes are "playful and thoughtful."

"The focus is on guest experience, something it [Atelier] isn't given enough credit for."

The second, was in New York City in 2002. Chef Moffat had the opportunity to eat at Chef Mario Batali's first restaurant, Po, with the now legendary Italian chef actually in the kitchen. The standout dish there was ox tail ravioli, which had "a beautiful earthiness, brightened by sherry vinegar." Accordingly, the food, while unique, demonstrated a real emotional connection between chef and dish.

"It was cared about."

What would your last meal be?
"It would be my grandma's grilled cheese."

"Food is a social medium," said Chef Moffatt. Many of the memories we have come from gatherings with friends and family. Oftentimes, there is food. It is his fond memories eating, his grandmother's grilled cheese sandwiches that make grilled cheese his guilty pleasure.

If you could travel to just one place in the world for food, where would you go and why?
"Italy! This country understands regionality. In the north, you don't eat pasta. You eat rice."

"It is where the "slow food" movement started."

Because Italian culture has such a commitment to food, "being there would teach you food on a different level."

Describe your perfect Sunday.
"Spend time with my family, cook for friends, and play hockey at night."

For those who are newly attending the Gold Medal Plates event, how would you describe it? What can one expect?
"It's quite the spectacle. It's a unique and well-choreographed event, that is part culinary competition, part fundraiser, and part Olympic athlete exposure."

Traditionally, anywhere from 350 to 500 people attend. There is a silent auction with big ticket items.

"It is 10 field kitchens, serving food to attendees." But, afterward, it is an opportunity for chefs who don't usually see each other (because "we're usually stuck in our kitchens") to chat.

How would you prepare for a competition like Gold Medal Plates? "It's hard to prepare in advance. Food is perishable."

Chef Moffatt has two restaurants to run, admitting "Whoever I take with me isn't working that day." Neither Beckta nor Play close for Gold Medal Plates.

Preparation-wise, "We use whatever gaps [in services] we can to prepare." While he received the invite to participate in January, he has only begun to finalize his dish now, 3 months before.

"We've always done trios", which means anywhere from 1500 to 1700 portions of food need to be prepared, plated, and served.

As last year, preparation is dependent on available ingredients.

"November is also going to be a busy month at Beckta and Play."

Between questions, Chef Moffatt also shared with us how the restaurant industry has been humbled of late. Mostly, due to it weathering a long recession. It has become more guest-centric. At the same time, food media has caused food culture to "progress." Thoughts have shifted. Appetites have changed. For instance, sustainable fish from both North American coasts are now available that weren't accessible even 6 years ago.

Ottawa's food scene particularly has developed. This was once a city where visitors from Toronto ate before they arrived or traveled to Montreal for dinner. Now, 20% of Beckta Dining and Wine's patrons come from Toronto.

Thank-you Chef Moffatt and Stephen Beckta for having us. We had a wonderful lunch and chat. Both food and service were fantastic.

To Chef Moffatt, good luck this November at Gold Medal Plates.

Facebook Page:
Gold Medal Plates Ottawa

To purchase tickets for Gold Medal Plates, contact Sue Holloway (contact information below) or click

Play Food and Wine
1 York Street
(613) 667-9207

Gold Medal Plates Ottawa
Tuesday, November 16, 2010 6:00 pm
National Arts Centre
53 Elgin Street

Sue Holloway
818 Nesbitt Place
(613)274-3107 phone
(613)274-0851 fax

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