Chef Michael Allemeier

Chef Q&A: Michael Allemeier, Instructor, Culinary Arts, SAIT Polytechnic

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Education: Red Seal Journeyman 1989, CCC 2001, CMC 2017

Years of experience as a chef: Started Culinary Apprenticeship October 1986

What are your earliest memories of cooking?

Being born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa and watching my father cook over charcoal (called a braai) are some of my earliest memories. We left South Africa in 1978 to move to Hong Kong. For me that’s where the food hook was struck. I have vivid memories of all the markets and the wonderful food displayed. The food culture is so strong and respectful it made a marked impression on me. The respect for fresh, wholesome and local food was impressed upon me over those years.

Why do you think you were drawn to a culinary career?

Being raised on three continents I loved the idea of traveling, eating new foods and seeing new places. Traveling is such an advantage to this career. I finished high school during a bad recession with high unemployment and crazy interest rates. Since I knew we all need to eat, cooking seemed to be an industry that could ride out such times and create secure employment. Also, and the most important, cooking came very naturally to me. It’s something that has always made sense. It’s always been effortless and a natural thing to do. I love the order kitchens can bring and the problem solving that it needs. It’s never been work for me. I still love going into the kitchen every day.

What is your current role in the foodservice industry?

In 2009, I had the chance to join the SAIT teaching team. After 25 years of industry experience this evolution of my career made a lot of sense to me. My career was predominately spent in fine dining with my highlights being able to run the following kitchens: Bishops (Vancouver), Teatro (Calgary) and Mission Hill Family Estate Winery (Okanagan). In all these kitchens, I was able to pursue the fresh, regional and seasonal style of cooking that I love and respect the most.

If you knew you were eating your last meal, what would you have?

Tough question as it would depend on many factors. I am very indecisive with food choices — that’s why I always love letting the seasons pick my food. But for sure, I would want good naturally fermented bread with the best butter and touch of good sea salt. I have always loved that combination and find a lot of comfort in it.

What is your philosophy about food?

Good cooking begins with good ingredients. It’s that simple! Sourcing and finding the best ingredient that is grown as close to one’s kitchen in an environmentally and sustainable manner has been a driving force for me over the last 30 years. There is simply nothing that tastes better.

Where do you go to dine out?

I love going for simple ethnic food, food I may not do professionally — like a good bowl of ramen, Indian food or dim sum. I love to travel as well and try to visit places with strong food cultures.

What is your favourite ingredient?

I’m a sucker for duck fat. It’s very versatile and brings such huge flavour to the plate.

Who were your biggest influences for becoming a chef?

I have had a lot of great mentors over my career. I would be nothing without John Bishop and all he instilled in me while at his restaurant in Vancouver. His values with regards to quality, flavour and the art of hospitality are the cornerstone to my values.

If you knew you were going to be exiled to a desert island, what three ingredients or food items would take with you?

Salt, butter, good quality vinegar.

What do you think is the most overrated food trend right now?

Gluten Free. If you are a celiac, I fully understand and respect how gluten can’t be consumed. But, gluten has been the cornerstone of our diet for over 3,000 years; the pyramids and Stonehenge were built on barley and now gluten is considered the death of our society. There are a large number of processed food companies looking to take advantage of that perception by providing a range of gluten-free foods that use, in some cases, some questionable ingredients to replace gluten.

What do you think is the most underrated food trend?

Fresh vegetables. It’s a trend trying to gain some traction. We need to eat a greater variety of vegetables and feature them more prominently. Plus, smaller portions. We are simply eating too much and it’s not sustainable, as well as a burden on our health.

Is there any type of cuisine that you would like to experiment more with?

One never has enough Indian flavours. I love the complexity and wonderful flavours this culture has. India has a deep, long history and food is the cornerstone to its complexity of regions.

What are the essential ingredients for success in the foodservice industry today?

One needs a sense of humour and patience for this business. There are days that you need to be able to laugh it all off. Success is not an overnight phenomenon — it takes one showing up everyday, all day!

Which cooking technique or tool is a favourite of yours right now, and why?

I’ve always been a lover of cooking over wood. Controlling the fire and one’s coal base is as much of a challenge as bringing flavour and technique to the food. The flavour is an old one that is buried deep in our past. I recently came back from Spain. While spending a week in Costa Brava, our house had a wood fired forno/grill. We would visit the market daily to search for the best ingredients and cook them every night over fire. Highlights of that were grilled octopus, razor clams, quails, milk fed lamb, whole chickens and whole fish.

What is your favourite food combination right now?

Anything grilled with fresh lemon (or other acidity) and salt.

Do you have any culinary guilty pleasures?

Poutine. In particular a poutine made with real cheese curds, with rich gravy, hot enough to thoroughly melt the cheese. The addition of lamb meatballs or shredded smoked BBQ pork or duck confit also goes a long way to making poutine a real guilty pleasure.

What are some of the most interesting or unique challenges of being a chef?

One will never have the same day twice. This is a fast-moving industry with lots of moving parts. It keeps one engaged and keeps one thinking. I love the chaos that is generated, but I prefer to control it verses it controlling me. Problem solving is a huge prerequisite for this business.

What advice would you have for aspiring new chefs as they enter the industry?

Be patient with yourself. This is an industry based on experience. Get the experience you need to be successful and enjoy the journey. Be kind to yourself as you grow and make mistakes. Learn from the mistakes and always look ahead, never behind!

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