Q&A: Ryan O’Flynn, Executive Chef, Westin Edmonton

Education: Graduate of Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Edmonton, Alberta (2000)

Career Path: Started washing dishes at age 14; 10-plus years at award-winning restaurants in Ireland, the U.K. and Europe; former head chef of The Milestone, London, England
Years of Experience as a Chef: 15

What are your earliest memories of cooking?

One of the things I remember from when I was about seven or eight years old, is that for some strange reason, I took some sandwich bread, put it on a tray, poured Coca-Cola all over it and then baked it. Nobody watched me do it – the adults were all in the backyard drinking wine and eating cheese! I stuck a bunch of bendable straws into it like candles, took it outside and expected everyone to eat it, which of course freaked them all out. That is probably the first thing I ever made.  I was always around food as a kid, though. My dad was a chef who managed the Culinary Team Canada that won the IKA (Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung/International Culinary Exhibition) Olympic Gold Medal in 1996. By the time I reached high school, I was already washing dishes and enjoyed being in the kitchen. Even though it was hard work, it never really seemed like a job to me. The environment suited me to a “T.”

How would you describe your restaurant(s) or foodservice operation?

Massive. We’re the biggest hotel in Edmonton with over 26,000 square feet of banquet space. We also do outside catering for large numbers of people. On top of that, we’ve got a huge lounge and restaurant that we are rebranding starting this summer, called “Share.” It will be extremely modern and something that would not normally be found in most parts of Canada, let alone Edmonton. But because we are in a big hotel, we want this to be a destination place and flagship restaurant in this region.

Describe what it was like competing in and winning the Gold Medal Plates competition in Kelowna.

I’m not usually a competitive chef, at least not like they are in the United States or Europe. Gold Medal Plates called me two months after I started at the Westin and asked me if I’d like to replace someone who had dropped out of the competition. Knowing I was going to be competing against some incredibly talented chefs brought my competitive side out a bit more and I took it as a personal challenge to beat them. After I ended up winning the whole thing, it was a great feeling. I’ve had a lot of support from everyone here in Edmonton. Since then, it has been a whirlwind of television appearances and magazine articles. Having been born here in Edmonton, it has been amazing to be able to help put the city on the culinary map, so to speak. It has opened up a lot of doors and opportunities.

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

I’d probably have scrambled eggs with white Alba truffle shaved over top, matched with a Petrus ’82 from the Romanée-Conti. They wouldn’t normally go together, but it’s my last meal, so who cares?

What is your philosophy about food?

Don’t freeze it, and your food is only as good as your ingredients.

Where do you go to dine out?

There is a lot happening in Edmonton. The independent scene is really growing here, like everywhere else. We’ve got a really great place here called Duchess that was just named one of the top 10 bakeries in the world. It would be right at home on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

What is your favourite ingredient?

Fresh is best. I love working with fish and seafood. Probably my favourite right now is sturgeon from Northern Divine.

Who were your biggest influences/inspirations for becoming a chef?

I’d say my dad – it’s because of his work that I grew up around the food industry. But I’ve learned just as much from the bad chefs as the good ones, when it comes to knowing how not to do things a certain way.

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

I’d probably take a chicken because it could lay eggs and make more chickens and I could start a farm with that. I’d take a cow so I could have milk and cheese. And I guess I’d take a pig because I’d have to take three items.

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

Bacon. Honestly, I am so tired of hearing about bacon all the time. Maybe I should reconsider taking the pig.

What do you think is the most underrated food trend?

Anything that’s Canadian. We import 85 per cent of our produce here from Peru, or California, or wherever, and don’t even look to see what’s growing on our own doorstep. Ninety per cent of our farmland is perfectly capable of producing amazing ingredients instead of GMO wheat.

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

Again, I’d have to say Canadian. It’s virtually untouched and really is the new frontier. Some people are attempting it and there are some very cool aboriginal techniques with so many wild ingredients like morel mushrooms and botanicals from the forest or tundra. Canadian cuisine is pretty much untapped.

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

Number one, you have to be passionate. Second, you have to be tough. You have to be prepared to take less than everyone else and work harder than everyone else to get it. It’s all about dedication.

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

I like curing and aging things myself. I like cooking with sous vide, even though it’s a bit passé now.

Do you have any culinary guilty pleasures? Food treats that you couldn’t live without?

I like a good mixed shawarma, but not like any of those donair kebabs that they shave with a kind of hair-clipper thing. A proper mixed shawarma.

What are some of the most interesting aspects of being a chef?

Everything is interesting if you’ve got the right perspective and you appreciate life and culture. The food industry can take you all around the world and expose you to different cultures and let you meet amazing people. It’s a phenomenal fusion of people, food and culture where you never stop learning.

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

Make sure you’re sure. If you question getting involved in this industry for even a minute, go do something else.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *