Restaurant 18 has been a mainstay of Ottawa’s fine dining scene since 2001. After a company shake-up last fall, Kirk Morrison was installed as the restaurant’s Chef de cuisine. Drawn to cooking at a young age, the 30-year-old chef fondly recalls his initial toe in the water as a budding young chef, cooking alongside his dad. Now at the helm of one of the top restaurants in the city, Morrison showcases menus that display an impressive set of skills he’s been developing since he interned under superstar Chef Lynn Crawford at the Four Seasons. I caught up with Chef Morrison to discuss his culinary roots, his experience feeding hungry Olympians, his earnest stint as a butcher, and the evolution of his recent menu.
Do you come from a family of foodies?
My dad was actually a doctor, but he was an amazing home cook and that’s where I picked it up. He always had me on the counter when I was a kid. You know — making breakfast for the family in the morning or helping with dinner parties on the weekend, even watching the Urban Peasant on TV together — that kind of stuff. That’s what I grew up with. That was one of the reasons I gravitated towards professional cooking because, through my dad, I acquired a respect and passion for food at a very young age. My mom still doesn’t cook. Can’t boil an egg to save her life.
Sometimes it’s just not in ya.
She [mom] never had to. My dad would always do the cooking. At the end of the day, that’s where I got my kick-in-the-pants to go and become a chef. I remember when I finished high school, my dad and I were talking and looking at possible universities, and I just wasn’t keen on anything. I didn’t want to go to university. It just didn’t look fun and none of the subjects interested me. I had been working in a few kitchens, but nothing on a professional level at that point. When my dad said, “Why don’t you go to cooking school?” I just never had thought about it as a career option. “Why don’t you learn to be a chef,” he said. And, from the time he said that, to the time that I applied and got accepted to George Brown, it was probably three months. It was incredibly quick. It was the year of the double cohorts when all these kids in grade 12 and 13 were applying to colleges and universities at the same time. There was so much competition. And, the fact that I got into one of the top culinary schools in the country was so incredibly surprising to me. It was a crazy experience and a bit of a whirlwind from that point. All I remember is that conversation, and then all of a sudden I was walking into my first day at chef school. Looking back on it, it was the first day of the rest of my cooking life, so to speak.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I think the first thing I ever wanted to be was a policeman. That’s what my mom says. And then the next thing was a chef, and it’s been that ever since. It’s pretty much the only thing I ever wanted to do. And, when I figured out that I could do it, I just never wanted to do anything else.
What did you do after George Brown?
After training at George Brown and graduating with a Culinary Management Diploma, I got offered a chance to work at the Four Seasons in Yorkville, which was huge. The top three students from every graduating class got the opportunity to go work at the Four Seasons, and I was one of those three that year. I trained under Lynn Crawford who was the Executive Chef there at the time. I was super young. I think I was 19 in this massive kitchen with all these hugely talented people and this big famous executive chef. It was definitely the beginning of what in my heart and my mind I felt like was going to be my career.
After my stage, I left Toronto to go to Vancouver. I bounced around a lot during my early to mid 20’s just having fun. And then I took over my first kitchen, I believe, when I was 24. I was Chef de cuisine in a Restaurant in North Vancouver, which was the first kitchen management job I ever had. It taught me a lot, it was very difficult, and I definitely wasn’t ready for it. Looking back, I feel there couldn’t have been a better on-the-job learning opportunity. After that I landed at a catering company, and we won the bid to be the official caterer for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Sounds like you’ve created some tremendous opportunities for yourself.
I don’t know if I’ve created them, or if I’ve just stumbled upon them. But, it’s really worked out. This was another huge opportunity. We conceptualized how everything was going to work for every Olympic venue, from every concession stand, to every vending machine, to how the canteen was going to work, to how the staff members were going to be fed. We worked right until opening ceremonies.
We worked with the IOC on everything, from building all of the cafeterias around the Olympic venues, to planning how we were going to feed the athletes and spectators and staff. I had never worked on such a huge scale project before. And, it was, again, another massive learning opportunity.
Did you work day and night for those two weeks?
It was two weeks, then we had a two week break, and then it was the Para-Olympics right after that. There was about six months leading up to it. Intense, heavy prep hours, mental preparation and plans, re-planning and planning again, and then scrapping all those plans and starting over. During the Olympics, I worked from 10:00 pm until noon the next day. We had three different shifts of cooks in the catering section.
What’s going on from 10 pm to noon?
We were just making food. There were tens of thousands of people a day that were eating at all these different venues. The food had to be made the day of because we didn’t have a freezer to freeze it. Our kitchen was open 24-hours for the two weeks of the Olympics. Just straight open. It was crazy bananas. Amazing time. I was just lucky that I was young when I was doing it—almost five years ago now. I was about 25. Maybe if I had to do it now, I don’t know if I would have made it through [laughing]… the getting up at night to go to work. It would be a little bit more difficult.
Where did you go after your Olympic experience?
I didn’t have a job at the time, and I was just not sure what I wanted to do. I stumbled upon a restaurant that was in the middle of the entertainment district in Vancouver. They were just in the midst of restructuring their whole kitchen. They had let their chef go and all the cooks wanted to leave with the chef. I came in not knowing this. Within my first week, it was myself and a woman in the kitchen (who would later become my wife, oddly enough.) The restaurant was about a year old at that point. So it was me and her in the kitchen and nobody else, and we completely took over. She did the whole pastry program and all the breads, and I did all the savoury foods. We built the menu from the ground up and relaunched the restaurant, creating the whole kitchen program together. The restaurant did so well that when the chef at the other restaurant in the company left, they invited me to become the Executive Chef for the company and to take over the other restaurant and the catering department. So I took that over and managed that for about three years. And, then I got really tired and sick of cooking.
Was it a burnout?
It was a hard burnout. I’d been working pretty hard since I was about 17- or 18-years-old, and I was about 28 at this point and I had two kids and everything that comes with that — the non-stop with two babies, not sleeping at night, and then working as a chef all day. So I got super tired, and I decided to not do that anymore. So I went to go be butcher for a year. [smiles widely]
That’s still connected.
It’s a little bit all connected. I mean, I was working days, eight hours a day, during the day, which is just amazing. My wife loved it. “You’re home for dinner, you get to play with the kids and you’re home on weekends.” So that was amazing. You get to apply butchery skills a bit in a restaurant. But, at the butcher shop we were getting whole animals, whole pigs, whole cows, whole lambs, and it really gave me an opportunity to hone my butchery skills. Looking back at that opportunity …priceless.
But also to learn about the different cuts and…
Well that and…For instance, here at 18 and Sidedoor, Chef Jonny (Executive Chef Jonathan Korecki) and I will bring in whole animals and instruct the kids (staff) on how to break down the animals and serve them on our menu, utilizing all the parts so as not to waste anything. We show these kids how to take a whole pig and turn it into pork chops and sausages and broth.
And that it all doesn’t come in a package.
Right, that it just all doesn’t come in a package. Like, this is what this animal looks like when it comes to somebody’s facility.
Starting out in the butcher shop, were you squeamish?
No, I’m a very un-squeamish person by nature, so it was very much…I was more apprehensive: “This might not go so well, I’m a chef not a butcher.” But about two weeks in, I kind of looked at it like, “This is awesome, it’s a lot of fun, and I’m not bad at it.” I was lucky enough to work with a Master Butcher who worked at the shop, a little old man who knew probably everything there was to know about butchery. I was always asking him questions, “Hey Doug, teach me this, show me how to do that, what’s this look like?” And, he would kind of shuffle over and “Dah, dah, dah, that’s how you do it.” I learned so much from him, and that was amazing. He was a good guy.
After a year, did you miss cooking?
I did, yeah. Taking that year off got me a little more excited about cooking. The break was definitely nice. But then looking around Vancouver, my wife was like, “What do you want to do? You’re getting older. You need to figure out what you want to do with your life.” And I just didn’t know. We sat there looking at all the restaurants in Vancouver and tried to figure out where I wanted to work. There just wasn’t any place that was standing out. We were moving farther and farther outside of Vancouver to be able to afford our growing family, and we just looked at each other and said, “Why don’t we go somewhere else? Calgary? Kelowna? Winnipeg? Where do we go?” We looked at which food scenes were happening. I didn’t necessarily want to go back to Toronto. My wife doesn’t speak very much French, so she didn’t really want to go to Montreal or Quebec, so we decided on Ottawa. I did some research on some of the restaurants here. The food scene seemed to, you know, be in a movement in an upward direction. I called on some old contacts and asked them about Ottawa and was told, “Yeah man, there’s stuff happening there.” The fact that my brother was here and I hadn’t seen him for probably 10 years was kind of the catalyst for it. And the kids were young enough to come. They’re just 2½ and 3½ now, so they probably won’t even remember it.
How did the opportunity at Restaurant 18 come about? I heard that you just walked around the Market and dropped off resumes to various restaurants.
I walked into Sidedoor and Chef Jonny came out. I had obviously watched Top Chef on TV, and I recognized him but I didn’t know from where. I looked at him saying, “I know you from somewhere.” I was just looking at him and he was just looking at me. I was like “Ah, you were on TV.” And he was like, “Yeah, that was me.” “Cool, so I need a job.” [laughing] And, he looks at my resume and says, “I need to hire somebody, when can you start?” I was here by myself, my family was still in Vancouver. I was living in an empty house with a computer and a blow-up bed, so I said, “I can start now?”
So I went downstairs (Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen & Bar) and worked with Chef Jonny for about a month, and then the Chef at 18 decided to move on. There was some restructuring in the company where the ownership had invited Johnny to be Executive Chef of the whole company, and he wanted to slot me in the Chef de cuisine spot up here. And it’s been good ever since.
You have a new menu. When did it come out?
Right after Valentines Day.
What’s your process for coming up with a new menu? Do you start with a blank slate or do you look at the previous menu and see what works and what doesn’t?
Both. When Chef Jonny and I took over, we wanted to flip the whole menu. We wanted nothing to remain from the old regime. So in that case, we scrapped everything and started from the ground up. I was extremely busy with the day-to-day management of the kitchen at that point, so he was nice enough to take the lead on the menu re-design. The second menu was more of a tag-team effort. We basically sat down one day and looked at the menu we currently had and examined what we wanted to keep, what we liked, and what our customers enjoyed eating. We definitely had to keep some favourites.
What were some of the favourites dishes?
The Roasted Black Cod dish with the daishi broto mushroom and truffle. Everybody who has that is just over the moon.
How did you come up with that combination?
That was a reincarnation of a dish that appeared on an old Sidedoor menu many years ago, and we’ve kind of Frenched it up and made it a little bit more presentable and brought it into the world of Restaurant 18. It’s been extremely well received since we’ve put it on the menu. I think it may be one of those things that hangs around for a while.
Tell me more about how you came up with second menu.
The initial meeting was about two hours. We tore apart all of the dishes and looked at what we wanted to keep. It was more about keeping a certain ingredient on a certain dish. “We really liked this one garnish or we really like working with venison, for example, so let’s keep venison but redesign the whole plate around it.” Chef Jonny has his own ideas, I have mine, and we kind of throw them at each other. Usually something lands on the table between us, and that’s what we go with.
Since your running the daily operations of the restaurant, do you have more of a say than Jonathan does?
I think he respects my opinion a lot because I am in the trenches with the staff and the customers on a day-to-day basis. I get feedback from the dining room, and I know what the cooks enjoy doing in the kitchen. I feel that it’s been a really good partnership because he has so much knowledge. He’s got his finger on the pulse of the city. There’s stuff that I would have put on a menu in Vancouver where he looks at me and says, “That’s not going to work here.” He’s an extremely talented and smart cook. When I bring ideas (that are not from here), in combination with his ideas that are from here…
That makes it really interesting.
It does make it interesting. Some of the things on this menu are a good example of this partnership. Take for example the squash salad. That was a long one in the making. We started off with the idea of sprouting our own grains. We are basically creating, growing our own stuff, and then plating it. That’s where the idea started, and that kind of morphed into this roasted squash dish where we’ve made our own sprouted lentils. We are basically growing lentils in-house until they have about an inch sprout on them. They get tossed with an argan oil vinaigrette, and we put that on top of a fresh-made house ricotta cheese with some roasted kabocha squash and some toasted baby kale. It’s amazing and extremely good for you, which is not a direction that Restaurant 18 menus have really gone. Usually we’ve been all about cream, butter and salt. [laughs] We still have the fan favourites like the steaks on there, but Chef Johnny and I really wanted to move the menu towards a cleaner lifestyle rather than everything having something heavy on it.
That’s more in keeping with how people are eating nowadays.
That is something that is really huge in Vancouver. And it’s been ingrained in me during my time there. Vancouver is a massively active city and extremely health conscious. People there are very conscious about what they eat.
So how do you cook for a city of politicians and public servants? How do you decide what they want or what’s best for them?
It’s not always about what they want. People will always have in their mind exactly what they want. I don’t think that’s where the magic is. The magic is when somebody comes into your restaurant, sees something on the menu that they wouldn’t necessarily order all the time, orders it, eats it and loves it. At the end of the day, I’m never going to tell somebody what they should have. But, I am going to offer them something different from what they think they want.
There are many of old-school chefs that would say “You eat what I give you and no substitutions!”
I wish I was so famous that I could get away with that. [laughs] I think the way that we cook for people… the food has to taste great, and if it doesn’t taste great, it won’t even leave the kitchen. It’s gotta be visually appealing and it’s got to be satisfying in some way. It has to be either satisfying in a way that you want to eat healthy. So this sprouted grain salad is making you feel good. Or, it has to be satisfying in a way that this steak is so thick and so fatty and so covered with sauce that it makes you feel good. Or, you know, this fish dish is just properly roasted with so many umami flavours that it makes you feel good. There’s got to be a sense of well-being after eating a plate of food. I think that’s how you cook for people. You give them that sense of happiness while eating.
What are some of your favourite recipes from this menu?
One of the new things that came up from this menu, which was a bit of a brainchild of mine, was the fruits de mer dish which is my spin on a French-style bouillabaisse. We start off by making a roasted red pepper and saffron bisque with tomatoes and chillies, added heaps of saffron and fish stock, making that really luscious and tasty. That became the sauce base for this fruits de mer dish with scallops and butter-poached prawns. We make these little salt cod brandade fritters. We started making our own salt cod in-house. We bring in whole cods, salt them, cure them and then refresh them in milk with herbs. We wrap them in choux pastry, then wrap all that in shoestring potatoes and deep fry it. So you have this little potato bomb on this dish, which is basically a salt cod donut wrapped in crispy potato strings. It’s probably one of the things that took us the longest to come up with but has been the best received out of any dish on our menu.
How do you create while staying true to yourself? Do you follow trends? The small plates craze has overtaken the world.
It’s funny you say that because at my last restaurant, where I spent three years, I pushed it to become “small plates.” That was more for ease of service because we had a very small kitchen and a very small dining room. So to get many large plates on a table was just not going to work. If you’re confident enough in the cook that you are, and you’re confident enough that you can make tasty food, people are going to be happy with it. Trends are one thing, but jumping on a bandwagon, I don’t think, is going to help push your creativity in any direction. If your’e aways looking at what other people are doing or what’s hot or what’s hip, I think you’re going to lose yourself in that.
Sometimes one is really hungry and doesn’t want to share.
Small plates…that’s the only way my wife will eat. Sometimes I tell her I want my own entree, and it doesn’t ever happen. But sometimes I do say that… [laughing)] To have a thriving food scene, there has to be diversity. As a city, we need to have a super diverse food scene to be able to thrive and push creative food forward. If every restaurant in Ottawa is a small plates restaurant, we’re all going to be leaning on each other, and we’re all going to be creating the same food. But if we have nouveau Mexican, small plates, wine bars, fine dinning and food trucks, then all these things push chefs to be creative, and push the boundaries of their craft. We all end up with a much richer food community than if everything was just the same.
So why should someone dine at Restaurant 18?
I think we offer something special. I think we definitely cater to doing something more than what you would expect. From the time you walk in the door and look at our newly renovated space, to when you are seated at the table and are greeted by one of our servers (who in my opinion are probably the best servers in Ottawa), to the time you open the menu, to the time you get your sparkling water, to the time you eat your food…it is an experience.
I do think we go above and beyond what the average restaurant will do for their guests. In December, we had a table of ladies come in for their regular girls’ night. A snowstorm hit while they were dining, and so one of our servers actually ran across the street and hailed them a taxi, walked it over, and got them picked up at the front door. That’s not something every restaurant will do. Our GM Kim was running around at three different flower shops because a guest had requested a special kind of flower for their anniversary dinner. The table really enjoyed it, and they’ll definitely be back. And, they’ll be talking about that night for a while. We’re in the service industry, so we have to make sure people leave here happy. Anything we can do to make these people happy and enjoy their night, we do it.
Switching gears, is there a chef that you admire?
One of the chefs that I’ve looked up to for a long time is Chris Cosentino out of San Francisco. He’s a classic Italian cook, which was also my upbringing. He was on a few different shows on The Food Network and just recently opened up his own restaurant called Cockscomb in San Francisco. But before doing that, maybe six months ago, he made a really raw statement about being a celebrity chef and that being on the network was probably not the best thing for his career.
Did he say why?
He gave specific examples of why it didn’t work out for him, but it was more about warning young chefs that what you see on TV is TV. To aspire to become a TV chef or a celebrity chef may, or may not, be what you really want to do. And if you want to do that then maybe you’re aspiring just to be a TV star and not necessarily a chef.
Do you think that’s why people go on reality cooking shows? To become TV stars?
I think that may be a possibility. Since I’ve been an adolescent, I’ve seen chefs become rock stars. Our careers have been greatly exaggerated. I think many people view becoming a chef as an opportunity to become celebrities, not all people, but some. The motive might be, “I can do this, get on TV, and then I can be famous and write cookbooks, get a show of my own and then sit at home and just make money all day.” That’s all well and good for some people but that’s not what drove my career. I didn’t need to be on TV or write cookbooks.
Would you ever do a TV show?
I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it. I’m just saying, I don’t need to do it. It’s not what drives me. Things like that are little bonuses. They make me happy and they’re fun. Chef Jonny and I will be going on Rogers Daytime to promote a charity brunch we’re doing for the Food Bank. It’s a break from being in the kitchen, an opportunity to Iet go, be silly on TV and cook some food. Write a cookbook? I would definitely do that, it would be a lot of fun. As far as things that I need to do in my career as a chef, they’re not high up there. I’d rather make 180 people in the restaurant happy in a weekend than write a cookbook.
Do you have anybody that you’d really like to cook for?
I would love to cook for Chris Cosentino if I ever had the opportunity. If I could cook him a meal, I would probably cry and fall over. [laughs]
Have you ever met him?
I have never met him. I never had the opportunity. After I did the Olympics in 2010, I was in San Francisco for three days of non-stop eating and drinking. I didn’t even have time to do all the things I wanted to do there. If I could cook a meal for him, that would make me really happy.
Do you cook at home?
Yeah, I love cooking at home. And my wife is also a chef, she’s a pastry chef.
That’s a good combo.
I have a bit of a sweet tooth so it definitely works. But it’s not great for my waist line. [laughs] We always, on weekends, cook together. We make lunch together, especially in the summer time. We’re always on the patio with the kids with the barbecue going. A large part of our home-life is spent in the kitchen.
Are your kids too young to be interested in food?
Oh no. With our oldest, if I’m in he kitchen, he will be in the kitchen with me. If my wife is cooking, he’s got to be there. He’s got his own little blue chair that he pulls up next to the counter, and he just stands there and watches. He seasons things, stirs pasta, does all that stuff. He actually…Once we were rushing, and we were feeding the kids really quickly. We made them pasta and we didn’t season it, and he pushed it away from him and said, “You didn’t put any salt on this.” We looked at each other like, “Did he just do that?” The kids are extremely good eaters. They eat anything we put in front of them. We started them out super young. My wife and I made all of our own baby food when they were little. And we really don’t take “no” for an answer. “You’re going to eat this, this is your dinner or you don’t get to eat. Sorry.” [laughs]
You seem to love cooking so much. Is there something that you hate to cook?
Durian. It’s a fruit from the Caribbean and it smells like bum and it taste pretty much worse. It’s found in South East Asia as well. The stink of it is unearthly. People turn it into baked goods and smoothies. If handled properly it can actually taste not too bad. I’ve eaten strange food on almost every continent, but I still can’t get past that smell. I just can’t do it.
What do you do with your time outside of work?
Usually something food-centric. When we first moved here in the summertime, my wife and I would pack up the kids on my days off and go to the market and walk around the stalls and try and teach the kids about all the different vegetables.
Food is obviously a passion. Seems like you chose the right line of work.
Yeah, it’s funny. And, I always laugh when I tell people that I still can’t believe that people actually pay me to do this — the one thing that I liked, and the one thing I was ever good at. And, people have decided to pay me money to do it. I always have a little giggle to myself. It’s funny.