David De Bernardi, Executive Chef

I sat down with David after his staff had gone home to chat about his current project and his passion for food. I loved every minute of our hour-long chat but have kept only the highlights (a difficult choice). Dave has worked in a number of big name restaurants in the Toronto area and this project in Ottawa is new territory for him. He is transforming the university food services from ‘pre-made’ to ‘from scratch’. The scale and impact of what he is doing is extraordinary.

David

Did you come to Ottawa for this job opportunity?
No, I came to Ottawa ‘cause Nat (girlfriend) found work here and I just followed her after three months.

I remember you worked at the Urban Pear for a while, how was that?
It was good. I mean it was good.

And then this came up…
A friend of mine was like here is a Sous Chef position, I came to this job originally as a Sous Chef, I was here about a month when the Chef that was here quit and was like “Here you go. It’s all yours.” So I ran with it.

And how has Ottawa been so far?
I love Ottawa! Mind you I miss Toronto. All my friends, all my colleagues, all my contacts are in Toronto but I love Ottawa for the fact that nature is ten minutes down the road. It’s quiet here. It’s just a much more relaxed feel. But Toronto has got the really good jobs, it’s got all my contacts, if I have a problem I can call someone up and be like ‘how do you deal with this’ or ‘do you have someone who can come’…whatever…here I don’t have that. I don’t even know my suppliers in the city. So those are my challenges right now but I really do enjoy Ottawa.

You were saying you don’t know the Ottawa food scene in the same kind of way as you do in Toronto…
It’s having to relearn it over again.

Did the brief exposure at the Urban Pear help?
No. It gave me a taste of who my local suppliers are and the small local farmers. That is all that came through my back door but it did not really give me a sense of what is going on in this city. Just recently I have started seeing what talent is in town.

How do you get access to the talent?
We just go out and eat. It’s the only way to go. Nat does the research. People in my industry just work work work so it’s hard to talk about restaurants at least in this environment. In an environment like at the Ritz in Toronto we bounced ideas ‘did you hear so and so is opening this up’ but here not so much because we don’t know anybody in town. Nat has her finger on the pulse when it comes to we need to eat here or eat there.

And do you miss that?
Yeah…

When you go to a restaurant do you introduce yourself as someone from the industry?
No. It’s the dumbest thing, I don’t want special treatment. I don’t want that thought that your meal is going to be different. It’s just this weird thing and it is stupid ‘cause whenever my friends would come into the restaurant, or someone who works in the industry would come to my restaurant and introduce themselves it would be open arms, come in, sit down let’s chit chat, what can I do for you, and whatever but I can’t reverse that.

Do you know where to go in town to meet people in your industry?
I know that Oz Café does their once a month chef series kind of thing. Local chefs come together and eat, and that is something I have always wanted to get into and just mingle with them but because of the days that they do it it’s not ideal for my schedule. It’s usually a Monday night and Mondays used to be great for me ‘cause I used to have Sunday and Monday off but now I work Monday to Friday and it’s hard to get into that. So now because I am in this kind of environment my schedule is completely different. I have a normal 9-5 kinda job. When I first took the job as a Sous Chef and it was like you would be working these days I was like “what?!?!” 9-5, Monday to Friday, you mean I get to be home with Nat and doing all that kind of stuff?

Do you enjoy that change?
Yeah I have gotten used to it now, I could never go back to the restaurant hours unless it’s for my own restaurant. I have gotten used to having weekends off, long weekends, Christmas. Last year was the first Christmas in a decade that I had off other than living in France for a year. Even New Year’s. Like it’s weird having family on Christmas. We used to celebrate Christmas a week before Christmas or a week after New Year’s would be Christmas. And to do it actually on Christmas was weird, Nat is around, family is around, I wake up  it was the strangest feeling.

Wow, I never thought about that actually…I never thought about the sacrifices that people in the food industry make.
We work when everybody is playing. The other way I used to get holidays is to quit a job and before starting the next job I would take two weeks off. To get two weeks in a row is insane. You are lucky if you get three days off.

When it comes to sourcing suppliers are there conventions and conferences, do people get together?
There are always conferences and conventions and stuff that happen. I don’t know of any in Ottawa but I know that they happen in Toronto because I have gone to many of them. You got your big companies, your teeny-tiny little companies, mom and pop kind of places, and they are showing what’s happening, what their new products are, what’s innovative in the industry as far as equipment, food, new produce that they have discovered or created, all that kind of stuff.

Will you look for it here in Ottawa as well?
Right now it serves me no purpose because I have an approved suppliers list that I have to use. The nice thing about where I can source local right now is through my catering department. For some reason, and I am happy that this happens, my catering department does not fall under any of the rules for compliance to my suppliers because it is such a specialized menu. If I need to source things like pork belly on my menu I can’t source that from my main supplier because it’s not there so I am allowed to go out and source locally. When I redid our new catering menu…so quick overview I have got upstairs launching in two weeks, I have got my catering menu that’s launching in two weeks, I have a new on the go program as well launching in two weeks, all of these menus had to be written and created by me and the catering menu was all me. So I purposely wrote a menu that would allow me to source local, to use products that I know I will never find on the approved supplier list.

Was that a way to keep yourself interested in and connected to the local scene?
Yes! My catering chef, his background is a lot like mine, but he comes from the Quebec side of things so he has worked at some really good restaurants in Quebec and coming here was like eeeh but he had a really good resume and I needed someone to take over this program so I showed him my direction because the menu had not been written yet. Him and I sat down and hammered out a menu that reflected us as to what we want as far as locally sourced and properly made food. We have pâtés and terrines – that never used to be on the catering menu.

I want to hear more about how you create a menu.
The way that I write a menu basically is what I am hungry for. It’s usually how it starts. And then I go off and what else do I need for catering…I need to have a breakfast section, I need to have a BBQ section, sandwiches and plated dinners. All that kind of stuff. Once I have what I need then I start going ‘what do I like to eat, what do I know is out there when I eat at restaurants? Then I incorporate it. Some things I have to make a little more approachable for the clientele that we are serving. We feed students. Students’ palettes aren’t as developed as your palette and my palette. I made paprikash one day for one of our show time menus at res and it never sold. Paprikash is amazing. It’s very simple: just chicken in tomato sauce and peppers. The kids didn’t understand it but it was the name that was throwing them off. Just by changing the name it sold. When I write those menus I have to think of that kind of stuff as well. Once that is figured out and we are all happy then we gotta start sourcing our product, costing them out because we have to make money on this at the end of the day. There is a lot of work involved. The recipe writing alone is time consuming because of the setting we are in everything has to be consistent. It’s not like a little restaurant where you can tweak it, change it it’s continuously evolving, here it’s gotta be written in stone, photos, every single thing.

Does a Chef normally create recipes from scratch?
We are always building off each other. I worked with a Chef over at Langdon Hall where he said ‘make sure you bring a little book, just a little pocket book, always put your recipes in it’. The recipes he had he inherited from another chef who inherited them from another chef but he just evolved it to what made sense for him. Lately my focus has been my grandmother’s recipes. So I have taken all of her recipes but made them my own. My background is classical French. Her background is French Quebecois. So I have taken creton but made it more classic French, changed the seasonings a bit but it’s still the same process of making creton. Even her sugar pies are a little bit different the way I make them but it’s still her base recipe with my little twist on things. And that is all recipes are. It’s someone else’s idea that you have taken and made it your own. We have been eating food for so long that there is no original idea out there anymore; it’s how you do it differently. How do you make it new again.

We have been eating food for so long that there is no original idea out there any more

Tell me a little about your grandmother’s recipes?
My grandmother was the head of the family. She was a mother of twelve kids, we had a thousand acres dairy farm. She ran that house there was no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It was her. She ran that family. Grandma also had a four acre garden that she maintained and all food, all her menus, came from that. She had recipes that her mother gave her, her mother’s mother gave her, and she passed them on. When she passed away, I knew she had these recipe books. She also had books she had written recipes in, changed, played around with and tested. And she had old hand written recipes. When she had passed away that was the one thing I had asked for. It’s the only thing I wanted. It made sense for me to have them as I am the only one in the family who cooks professionally. It was no problem, I got the books. When we were living in France I had a lot of time on my hands. I didn’t work. I didn’t do anything in France. Nat worked and we travelled. So while she was at work I was thinking how can I preserve grandma’s books and preserve her memory. I put them all on line, I did the entire website, I tested recipes, I tweaked them, made sure that the recipes were right. So now there is a website that you can go to and all of grandma’s recipes, all of the best of grandma’s recipes, are online: http://debernardicollection.blogspot.ca/.

You can see photos of grandma, and her life. Before they had the farm they had a small convenience store/gas station kind of thing where she made all the doughnuts, she made all the stuff that she sold at the counter. I went through her life story and food in the recipes and worked with them.

That is a really beautiful project.
I had the recipes for years but I could just never get to it. So finally I had this opportunity in France where I just sat and did it with a bottle of wine, baguette and cheese and typed away and scanned all the recipes and put them all online.

What is your favorite recipe out of the ones you have tried and played with?
My favorite recipe growing up when grandma made it was Pudding Chomeur. It translates as poor man’s pudding. It is literally five ingredients: butter, flour, cream, and maple syrup. And that’s it. You make your little dough, it’s a little cake, and you take your cream and maple syrup mix and you pour it over your little cake and you bake it and the maple syrup and cream makes it like sticky toffee pudding texture but it’s really fluffy. Oh my god it’s just phenomenal. I remember I put it one of the menus at a restaurant I worked at in Mississauga and had this one lady who came in and had it and she had to talk to me. So I go into the dining room and she says “the first bite that I had took me back to my childhood (she was French Canadian)” and to me that is what food should be. It should be a series of memories when you eat. It’s funny but when I was a really small kid I would never eat it because we had barn cats and I always thought grandma was saying “chats morts” “dead cats” so I refused to eat it. [raucous laughter] I was like god why would anyone want to eat dead cat cake! But then as I got older I understood it’s not dead cats. So once I had it, it changed everything for deserts. She would make sugar pie at Christmas time, only at Christmas time, and we would eat in shifts because there was so many of us, 36 de Bernardis that would come over for Christmas dinner. Grandma would take the one sugar pie that she made, cut it into 8, and sit it on the table, and we would fight for it, whoever was the strongest would get the sugar pie. Because it was sooo good. Her sugar pie was so creamy. I have had it where it is so gritty you don’t want to even eat it or it doesn’t have flavor but this is so creamy – it’s not custard it’s not sugar based…it would start fights. Like literal fights at the table where the oldest would be like ‘no I am the oldest I get this’ and from the youngest ‘no no no we are the kids we need to have it’. She had a lot of recipes like that. I was working with her all the time in the kitchen.

David's birthday

When did your interest in food start?
I would say I was young. I always loved that. I used to bake bread at home when I was like 7 – 8 years old. I would be making hot cross buns or something like that for Easter.

The young chef!

You said that food should give you memories but what was it for you, especially at that young age, that attracted you to food?
I like seeing things that I make with my own hands and then seeing the reaction that people have from it. I have always loved working with my hands, working in the farm or in the kitchen. To see the product go from a bag of flour to a nice loaf of bread and having that kitchen smell with fresh bread I like that. And seeing the final product, and cutting it and putting it on the table and seeing people enjoy it. To not hear a single word spoken at the table while people are eating and seeing the reaction on their face. To me that’s why I do it, it’s the yes aha.

To not hear a single word spoken at the table while people are eating and seeing the reaction on their face. To me that’s why I do it, it’s the yes aha.

Do you think you will stay in Ottawa?
To be honest, it depends on how Nat’s career goes because she is contracted. For me, I can cook anywhere in the world. We have proven that moving to France. Wherever she finds work that is where we would go.  Right now I would like to stay in Ottawa. I would like to have that consistency. It’s nice having that income too. We both have really nice incomes right now where as in Toronto all your money goes to rent. It’s that balance of what is more important. Right now Ottawa makes sense to us for that.

What is your favorite restaurant in Ottawa?
One we discovered lately is North & Navy. Oh my god, the food there is phenomenal. The food was really good but what that guy did with the food…like his sardine dish. Again, it’s traditional Northern Italian food done a little bit differently. They are doing something right.

What’s next for you?
My next step from here, and I have made it clear upstairs, within this year I want to be gone out of the kitchen. I wanna be away from this and more in a test kitchen. That’s assuming I stay within this company. My eventual goal, and it is a dream that probably won’t happen, is to have a self-sustaining little bed and breakfast, grow my own vegetables, raise my own animals, have everything done on site and really not have anything outside of my property. I know how to grow a garden but not to the scale of how you plan a garden to sustain your menu every single day. That’s the goal, eventually, one day… or a little coffee shop where I reproduce grandma’s French pastries.

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