Expert Interview Series: Harold Wollin of The Blue Chair Cafe - a Red Seal Chef Who Operates a Food and Live Music Establishment in Edmonton

Harold Wollin is the founder of The Blue Chair Cafe, which combined great food and live music - a unique concept in Canada. Harold spoke with us recently about his cooking background and how he incorporates his diverse culinary...

Diverse culinary experience

Harold Wollin is the founder of The Blue Chair Cafe, which combined great food and live music - a unique concept in Canada. Harold spoke with us recently about his cooking background and how he incorporates his diverse culinary experience into his restaurant's menu.

Why did you choose to open The Blue Chair Cafe?

I have wanted to own my own restaurant since completing my cook training. When the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance.

When I was starting out, I knew that my restaurant would also be a music venue. Marrying the two filled a niche that is difficult to match. The Blue Chair Café is an independent, owner-operated restaurant and live music venue. We offer guests a unique international culinary experience from a scratch kitchen at the same time as providing excellent sight lines and acoustics for top notch musical acts.

Since you are a Red Seal Chef, could you tell us what is required to earn that prestigious designation?

Red Seal Chef is the Canada-wide distinction of achieving Journeyman Commercial Cooking status. This designation is achieved one of two ways: through a three-year apprenticeship program with annual six-week theory sessions and annual hour quotas, or with an in-depth two-year institutionalized theory and practice program followed by a year of full-time practicum. I followed the latter, attending the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology Commercial Cooking program and completing my practicum at the Faculty Club of the University of Alberta in 1976.

During your years as a chef on various ships, could you tell us the most valuable skill you learned while cooking at sea?

The most valuable lesson I took from my many years as a cook on seagoing vessels was the adage: "Clean as you go!" Since I was mostly working alone, I found it easier to work in a clean environment all the way through my shift, than to spend a long time cleaning everything up at the end. The work has to be done, and it does not do itself. There is little chance of cross contamination if the work space is spotless.

Since you've traveled to almost three dozen countries, could you tell us your favorite cuisine that you had a chance to sample while abroad?

Ingredients are similar around the world, but techniques vary quite a bit. Like most young cooks, I admire the French gourmand cuisine, without which we wouldn't have the beautiful rich sauces. But my favorite is the Thai kitchen. The Thais use a lot of spice, primarily chilies, and the food is always cooked and served fresh, not held and served later.

When you're doing your own shopping for the foods and ingredients that you need for your restaurant, what type of produce would you say that you are the pickiest about when it comes to choosing what's perfect for your kitchen?

Fresh ingredients are the most important element in a scratch kitchen. Edmonton is located on the 53rd parallel, meaning that we have a very short growing season for local produce and are obligated to use imported ingredients. We are very fortunate that new packaging and shipping techniques offer us year-round access to fresh produce from all over the world.

What's a unique dish or menu item that you serve at The Blue Chair Cafe?

Our menu is constantly evolving and changing, but a number of dishes remain popular. Currently, we are highlighting the food of Lima, Peru. Our most popular dish is our interpretation of Pad Thai, but our most unique dish has to be our Salad Wraps with Peanut Sauce. This dish is based on a staple of the Vietnamese kitchen. Ours are filled with thinly-sliced julienne vegetables, fruit, and herbs, with spinach used to bolster the very fragile rice paper so they can be rolled tightly and eaten by hand.

What would you say is the most used tool, utensil, or item in your kitchen?

A chef needs a good knife. Many of our cooks come with their own knives, often Japanese carbon-steel, razor-sharp knives of various shapes and sizes. But we use an inexpensive mandolin to cut the julienne vegetables that garnish many of our salads and are the filling of our salad wraps. As far as powered tools are concerned, our professional juicer is indispensable for the amount of lime juice we use, and we could not do without our Vitamix!

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