In September 2009, Wild Salmon Supporter’s Tiffany Hilman got to know Chef Norm Aitken, partner and chef of Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar in Ottawa, Ontario.
TH: When did you start cooking?
NA: I started at the age of fifteen on Prince Edward Island at The Inn At Bay Fortune, which at the time was one of the top five restaurants in Canada under the direction of Chef Michael Smith of the Food Network.
TH: How has the consumer consciousness generated by movements like the organic movement, local food movement, or sustainable seafood movement affected your cooking?
NA: My cooking style has not been directly influenced by these movements. Since I started cooking it has been all about two things: first being local, looking out your own back door and cooking with what you could find on a daily basis, and second would be seasonal. When I cooked at the Inn the season was from May to October which actually made it easy to cook with the season. I had wild cress from the local streams, local farms with lamb, a harbor within a kilometer away and our own two acre garden.
TH: How long have you been with Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar?
NA: I worked at Juniper for three years as Richard’s Sous Chef and then I went to Ireland for a year to work as a chef at a spa resort. When I returned is when I became partners in Juniper and that has been six years now.
TH: The restaurant’s concept includes Chef Richard Nigro’s commitment to a New Canadian Cuisine – making different ethnic dishes contemporary, seasonal, and regional. How does this focus complement your efforts to be more sustainable?
NA: This has always been our concept and us pushing for a more sustainable menu is just a different challenge.
TH: What or who got you interested in seafood sustainability?
NA: When I did my apprentice under Chef Michael Smith it was all about local, wild, and seasonal. The sustainability part hit home with me several years ago when I visited a salmon farm. Nothing with that seems right to me. If we continue in this way my two daughters will only know farmed fish and no flavor.
TH: How have you seen customer knowledge evolve over the various seafood issues?
NA: Slowly but Surely
TH: With regard to salmon, are your customers aware of the differences between farmed and wild salmon?
NA: I would say no, but after have dined with us they are.
TH: You mentioned before that you use alternatives like arctic char, steelhead, and black cod (a.k.a. Sablefish) when wild salmon isn’t available. Indeed, arctic char is getting to be popular alternative to the major commercial species. What’s your favorite preparation for arctic char?
NA: Quick hot smoke and pan roasted with fingerling potatoes and lemon chive butter sauce...
TH: With the profile of chefs increasing, how do you see your role as an educator?
NA: I have always thought of this career as being a teacher, to the public and to our generation of cooks that are starting.
TH: As fall approaches, what ingredients are you looking forward to working with again?
NA: Pumpkin, parsnip, sage, rosemary, the extreme variety of potatoes, fresh cranberry, beets, sablefish, lamb...