In the Kitchen With: Chef Michael Kirkwood, Holts Café, Toronto

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For Michael Kirkwood, the decision to become a chef was influenced by his parents, whose gourmet interests rubbed off on him early in life. “My parents were part of a gourmet club [in Ajax, Ont.] and I was eating frog legs at the age of 12,” says the Toronto-based chef. “I watched a lot of cooking shows back then and thought ‘I can do that!’” After completing the Chef Pre-Employment program at George Brown College in 1997 and obtaining his Food Handler’s Certificate, Kirkwood began working as a sous chef at Toronto’s Innocenti Restaurant — known for its classic Italian and French-continental cuisine. In 2003, he flew across the pond to take a position as chef de partie at The Grain Store in Edinburgh, Scotland — renowned for its use of local Scottish game meats, seafood and produce. In 2005, Kirkwood returned to Toronto and spent 10 months working with famed chef Chris McDonald at Avalon restaurant, honing his pastry-making skills and deepening his knowledge of high-quality and unusual ingredients and creative food presentation. Soon after, he took the positon of executive chef at Toro restaurant, a 70-seat modern European bistro.

Today, Kirkwood is the executive chef at Holts Café, an 83-seat, 1,830-sq.-ft. café in Toronto’s upscale Yorkdale Shopping Centre designed by Toronto-based Yabu Pushelberg. Kirkwood says while the café is located in a mall, his Canadian contemporary-style cuisine is far from traditional mall food. His cooking is based squarely on using high-quality, locally sourced ingredients to create menus that change with the seasons.

Our focus is on bringing luxury, gourmet fare to our customers. We exceeded the level of service and quality of food typically available in shopping malls,” Kirkwood says. The menu includes a smoked duck-breast salad with soba noodles, Napa cabbage, edamame, green asparagus and sambal-sesame dressing ($17); grilled quail with Israeli couscous, leek pesto, grilled peaches, black kale and thyme jus ($25); and grilled bison with sweet corn, foie gras, pomme purée, charred poblano and Holts’ steak sauce ($30). Dessert options include a chocolate cardamom pot de crème with seasonal berries and a vanilla wafer ($10).

While the menu changes five times a year, Kirkwood says favourites such as Arctic Char remain year round.

“My focus starts with a ‘from-scratch-cooking’ point of view,” Kirkwood adds. “Everyone from the front of the house to the back of the kitchen needs to know and feel the menu. I was trained with French foundations and from there, I add layers of Japanese and Canadian influences. And I have a forager on speed dial.”

Kirkwood says being adventurous with flavours and ingredients needs to be tempered with knowing what customers are willing to try — and finding the right balance. “Once you have a few years under your belt, you learn restraint — when to push the boundaries and when to hold back,” Kirkwood says. FH