Defining the Hamilton Food Scene

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Photography Credit: Josh Tenn-Yuk, www.thesix.co

Chef Harrison Hennick opens up about his debut restaurant and what he has planned for Hamilton, Ont.

Having learned from his mother at a young age how to cook from scratch, it’s no wonder chef Harrison Hennick’s Nique Restaurant in the heart of Hamilton, Ont. boasts an atmosphere that feels more like family and less like business.

Chef Hennick recently spoke about the inspiration behind Nique Restaurant and the process for building his vision outside of the Greater Toronto Area.

Photography Credit: Josh Tenn-Yuk, www.thesix.co

What inspired you to open this restaurant concept in Hamilton?

I’d been working in a restaurant that was poorly managed and owned. The ownership took no pride or passion in the operation and this was evident. I was trying my hardest to make things work and we got things on track. After I had been there for two months, the changes were noted in a review from [Globe & Mail restaurant critic] Chris Nuttle-Smith. I then decided if I was going to work that hard for someone that didn’t really care for his business, I should just do it for myself. It was then I started making moves to put together a business plan and make things happen.

The concept for Nique had been around since forever. My intentions, having had a bit of a business background, were always to not work for somebody else for the rest of my life and to open my own restaurant.

I chose Hamilton because I’ve always been a unique kind of dude. I’ve always been a bit different and, as much as Toronto is my city, I didn’t want to be just another restaurant in a busy city trying to compete for a little piece of the pie. I wanted to be the pie; I wanted to be a part of making something.

Photography Credit: Josh Tenn-Yuk, www.thesix.co
Photography Credit: Josh Tenn-Yuk, www.thesix.co

Where do you find inspiration for the flavours you incorporate into your dishes and what is your process for achieving them?

Travel is probably the biggest thing, as well as a bit of my work history. The way I think about flavours — or at least the process — and how I flavour my food is internationally inspired. Travelling places and eating different types of cuisines, local or abroad, has changed my perspective. Growing up, I was a white Jewish kid from North Toronto. I never really ate anything exotic until I was 15 and, from there, my palate and mind for flavour expanded and I started trying newer things.

Cooking for as long as I’ve been, I can think up the flavours and don’t really need to taste things first. Then I can put it on paper and start making things happen. I’m always looking for complementary flavours on a plate and then trying to find a way to introduce something that’s not necessarily the norm to make it kind of cool and/or go with tradition, because some dishes are not meant to be broken.

Photography Credit: Josh Tenn-Yuk, www.thesix.co

Describe the role flavouring agents such as spices, herbs and seasonings play in your cuisine to achieve that craveable flavour your guests are after.

They play a huge role. You can use ingredients that have a lot of flavours, but there’s so much you can do with herbs, spices and seasonings to either manipulate or enhance the final product. There are a lot of things I appreciate about natural cooking and letting the produce speak for what it is, but there’s so much more you can do that is local and isn’t going to be overpowering. You can make it complementary and make it work.

How would you define the Hamilton food scene? How will it evolve in the next five years?

It’s developing. It’s currently in an early infant stage something I found out the hard way. I came into this market serving food and having the restaurant I wanted to have without recognizing what the market wanted. I opened with dishes I don’t consider too out there (for example, beef cheek and tongue) but they were interesting, with more of an upscale approach. I don’t consider it upscale, but that’s how it was perceived.

When [the restaurant was] new, there was a lot of hype behind the opening. It was busy and, since then, it’s always been busy. But, I realized quickly that if I wanted to fill 85 seats once, twice or three times every night, seven days per week, I’d have to simplify our approach to food and that was all dictated by the market.

It’s going to take time. I’m in it for the long run and I always say there’s about 10 to 15 per cent of the people in the city right now who understand what I wanted to do with the menu and why the beer menu is 100-per-cent Ontario craft-driven. But a lot of people still come in asking for Canadian or Heineken and they can’t understand why they’re paying $16 for a burger and fries.

Photography Credit: Josh Tenn-Yuk, www.thesix.co

What role do you hope to play in the evolution of the Hamilton food scene?

I’ve been referred to as a leader in the community and I find that weird to say. What I want to be able to do for the Hamilton food scene is create a situation where people feel open to experimentation.

There have been some cool restaurants that have done things and, oftentimes, people classify it as “awful” when it should be considered “experimental.” I hope people can put themselves out there; take a chance, take a risk, open a restaurant that’s not, for example, taco-based or some kind of trend-based concept. Do you and be proud of it.

Hamilton is a place where people can do things like that because it’s like the Wild West — anything goes and it either works or it doesn’t.

Which new flavours and ingredients can we expect to see making their way to the centre of the plate in the near future?

I just settled on a menu that’s going to be rolling for a while, but I’m constantly trying to do new things. This kind of question comes at a rough time because I’m in such a transitional period with opening two new restaurants and we’re just riding this wave and not trying to experiment too much with anything new yet.

For more flavourful inspiration, head to www.clubhouseforchefs.ca

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