NAC Food: Western fusion propels Ryan Hotchkiss’s cuisine

Chef Ryan Hotchkiss of Bündock.

There are words that are, at times, derogatory. But such is the power of language that  you can take those words and turn them into badges of honour.

In a way that’s what Ryan Hotchkiss is doing with the word boondocks, as in the boonies, meaning off the beaten track.

Hotchkiss is from Edmonton, Alberta, the capital of Alberta and a place better known for the oil business and a hockey team. But look a little closer and you’ll see a cultured community full of great theatre (Citadel and the Edmonton Fringe Festival), a symphony orchestra, a great folk music festival and much more, including Hotchkiss’s restaurant called Bündock. The word is actually Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. It means a rural place.

Hotchkiss is about to bring his unique cuisine to the National Arts Centre on Jan. 8 when he will prepare a menu with the NAC’s executive chef Kenton Leier. Hotchkiss is the second ‘resident’ chef to share his vision at the NAC.

The idea of this chef’s series, says the NAC’s General Manager Nelson Borges, is that the culinary arts are as much an art form as dance, theatre and music. This will on the NAC’s “newest stage,” he added. The idea is to give emerging food artists a chance to showcase their regions, their ideas on a national platform.

The first to present was the Mohawk chef Rich Francis. After Hotchkiss are:

• Helena Loureiro, Portus360 Restaurant, Montreal (March).
• Jonathan Gushue, Fogo Island Inn, Fogo Island, Newfoundland (May).

Hotchkiss has created a guided tasting of modern western Canadian cuisine including such things as a sea bream crudo, a parmigiano soup, a Parisienne gnocchi, grilled striploin and a Citrus posset. Each course will be paired with an Ontario wine.

This will be Hotchkiss’s first trip ever to Ottawa. In fact it’s the farthest east he’s been in Canada. That doesn’t mean he’s a homebody. Hotchkiss has pretty much travelled across Western Canada and across the Pacific Ocean to many countries in Asia including China, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam. This young man has indeed looked west for inspiration.

On the day of our chat he was up early. Nothing new for the father of two children aged three and one.

In a way, Hotchkiss is reflecting his culturally diverse hometown. He does use local ingredients, like other chefs in the city, but that’s not his main focus.

He’s all about fusing his experiences as a resident of Alberta and as a traveller and bringing them “back home.”

He puts himself into the mind set of a Japanese chef — or Italian or French — coming to northern Alberta and using what’s available to create his cuisine.

“I like a lot of cuisines. I like more than just using foraged goods just for the sake of using foraged goods. I like things that have a little bit of a back story because they are from somewhere else and we have translated that into what we are doing.”

As an example he talked about travelling to Vietnam and Thailand where the green  papaya is a regular feature in the cuisine of these Southeast Asian countries.

“That’s not going to work in Canada anywhere really so what would they use here. Something that is really similar is an apple, in terms of texture and some flavours. It’s that simple really.

“It is, for lack of a better term, fusion. That term has been dragged through the mud pretty badly, but this way it is a subtle hand in terms of blending influences” in an Alberta based cuisine.

Hotchkiss finds his ingredients along Edmonton’s latitude line. “It’s one of the things that I like to focus on.”

He also considers the carbon footprint of his ingredient choices. The result of this kind of thoughtful approach has led to the elimination from citrus from Bündock’s menu.

“We try to consider the carbon footprint as much as we can. It’s a challenge not just from the culinary side but also the business side. But it does come into play every day.”

Hotchkiss was a little kid when he started to be interested in food.

“It was always really central around the family. My parents grew up in Hinton, Alberta at the foot of the Rockies. They are very connected to nature and fishing and hunting and gardens.

“They passed that down. They always had a big garden in the backyard. I knew the difference between a store bought carrot and one from the garden when I was five years old.”

He learned how an ecosystem could influence food by fishing for trout. A rainbow taken from a sedimentary river would have brownish flesh while one from a sticked lake would have pink flesh. “That’s when the wheels started turning.”

He cooked growing up in St. Albert, Alberta near Edmonton. He got a job in Whistler, B.C., in part because he was a big snowboarder. He ended up in a kitchen where he caught the chef bug. He just went back to Whistler this past summer and now doubts he could live there again.

He enrolled in an apprenticeship program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). Ultimately this all led to the opening of Bündock about three years ago.

His interest in Asian food started he says with Japanese food, but it was more about the dedication to craft that he found in this cuisine.

“How focused they can be is incredible. There is so much intent in everything they are doing.”

This has shaped his thinking and sent him in the direction “of making our food appear as simple as possible even though it may take many hours to prepare.”

This is the challenge for all chefs, Hotchkiss believes. “As you mature, you are always trying to scale your food back as much as you can.”

Inspiration for his dishes comes from many places, Hotchkiss said.

“You might taste an ingredient and want to do this with that. You might have a dish in mind and work backwards.” Or even a smell that creates a nostalgic feeling for diners.

He doesn’t consider what he does as an art form.

I think of it as a craft and myself as a craftsperson. I practice my craft and I practice my trade. It’s a blue collar trade for sure and it’s gotten some white collar treatment over the past two decades.”

He’ll be in town from Monday to Friday this coming week.

There was a little wrinkle facing Hotchkiss. His restaurants serves small plates. At Bündock, the food is shared amongst the table it is served upon. He did manage to get his dishes to fit a menu with courses as you’ll find out if you attend.

Guided tasting of Western Canadian Cuisine
With NAC Resident Chef, Ryan Hotchkiss
Where: 1 Elgin Restaurant
When: Jan. 8 at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.