Canada's Prime Chef
by George Pandi

©Photo by Lois Siegel

George Pandi
Ottawa-based travel and food writer
Tries to teach the world where to go and what to eat and drink
Proud honourary member of the Canadian Culinary Federation

We have a Prime Minister. Shouldn’t we have a Prime Chef? Bureaucrats would nominate the Prime Minister's cook, monarchists the Governor General’s, but their kitchens cater only to the select, far from the palates of mere commoners. I propose Kurt Waldele who—while feeding visiting heads of state and travelling the world to give tempting tastes of Canada—cooks at Le Café of the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa where We, The People, can eat.

©Photo by Lois Siegel
Executive Chef
Kurt Waldele

Waldele turned the NAC’s restaurant into a showcase for Canadian cuisine that, as we know, doesn’t exist.

“Not as the Chinese or Italian cuisine that developed style and methods over centuries,” he explains, “but as the celebration of what our land produces.  When I came here in 1978, the restaurant didn’t have an identity. I couldn’t see an Italian or French restaurant in the National Arts Centre of Canada; it had to serve Canadian food - not necessarily old settlers’ or native food but new products used new ways.”

Waldele hunted for local produce and found good chèvre in Papineauville, wild boar in Embrun. Having access to two provinces, he arrived at an interesting comparison: “In both Québec and Ontario the producers of cheese, meat, and poultry are proud of what they do—but Québecers do it better, I think because Québec consumers recognize and reward effort.” (As an ex-Montrealer I agree). Then he ranged across the country. Le Café’s menu lists Nova Scotia scallops, Alberta beef, BC raspberries, even mineral water from the Rockies.

When the Prime Chef accompanies the Prime Minister and his globetrotting traders, or does promotion for Agriculture Canada on three continents, he naturally cooks with Canadian ingredients. In South America he presented roast caribou with Newfoundland wild gooseberries. He decries the fact that Canadians have less chance to taste it than Argentinians: “Caribou is our best meat to show off, but it’s not marketed well at home,” Waldele explains.

(I would blame that on the federal bureaucracy. I had to go to Hull to taste caribou because the feds wouldn’t let it cross the provincial border. Some free-trade country this is!)

Waldele also introduced Canadian flavours in formerly all-French state banquets but not without some battles. He recalls a violent argument at Expo 86 with a French colleague who wanted to import French halibut while Waldele insisted that the Canadian catch was just as good (he laughs now, saying that the French fish would have probably been Canadian, too, caught off the East

©Photo by Lois Siegel

Cooking for heads of state began through banquets for NAC director Don McSween, who loved to celebrate show openings and closings at the table where he mixed Ottawa’s artistic and political establishments. In a brave act for the early 80s, Ashok Dhawan, restaurant manager and close collaborator for 20 years, selected Canadian wines. “It was unusual,” says Dhawan, “but the hosts liked that we gave the guests something to talk about at the table.” The distinguished guests loved the food, the team’s reputation grew, and soon prime ministers became clients. At the G-7 Economic Summit, the Shamrock Summit, the Pope’s visit and other events, Waldele gave them a taste of Canada.

In a country so defined by ethnic diversity it is no surprise that this champion of Canadian identity was born near Baden-Baden, Germany (just across the Rhine from Strasbourg, France, the birth place of master cuisinier Marcel Kretz, who received the Order of Canada in 1998). Both chefs recall their youth and World War Two when they raised rabbits for the once-a-week meat on Sundays; both emphasize “respect for food” that they learned early.

Waldele cannot say when he decided to become a cook but remembers an epiphany at age eight. He was delivering newspapers one fall morning when he suddenly became conscious of the smells coming from the village bakery, sharpened by the crisp air. “My perception changed. I fell in love with food.”

The love theme recurred in our talks: “When I was ten, I helped out in a restaurant. I fell in love with restaurant life, the smell of food and wine. I tasted American beef the first time in Stockholm in 1967 and fell in love with it,” he says.

Waldele’s training began at 15 with a tough European apprenticeship: in the kitchen at seven in the morning, 10-minute stops for breakfast and lunch, a break from 3 to 4:30, then work until ten at night. On his day off, he might work, unpaid, at the baker or butcher because his chef said, “If you were a good apprentice, you would use your time to learn something.”

He learned to work six days a week and—despite the pressure—learned to enjoy work. “We made everything from scratch. We had pride in what we cooked,” he adds. In the final exam, Waldele finished second in the region. “First is first and second is second,” growled his chef but offered a handshake.

He continued to learn during three years at the legendary Vier Jahreszeiten in Munich and the Operakällaren in Stockholm, then one of world’s ten best restaurants. But in 1968 the army got interested in Waldele, and he suddenly preferred to work at the Johannesburg Rand International as chef entremetier. From there he traveled and cooked in South Africa and South America until jobs and money ran out in Mexico. He sold his camera to buy a bus ticket to Montreal in 1970.

Stockholm, Sweden

On his first day in Montreal, he unloaded a truck of chickens, on the third he started cooking at La Ronde Amusement Park, the Expo’s entertainment complex. He was hired because the regular chef got into a fight with a German marine, broke his hand and couldn’t work. “If that German warship hadn’t visited...,” he wonders about that and other lucky turns.

After eight working years in Montreal and Ottawa, Waldele trusted his luck and applied at the National Arts Centre in 1978.

©Photo by Lois Siegel

The NAC was a dangerous place then. The restaurant had lost its class and direction earlier; executive chefs were hired and fired after a year. Waldele risked making changes and has lasted for 20 years.

As in his apprenticeship, Waldele still works six-day weeks but gets longer breaks during the day, sitting down with a writer to talk about his life and food.

He mentions a favourite dish of ripe tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, good olive oil, crusty bread. Nothing cooked? “No, just the flavours of the perfect ingredients,” he says. Waldele mentions his delight in seeing people feel the vegetables at the market. He himself loves to touch, no, palpate food. He spends his Christmas parties in the open kitchen (five cooks work in the back), distributing lamb chops and legs of birds on the guests’ plates with his fingers. (Provincial health inspectors are not invited.)

Cooking is both his profession and passion. After a ten-hour day he goes home and cooks dinner. What does he do when he doesn’t cook? He talks about food and cooking.

©Photo by Lois Siegel

Recreation? “I put on some relaxing music, open a bottle of wine, then some friends come over and help me cook.”

Ambition? “My dream is to create one new dish…”

I interrupt: “Chef Claude Troisgros said that anyone who created just one new dish in his lifetime is a great cook.”

Chef Claude Troisgros

“Did he? Well, I want to create that one dish that not only tastes good but does something for the growers, the country… then I could happily die,” Waldele insists.  He lightens the serious thought with a laugh, like serving a sorbet after a roast.

(This article first appeared in The Montreal Gazette, Montreal, May 3, 1998.)

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