Chef Spotlight: Chef Olaf Mertens

Olaf Mertens

The CFWI’s Chef Signature Series continues March 6 with Olaf Mertens.

The painstaking task of making even one perfect soufflé can be a chef’s worst nightmare or biggest triumph. On the night of his Signature Chef Series event chef professor Olaf Mertens plans to make 80.

“It’s crazy. A soufflé is something that either works or it doesn’t” says Mertens as he reviews his menu plan. “I’ll be a champ or a chump; I’m a superstar or I’m mud.”

The bold move will be the grand finale at Mertens’ signature event to be held at Benchmark restaurant March 6. Mertens’ event will be the second in the series of six hosted by the CFWI each designed to highlight the work of a different chef professor.

For a decade previous to joining the staff at NC Mertens was known as the executive chef and co-founder/owner of Hip Restaurants and its three Mississauga locations – On the Curve Hot Stone and Wine Bar Ten Restaurant & Wine Bar and West 50 Pourhouse and Grill; as well as his own catering division Catering … From the HIP.

While he is so well known in the GTA Mertens’ Signature Series event will marks his cooking debut in the Niagara region. Guests will get a taste of his contemporary German-Canadian approach that he has come to be known for through his restaurants and cookbooks as well as a dash of his personality – daring over-the-top and full of surprises.

About Mertens

Mertens had his sights set on being a chef ever since he could remember. In fact it was stated as his career goal in his high school yearbook.

As a young boy he spent most of his time not in school at his family’s delicatessen in Mississauga which specialized in German products. He also enjoyed every summer with his grandparents in Germany which revolved around daily trips to markets and bakeries. In high school he worked his way from busboy to ‘dish pit’ to fry boy to chicken roaster at St. Huberts worked as a caterer and then at a fine-dining Italian restaurant in Mississauga where he cleaned shrimp and calamari and made ravioli by hand.

“If I was lucky I got to do the pantry making salads and desserts” he recalls.

 After high school he interviewed for apprenticeships in Germany not knowing that at 17 he was already considered ‘old’ by European standards. He was accepted and worked three years at Steigenberger Hotel in Berlin.  His culinary apprenticeship led him to cooking in some of the finest restaurants in Berlin and Budapest. He earned the honour of Top Skilled Apprentice for the class of 1989 and was awarded Berlin’s Apprentice of the Year that same year.

Mertens returned to Canada where he spent the next eight years at Rogues Hotel in Mississauga leading it to be awarded one of Canada’s Top 40 Restaurants.

He returned to Germany to complete his Master Chef designation through the Kutchenmeister course in the Steigenberger Hotelier School in Badreichall – which he fondly recalls as just a five-minute bike ride from Saltzberg Austria.

Upon his return to Canada he landed a corporate chef job for three years at 12 restaurants including hotels restaurants. From there he partnered with a VP of the Hartunian Group to branch out on their own and launch the HIP (Hospitality Inspired People) Restaurants. On the Curve opened in 1999 followed by Ten Restaurant and Wine Bar in Port Credit five years later and West 50 Pourhouse and Grill – the largest draught house in Canada – four years after that; as well as Catering from the HIP which has served his German-Canadian cuisine to high profile guests including the British royalty the German embassy and large German companies including Mercedes Audi Miele and Dr. Oetker.

HIP’s immense success however came at a cost for Mertens. He was no longer cooking. He recalls having an epiphany about his desire to get back into the kitchen a few years ago.

“I went to Germany for three weeks two work for two of the best restaurants in the country for free. I said ‘just let me cook.’”

When he arrived back to Canada he instructed his partners to either sell the restaurants or purchase his shares so he could be free to pursue his dream.

He was planning to open a new smaller restaurant when he heard of the opening for a chef professor at Niagara College. Attracted by the opportunity to cook again and influence the next generation of chefs Mertens decided to interview for the position. He has been a part of the talented group of chef professors at NC’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute since 2010.

“I love every part of teaching the students” he says. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think about a course that I’ve been teaching for three years and how to make it better.”

As a chef professor at NC’the CFWI Mertens is reveling in his return to the kitchen. His new passion is sharing his expertise with culinary students along with his unbridled enthusiasm for winning over guests through their taste buds which will undoubtedly shine through at Signature Series Event.

On the menu

Mertens is celebrated for dishes that combine local Canadian ingredients with German techniques and he promises that his signature series event will not disappoint. To begin the reception he plans apple and blood sausage egg rolls with kozlicks mustard sauce schnitzel lollipops with lemon caper relish beef filet rouladen with pickled red cabbage and smoked venison with vanilla pears and cranberries. A bread service will include long stick pretzels rye bread served with beer cheese dip.

The amuse will include speckled trout served two ways “gravad and smoked” with soft potato knodel soured dill cucumber spaghetti potato crumble and maple candy.

The first course will be a white asparagus soup and root vegetable ‘cereal’ with vanilla salted scallops and ice syrup.

Second course includes duck confit and fois gras ‘maultasche’ on buttered squash kohlrabi and spinach roasted plum spread pickled orange and and sea buckthorn berries.

The third course will feature bison and wild boar confit crust gratin roasted cambonzola on spatzla ‘on weck’ popcorn succotash tart roast soured red onion puree and au boar jus.

A ‘from Niagara Trees’ semolina soufflé will be his final dish featuring cherries peaches wild blueberries birch sap Niagara nuts and white elderberry ice-cream.

It wouldn’t be Mertens’ event without special treats for his guests. Students will deliver pretzel and nut Florentine rumball lollipops and white chocolate ice syrup to the guests – the latter to be sucked in through miniature tubes. Also in true German style he plans to deliver mini rye breads and preserves for guests to take home.

“When you someone buys a house in Germany it’s tradition to give bread and salt. I like to give away bread for guests as a memory” he says. “When people take things home it will remind them about the evening and it becomes an event instead of just an evening out.”

As part of the evening he will be joined by Rob Lussier of & Company Resto Bar in Mississauga – who he worked with for the last 12 years in his restaurants – and Alex White executive sous chef for Richmond Station who he worked with for about eight years. Mertens is looking forward to the chance to recognize them for all the years they have worked together.

“It will be very meaningful to me to have them there; we’ve done a lot of great events together.”

Amid the planning and preparations Mertens is looking forward to the date of his Chef Signature Series.

“It’s going to be a great evening. I’m not even worried” he says.  “Except for the souffle.”

Upcoming dates

The series launched with Mark Picone (Feb 7) and continues in the upcoming months with Osvaldo Avila (March 22) Tony deLuca (April 4) Avi Hollo (April 18) and Michael Olson (May 2).

For more information on the Chef Signature Series click here.