At Ox Bar De Tapas, it’s easy to see through the restaurant’s open kitchen that Executive Chef Kai Salimaki is one of the most important people behind this contemporary Spanish dining experience. Taking a little break in-between calling orders of pintxos and croquetas, Salimaki chats about his first time in a professional kitchen, what young cooks need to know about the industry and the experiences that have made him the successful chef he is today.
So, what does your career look like in a nutshell?
It’s been a long career already! I started when I was 13 years old. It’s been a constant learning process. With kitchens you can never know everything. Every day there’s something new that you could be learning. I guess through every restaurant opening I’ve done, through every kitchen I’ve been, I have always been evolving. I’m trying to be the best I can be and just build great teams and put out a great product.
How many restaurants have you opened in your career?
In Calgary? Quite a few. I think it’s about 12, maybe 15 restaurants? I don’t even know…I helped to open up NOtaBLE, Petite, Vin Room. Also National on 17th, National on 10th, Double Zero Pizza… yeah, a lot. Haha.
Where did you discover your love of cooking?
My very first job was actually in the kitchen when I was 13. That was back in Edmonton in a restaurant called Packrat Louie. My father’s friend was the chef/owner. I wanted money to go out with my friends, and my dad said that it was time to start working for it. They put me in the kitchen and that was it.
What were some of your first tasks in this job?
Unlike a lot of people I didn’t start in the dish pit at all. They put me right to work. I started out on the dessert and garde manger station there. I had to learn knife skills very quickly. I remember my first weekend, they gave me a case of chickens and they wanted me to debone them. I left that night with probably 10 cuts on my hands. It was painful, but a learning process, for sure.
What’s one major skill you gained back then that you’ve transferred to your career today?
Work ethic! Honestly, I didn’t want to disappoint my dad because his friend was the chef and the owner. The team there were a bunch of rock stars. They were great at what they did and I wanted to be like them. So, it was about putting my head down. Working, listening and just keeping my eyes open to constantly seeing what everybody else was doing, and trying to be better every day. It’s still what I’m trying to do today – just be better.
What would you say is the most important thing to keep in mind when developing a menu?
First and foremost it’s the cost. You want to make sure your costs are sound and make sure you are not losing the company money. Menu development for me also means keeping an eye on the kitchen and see what comes from different stations. You don’t want to bury one station during the service. If half the menu is coming from the grill then that causes a lot of problems! You have to make sure the dishes are evenly dispersed, easily prepped and executed and also not too big.
As the executive chef of Ox Bar De Tapas, what advice would you give to young people who have dreams to find success in this industry?
Stop watching TV! TV shows are different than real-life kitchens; it’s not what we do. Read cookbooks, research everything, go out and try food. Make sure you have the passion, and it’s not just something that you think is going to make you famous. You have to love what you do! Our job is not easy. You are on your feet 10, 12, 14 hours a day. You’re lifting 50-pound boxes of potatoes, or big cases of meat. It looks like a glamorous job, but it’s not all the time. Just make sure you really want to do this and you have the focus, passion and the work ethic. If you think it’s 9 to 5, Monday to Friday job – it’s not. You’re working every holiday. You’re working when it’s your birthday and some places open even when it’s Christmas Day. Make sure you want it, fully immerse yourself in it and [please] get yourself some good knives! Ha, ha!
You’ve done a lot in career so far, but what is your end goal?
I’ve done a lot when it comes to opening restaurants and I’ve even had a part in owning a restaurant or two. I think my ultimate goal is that I would like to own once more, but a small little 20-30 seat restaurant with my wife, Norma-Jean, in Nova Scotia. That’s where she’s from. She’s a general manager and she knows the front end. I honestly just want to cook simple, but great food. That’s the end goal.