Escoba’s Canadian-born head chef creates down-home comfort dishes sure to please

Escoba chef Brad O’Leary is a soft-spoken man, so he generally lets his food speak on his behalf. The quiet Nova Scotia-born O’Leary has perfected the art of creating hearty bistro dishes with a fine-dining flare, which makes Escoba a popular downtown spot for both lunch and dinner. O’Leary is a firm believer that flavour and freshness are more important than fussy plating, making the restaurant a top destination for discerning diners in search of comfort food that goes a step or two beyond the norm.

O’Leary’s menu is inspired by both his training as a high-end chef and his early days as a young food enthusiast schooled in his grandmother’s Nova Scotia kitchen. “I always knew I was going to be a chef,” O’Leary says. “I’ve wanted to be a chef since I was 10 years old cooking with my grandmother. She was my inspiration a hundred percent. We did a lot of baking back then and made stews, all comfort food.“

After graduating high school O’Leary considered a business degree, but he was not able to resist the lure of the kitchen. He studied at the Culinary Institute of Canada at Holland College, Prince Edward Island, for two years before moving to Toronto to work with chef Robert Buchanan at Acqua. Hesitant to lay down roots in any one place, O’Leary spent two years in Toronto and then found himself in Australia, and spent a year working at another well-regarded restaurant. The pull of friends and family brought him back to Canada and he took a job as a sous chef at the ultra-prestigious Rideau Club in Ottawa. Over the course of his three years at the Rideau Club, O’Leary learned the ins and outs of high-end dining and had the opportunity to feed many high-profile dignitaries.

“I did do a function for Jean Cretien,” O’Leary recalls. “I was so shy that I was not able to go out and talk to him. And the next thing you know, the kitchen door flies open and it’s Cretien coming in. He grabs me and puts me in a big bear hug and kisses me on the cheek. It was awesome.”

After a stint back in Nova Scotia, where O’Leary also happened to meet his wife Laurel, the couple moved west to Calgary for family reasons and in 2007 O’Leary took a job at Escoba as a sous chef. The restaurant was undergoing some renovations at the time, so not only did O’Leary cook in the kitchen, but he also took on some construction work, even helping to lay down the tile floor that is still in the restaurant’s dining room. Despite his connection to the restaurant, and the fact that Laurel had also started working in the Escoba kitchen as the daytime sous chef, O’Leary didn’t gel with the then head chef and he left for a job at the Petroleum Club to take the reins as wine cellar chef. While there, O’Leary got back into the same fine-dining groove that he had found himself in at the Rideau Club in Ottawa and also found himself growing as a chef.

“I was able to come out of my shell a little bit at the Petroleum Club because I’d have to go out and explain my dishes and talk to people to tell them what they were getting,” O’Leary says. “And they were always really gracious. I’d be cooking for people down there and they were people with high standards – they’re high up in society here in Calgary. I’d go outside at the end of the night and they’d be leaving the restaurant at the same time. And they’d all call me by my first name and just make me feel at home.” As much as O’Leary loved the high-end experience he had at the Petroleum Club, after a couple of years he once again felt the need to roam. Plagued by a restlessness, he never seemed to stay at a restaurant, or in many cases a city, for more than two or three years. That all changed with his return to Escoba in 2009. Laurel was now Escoba’s chef, but she left the kitchen to work as front-of-house manager and her husband took over the kitchen. At last, in the same restaurant in which he had laid the dining room floor two years previously, O’Leary felt like he had found a place that he could call his own.

At Escoba, O’Leary is able to combine the upscale food skills he learned at some of his previous jobs with his home cooking roots. While O’Leary prides himself on his ability to create pristinely executed and nuanced dishes, at his current post his top concerns are definitely flavour and freshness. “Here we’re about the food,” O’Leary says. “Freshness, seasoning and flavour balancing are the biggest thing for me.”

With Laurel backing him up in the front of house, and the strong support of Escoba’s owner Darren Hamelin, O’Leary has made Escoba his home. With as many of 160 to 170 full entrees served each weekday at lunchtime alone, O’Leary needs to keep his kitchen running quickly and efficiently. As anyone who has every worked in a restaurant will tell you, this is no easy feat, but through a combination of his soft-spoken personality and his dedication to only letting a superior product hit the tables, O’Leary manages to get it done day in and day out.

“I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants and I don’t think I’ve ever seen food go out as fast as we do it,” he says. “We work so well together. You always hear about clashes between the out front staff and the kitchen, but that doesn’t happen here. And it’s not because it’s my wife — I’ve never yelled at servers. Obviously there are times when emotions get high, but I’m not picking at the servers. I don’t expect servers to be picking at the kitchen.”

Hamelin says that O’Leary’s ability to run a functional kitchen, combined with his creativity and passion for food, is what has ensured Escoba’s continuing success. “He’s brought stability,” Hamelin says. “Brad brings stability to the kitchen from the point of view of creating consistency in every process from hiring, to training, to producing, to making sure that we always hit a certain mark when it comes to quality and freshness, and that’swhat a customer looks for in Escoba.” “Brad’s other strength is that he can bring a creative aspect into a stable environment,” Hamelin continues. “And that’s what often doesn’t coincide between creative people and business people. There’s one or the other — you’re right brain or you’re left brain. In this business you have to be both.”

Juggling business and creativity can make for a tough schedule, which is made all the tougher by O’Leary’s insistence on being incredibly hands-on in his kitchen almost all of the time. He oversees all food preparation and personally makes his own soups, ravioli, and many other items on his menu that many chefs would typically leave to other members of the staff. While O’Leary prefers to refer to himself as “particular” rather than calling himself a control freak, he does admit that the pace can be grueling and he usually only takes time off if it’s to spend it with his young son, who also frequently hangs out with his dad in the kitchen. Still, O’Leary says it’s the challenge of keeping up with these demands that keeps him happy at Escoba.

“It’s an adrenalin rush,” he says. “I don’t burn out because I still get a rush out of it. It’s like playing sports. That one-hour lunch rush and the dinner rush during Christmas is exactly like playing a game of hockey. It gets my adrenalin running when I see the dishes going out. And that’s how I know when it’s time to change, is when I don’t get a rush from it. And here, I don’t see myself losing it because it’s always a rush every day and always a race to the finish.”

When it comes down to it though, all that Escoba’s customers really care about is the taste of the food on their plates. With comforting dishes like roast chicken and scallops served with potato Dauphinoise, or the pork combo of smoked bone-in pork loin and braised pork belly served with butternut squash ravioli, O’Leary’s creations scream down-home comfort. Hamelin says that he orders the salmon over shrimp risotto whenever he needs a pick-me-up, whereas Laurel O’Leary can’t resist the bison and mushroom dumplings served with a truffle crème fraiche.

“When you read the menu I think you see something that we’ve put a big effort into, which is not overpromising and under-delivering,” Hamelin says. “We try to somewhat under-promise with the menu and then over-deliver with the freshness, the quality and the flavours.”

Which is what it all ultimately boils down to for O’Leary as a chef. He offers those fine dining touches and ingredients that make going out to a restaurant a special experience, while satisfying his customers’ need to feel that sense of warmth that only comes from true comfort food.

“People come here and see it’s a bistro and think they know what they’re going to get,” O’Leary says. “But what they see with the flavours and the plate is comfort. Everything looks really good, but then you bite into it and it feels like home.”

Photo by Ingrid Kuenzel

Pin It on Pinterest