In the waning days of August, Chef Steve Mitton announced to shocked Ottawa diners that, after close to a decade, Murray Street would be closing its doors after a final New Year’s Eve blowout. Known as an early champion of the locavore and snout-to-tail cooking movements, Mitton was serving up his signature pig’s heads almost every night in the weeks leading up to Murray Street’s closure.
Everyone was wondering where the accomplished chef would land, knowing there would be no shortage of offers on the table. And so it was that City Bites Insider discovered Chef Mitton at Whalesbone’s catering and wholesale shop on Kent Street. What was he up to, we asked? Everything from championing Kent Street’s brown-bag lunch to planning next summer’s landmark 10th-anniversay Oysterfest, he replied. The busy chef stopped just long enough to chat about his first two weeks on the job at Whalesbone.
You announced at the end of August that Murray Street would close on New Year’s Eve. Did you get lots of job offers right away?
I did — from taking over kitchens to head chef to catering. It was all very flattering, but I was drawn right away to the idea of coming to Whalesbone. They’re already settled with Mike [Radford] as a head chef, so I’ll be working on very separate projects from what goes on in the restaurants.
Tell me about how the job developed.
I was hanging out at the Elgin Street Whalesbone last summer talking with Pete [McCallum, a partner, along with Josh Bishop, at Whalesbone]. He’s one of the first people I told when I decided to close Murray Street. We go way back. I knew Josh when he was first shucking oysters and the three of us have always swapped ideas and offered each other advice.
So, I said to Pete, “Just between you and me, I plan to close at the end of the year.” He was like “I’m really sorry,” but I could see him thinking. Right away he suggested that it would be great to have me come to Whalesbone and work on a whole bunch of projects. Of course, I was hoping he’d say that!
So “a whole bunch of things.” What does that mean? What’s your job title?
I’m trying to come up with a title! I’m going to be wearing a lot of hats — and I just started a couple of weeks ago so it’s all kind of new. For starters, they threw Oysterfest into my basket, which is going to be fun. It’s the 10th anniversary, so that’s a big deal. I’m already trying to figure out the bands.
I’m also working on the take-home food part of Whalesbone’s business — seeing if we can get that to really take off. I’m working with the smoking program and starting a charcuterie program. I guess you could say we’re bringing a bit of Steve Mitton into the oyster realm.
I’ll also be working with the catering department to streamline it a bit — more oysters and canapés and charcuterie platters. We’re all about the party and bringing the food. That’ll keep my summer busy when events really get going.
You’ve got your fingers in lots of pies, then.
Maybe I’ll call myself chef tournant. It’s a kitchen-brigade term that means you’re everywhere and can fill in at every spot. Fill in the gaps.
When did you start?
Just a couple of weeks ago. I took a couple of weeks off after New Year’s to visit family in Fredericton. I was planning to take a few more weeks, but I was going stir-crazy. I called up and asked if I could start a week early.
Hard to slow down, then.
For sure. It has really been strange for me to be at a shop that closes at 5 p.m. It’s like, ‘oh no I’ve got another seven hours. What am I going to do now?’ It’s really strange. It’s a bit like getting out of prison after 20 years and you don’t really know the landscape. Working an eight- or nine-hour day means I’m forced to relax, which is kind of weird but good.
What’s a typical day been like in your first couple of weeks?
I’m based at Kent Street with a little desk in the kitchen. I’ve been doing a little planning; a little cooking. I’ll help with the brown-bag lunch rush, which will hopefully get going once people know it’s back. I’m also working with Patrice [Leduc], who runs the wholesale shop to boost sales. It can be tough sell because we deal with the fisherman directly so it’s going to be a bit more costly.
Awesome to hear that brown-bag lunches are back at Kent Street.
Brown-bag lunches, Tuesday to Saturday. I’ll also be adding some meat to some of the sandwiches.
Can fans expect any Murray Street favourites to show up at Whalesbone?
I’ve got the Cubano sandwich on the brown-bag menu. I’ll be doing a smoked meat brisket for the brown-bag lunch and making the bone broth some days as a second option, along with the seafood chowder. I’ll see how it goes.
I’m sure the adjustment period will last for a few months. What feels weird in your first few weeks in a new place?
It’s strange not to come into the kitchen every day, write up a menu, then rock through service. It’s more my call what I’m going to work on each day at Whalesbone. I really want to work with everyone to take Whalesbone’s brand recognition to the next level.
It must have been hard to give up Murray Street after close to a decade.
Absolutely. It was my baby. But it was time. It was a good run and it was a lot of fun, but it was time.
What was your final supper like? Did you go out with a bang on New Year’s Eve?
It was insane! We broke our overall day sales by 50 percent. Great party. There were two sittings and the last seating was just full of our friends and family, which was amazing. A lot of industry people came after we closed shop so the party continued. It was really nice.
Having fun so far?
I always have fun! For now I’m everywhere, which I do not mind at all. It’s going to be great to really move into this job and see where it takes me as I settle in.