Since leaving Juniper in 2014, Chef Norm Aitken has been all kinds of busy — menu consulting all over the place, kitchen design consulting with Astro Design Centre, planning big events with Chef Michael Blackie… But now he has settled again in one spot. Nordik Spa is the lucky employer and Chef Aitken has spent the past six months redesigning the menus for all of their restaurant and café spaces.
City Bites Insider checked in with the on-the-go chef to discover what’s on the Summer Menu — and what the chef is cooking up for Nordik’s future.
We were intrigued to see that you’re working your magic at Nordik. How long have you been here?
I started in December. I’ve been trying to get my head wrapped around everything going on at the space — what we’re doing and where we’re going. It’s now all coming together.
How did this gig with Nordik come to pass?
Martin [Paquette], the owner of Nordik, used to be a client of mine at Juniper. We go way back. Plus my old GM from Juniper is now the food and beverage director at Nordik and he asked me to do a proposal for their mezzanine café, so I did. And lo and behold, it expanded from there.
Yes, we’d originally talked about a six-month contract. I told them in six months we’ll just be getting started! With a place this size, it takes time to change direction and come up with new ideas and get everyone onboard. I’ve been here six months and we’re just now really getting rolling. There’s always more to do — Nordik is expanding rapidly, so these are exciting times.
What was your philosophy going into menu planning for Nordik?
We’re at a wellness spa, so we need to have people leaving here feeling rejuvenated, relaxed, healthy. And when I looked at the old menu I saw pastas and pizza. I knew that had to change — the menu has to be more health-oriented.
As a chef you may like using a deep-fryer and making decadent meals, but my challenge is to make indulgent meals that are still healthy. I’ve spent the past six months honing the menu and focusing on local. I mean we’re in Quebec; you’ve got to have maple syrup all over the menu!
What’s a typical day like?
Right now I’m just doing planning. I try to get in for a few kitchen shifts, but mostly I’m designing menus that will launch now and in the future. Nordik is planning a hotel, which will be built in three phases of 30 rooms, so I’m coming up with menu concepts for two new restaurants there.
Once that happens, I imagine so many people coming for three-day or weeklong retreats. They can unplug without flying to Mexico or Dominican.
So you’re running around overseeing multiple restaurants and cafes. Anything else?
Satellite kitchens. One of my plans is to have three satellite kitchens that will open, say, 12-2, to take the pressure off the main restaurants. They will have two options — one vegetarian and one meat — and the cook and server will be right there on site. Visitors can just have a small bite instead of everyone heading to the restaurant at once.
Sounds fun. When will they open?
One will be open at the end of June and I’m planning for two more next spring.
How detailed are your plans for the upcoming hotel at this point?
When it opens, it will have its own fine dining restaurant. And we’re expanding the Pano Lounge to seat over 200.
So back to today’s plans! You’ve got all these new menus planned out for Summer 2017. How are you rolling them out?
Slow and steady! We’ll launch the full summer menus for Restö, the Pano Lounge, and the Biërgarden at the end of June, but we’ve been slowly integrating the new dishes onto the menus over the past few weeks. Some are on the menus already.
Can you give me a few examples?
At the Restö we’ve got the field mushrooms on toast and the brisket with fennel croute and grainy mustard. Every week I’m trying to add a couple of new items as I bring the team up to speed. Restö will be the first restaurant to get totally up to speed, then the Panorama Lounge, which has a more laid-back menu. It’s a place to kick back — more casual, with cold plates and charcuterie.
Though I see you’ve already got at least one new dish, the Tomo sushi, on the menu at the Panorama Lounge.
Yes, that’s just launched! We teamed up with Tomo Restaurant on the Market. Our plan is to serve their sushi with our salad. We’re also planning to start smoking our own salmon so at some point they’ll be using our salmon in the sushi. They make amazing sushi so it’s a great partnership.
What’s been the feedback so far?
People are very excited. We just put a new tortilla-crusted baked haddock on the menu with a pickled lentil salad and people have been freaking out over it. And the smoked trout with quinoa and peppery greens is being ordered like crazy. The reaction has been just so positive.
The servers were a little worried when I said the Caesar salad was coming off the menu, but they’ve calmed down now that they see that guests are really loving the new menu items.