There’s been a change at Ernest’s Dining Room. You can’t see it when you walk in, but you’ll taste it.
The restaurant – located at NAIT’s Main Campus – is still known for offering an amazing dining experience and helping Culinary Arts students hone their skills, but there’s a new chef in the kitchen. And he has an agenda: throw open the doors and welcome the community like never before.
“I’m responsible for special events and special menus. Every menu we’re doing is different,” says Michael Hassall (Cook ’06), Ernest’s first executive chef since it opened in 1963. “If I can dream it, we can do it.”
Never a dull moment
Hassall started at Ernest’s at the end of August in a role that’s anything but academic. In the restaurant industry, executive chefs generally own multiple locations or oversee many aspects of an operation, from staffing to ordering supplies to creating dishes and menus.
Hassall’s responsibilities differ slightly at Ernest’s. Rather than multiple locations, he handles multiple functions, freeing up teaching assistances who used to do that job. When students aren’t using the kitchen, he can prepare tailor-made meals for events on weekends, the break between terms, and summer.
“Michael brings a level of experience to events,” says Brent Murton, dining room supervisor at Ernest’s.
Hassall has worked as far afield as Australia and New Zealand but worked most recently at the local Italian restaurant Vivo. “I’m bringing the industry vibe,” he says. “But there won’t be yelling and banging and swearing because that’s not how I run a kitchen.”
"There won’t be yelling and banging and swearing because that’s not how I run a kitchen."
One of the most exciting things about the job for Hassall is the creativity it will require. “It will challenge me every day. Do you want me to cook that salmon you caught on your summer fishing trip? Bring it out,” says Hassall. “Bring 10 of your best buddies and we’ll do a dinner. There will never be a dull moment.”
To make sure of that, he's hired his own small team of seasoned kitchen staff. “Get us all in a room and there’s going to be 400 years of culinary experience.”
Cory Rakowski, the first cook Hassall hired, is delighted with the opportunity to work on something new each time they’re in the kitchen.
“When you’re in a restaurant it’s the same menu items executed the same way, day in and day out,” he says. “The variety that’s going to come out of Ernest’s is exciting. We’re unbound from limitations of the industry.”
For Murton, Hassall’s role offers a chance to build connections with a new clientele. “He wants to have the community come here.”
A place for students
But Ernest’s isn’t abandoning its educational role, Murton adds. Culinary Arts students can volunteer, but will be treated like employees.
“We get to give them the opportunity to see the full circle,” he says. “They get to learn from an awesome instructor [in class], then see what it’s like to actually do the job [with Hassall], then finish their studies.”
Hassall agrees. “They’ll see what it’s like to run service as a kitchen would. Efficiency is going to be the name of our game.”
That experience could lead to jobs. In 2017, Ernest’s saw success with staying open in May, June and July. Murton says students who show talent could be hired to work for Hassall in summers to come.
Hassall guarantees that one thing will always be the same.
Hassall hopes to see enthusiasm for the food not just behind the scenes in the kitchen, but in the dining room as well. Guests at Ernest’s can expect to meet him tableside, sharing insights about menu items. He looks forward to talking about the food, his techniques and the ingredients – and to introducing more people to Ernest’s.
From one event to the next, and from one group of diners to another, those dishes will change. But Hassall guarantees that one thing will always be the same.
“The food coming out of this kitchen is going to be dynamite.”