From the Seaside to the Foothills

Chef Paul Stoffel’s Journey from youngest in class to classiest of the pack

An interview with Chef Paul Stoffel, Chef/Owner of Q Haute

— Fred Holliss

Born in in the seaside town of Bournemouth, England, Chef Paul graduated youngest in his class at 15 not really knowing what he wanted to do. After an interview, a career counsellor suggested he take a day course in cooking at a nearby college; he followed her suggestion and found his vocation. He enrolled at Bournemouth and Poole College, now recognized as offering one of the best, if not the best, chef training courses in the UK. He also started working in kitchens right away, as well as being placed during holidays by the College’s industrial release. Between terms he worked at Westbeach, a seafood restaurant right on the famous Bournemouth boardwalk, with a deck jutting out onto the sand. After school he moved on to Sandbanks in a recently renovated hotel on the outskirts of Bournemouth, where he worked about 100 hours a week while living in the staff quarters. At seventeen-going-on-eighteen he moved to London, where he started work under Marco Pierre White, the first British chef to be awarded 3 Michelin stars and the youngest ever. “He trained Gordon Ramsay, there were famous stories about how he made Gordon Ramsay cry,” I was informed, with a twinkle in his eye.

After three and a half years there Chef Paul was offered the opportunity to run his own restaurant, but it was an Italian trattoria style location, and did not offer the opportunity to pursue his fine dining goals. His then-girlfriend was from Calgary, and so, during the first two weeks of vacation he ever had, he researched restaurants out here and decided on Q Haute, “As close to a Michelin style restaurant as you’re going to find in Calgary.” At 21 years old the seaside boy moved to the foothills.

Chef Paul worked under Q Haute’s Chef Michelle Aurigemma for nine years, before taking on ownership. Both had trained in England, Chef Michelle under Nico Ladnis who in turn trained Marco Pierre White, and so with a shared background they got along well. Over time Chef Paul had more and more input to the running of the business, and it was natural for Chef Michelle and business partner Marcello Belvedere to eventually step back and sell the restaurant to him.

Despite the legacy of training under the notorious Chef Marco of “Hell’s Kitchen,” Chef Paul does not run his kitchen Ramsay style. As he grew up he started to see the flaws in that way of treating staff. “Throwing cast iron pots at people doesn’t make them want to work for you,” he explained. With a kitchen staff of three plus an apprentice, he finds passing on knowledge to be a more rewarding endeavour. A location the size of Q Haute should really have six in the kitchen, so with three and a half they run very tight, and he feels fortunate to have the team he does. It’s American in layout, he explains, but like a classic European kitchen it’s driven from the back. Starting from booking the tables, through seating early arrivals, to the timing of delivering the dishes, they really control the flow of the dining experience, speeding up and slowing down the wait staff as necessary for diners to have a flawless experience.

Chef Paul’s attention to detail is obsessive, from growing his own herbs to overseeing the plates going out to the dining room. He always has his eyes open, and tries to install that in his staff since he can’t see everything, no matter how hard he tries. The secret, if you can call it that, reflects his training. Everything has systems in place, and the systems must be followed. The dishes are plated as if the staff were the customer, with each ingredient placed just so, just as it will be viewed by the diner. As the dish goes down the line and on to the pass, it is always viewed that way, and once on the pass the wait staff collect the dishes as if they were the diners, and the dish is delivered specifically that way. There is a last line of defence, in that they have an “expo,” a member of the wait staff that actually expedites each plate, and if the line misses something she has to catch it.

While there are a variety of suppliers, there were problems with the herbs and microgreens arriving crushed or frozen, and they were throwing too many away and chasing suppliers for credits. Chef Michelle’s answer to that was to install their own herbal growth system he discovered one day while watching Dragon’s Den, which Chef Paul inherited with the restaurant. After a year or so of shakedown, it is working smoothly and they now grow all their own herbs and greens. Calgary just doesn’t have the climate for restaurants to grow their own vegetables, so he gets product from known suppliers. I was surprised to find out that farmers will just walk in the door with their produce on offer, but Chef Paul is discriminating in what he accepts. That being said, produce is all local to Alberta and eastern B.C., with the exception of occasional game birds that come from Quebec, and organic where possible.

When he first came to Calgary Chef Paul was shocked that diners didn’t want things like lamb, “Too gamey,” they would say. He has worked on educating his clientele, but acknowledges that the Food Network has helped, broadening diner’s horizons and opening their eyes to new possibilities. He doesn’t have time to watch the channel himself, or indeed take any further training or chef courses, but he’s a student of cooking and has a huge collection of cook books, often turning to them for inspiration. Flipping through he’ll see a method he hasn’t used in a while, or be reminded of an ingredient, and launch from there when writing a new menu. In fact, resting on the sideboard during the interview was a cookbook by Marcus Wareing, “The Gilbert Scott Book of British Food.”

One thing I was curious about was how they could make the set lunch so affordable. He considers it to be a way to get people through the door. Come for lunch, stay to get married. It’s also a way to use product, and keeps lunch fresh and ever-changing while saving money. The intent is to keep the fridge as empty as possible, and lunch is a way to help do that. Things don’t stay in the fridge very long.

As for his goals for the future, he’s always trying to refine the à la carte menu. “I want to make things simpler and more intricate at the same time, if that makes any sense,” he says, his eyes focusing inward as he tries to explain, hands shaping an invisible idea in front of himself. Refinement is the goal, and cutting edge modern cuisine is a moving target. Q Haute has a lot of space, and books a lot of corporate events and weddings to stay busy. He wants to book more weddings while making them even more intricate. His experience working under Chef Marco in the UK, as mentally, physically and psychologically taxing as it was, just made him want to go full force and prove people wrong. It taught him to work extremely hard and continually strive to be a better chef.

Not that he has a lot of time for it, but he does get to eat out occasionally. As a big fan of Asian food one of his favourite restaurants is Anju. He is also impressed by what Darren Maclean is doing at Shokunin. As a lover of sushi and ramen he’s pleased to see someone that creative doing something out of the ordinary.

Asked what kind of music he would compare his cuisine to, he laughs and says, “I want to say my cooking style is like death metal, but that’s not very accurate.” In the end he settles on a mashup between classical and modern. “I like to play with textures and flavours and serve something you know in an unexpected way. I love taking well-known dishes and making them into something weird and wonderful.” It looks like this is one Chef that is successfully bringing weird and wonderful to the grateful palates of Calgary’s more sophisticated diners.