Chef makes her mark at one of Halifax’s most iconic restaurants

When talking to the bright young star of the Halifax food scene chef Steph Ogilvie, it becomes immediately clear that she loves what she does. “I wouldn’t do anything else. It is all-consuming. It’s hitting all of your senses. You touch it, you mix it, you butcher it, you smell it, you taste it and then you’re making this plate.”

Ogilvie has been working at The Brooklyn Warehouse for more than four years. She started under acclaimed chef Mark Gray, but when he moved on to open Battery Park almost three years ago, she stepped up to take on the role and has been rocking it ever since. Although much is made of how young she is to have accomplished so much, Ogilvie won’t share her age. “It’s a trade secret. All the boys in the kitchen ask, and I tell them I’m young enough, but that’s all I’ll say.”

Chef Steph Ogilvie

Ogilvie has truly made a mark for herself, and taken the food at The Brooklyn Warehouse to a whole new level.

“What’s most exciting to me about what Steph is doing is the little accents that she is using to garnish plates, which are either things that she’s grown herself or things that have been foraged for her,” says George Christakos, who owns The Brooklyn Warehouse and Battery Park with his dad Leo Christakos. “What’s happening is that we’re creating final dishes that are truly unique. There’s no one on her level doing those kinds of dishes in the city. But more importantly than that, these dishes are unique to the terroir of Nova Scotia, and you could not duplicate that in Montreal or Toronto or anywhere else.”

Drawing inspiration from near and far

Ogilvie was trained in classic French cooking at the Culinary Institute of Canada in PEI, then moved to Toronto after graduating to work at prestigious restaurants Canoe, George, and Ultra Supper Club. She then moved to Australia and cooked there for a year before moving back to Halifax.
“I wanted to come back and figure things out, got a job at Jane’s on the Common as a sous chef, then went to open their catering kitchen before heading on to The Brooklyn Warehouse,” she says.

Travel is important to Ogilvie, and she takes inspiration from everywhere she goes but says it’s good to see what the people around you are doing, too, and to draw inspiration from them as well. “I just got back from dining at Bite House in Cape Breton, which is just so good and an all-around excellent experience. It’s good to meet other local chefs and have a camaraderie with each other.”

Ogilvie’s travels are often reflected in her cuisine, and George Christakos says that there’s a European influence to what she does. “I think the way that they approach cuisine is much more simple and traditional in many ways, so I think she sees how the cuisine there is more the fabric of everyday living and brings a little of that sensibility to our food. Although it can be intricate, it’s not overly chef-y. Her food is quite layered but not scary.”

Ogilvie definitely brings a style of her own to The Brooklyn Warehouse menu but says it would be impossible not to when the menu changes every single day. Leo Christakos says that the term they often use when describing what she does is “feminine,” though he’s not always comfortable with that description. “She adds a lot of creative input to the plate, it’s very artistic. She brings out the colours and textures of the food.” (A good recent example of this was a carrot cake she made with candied hops, lavender goat cheese icing, burnt honey, bee pollen and pumpkin seeds.)

Hyperlocal, super tasty

Despite all this talk of artistic plates and creativity, Ogilvie isn’t doing anything avant-garde at The Brooklyn Warehouse. You’ll still find classics on the menu, but these are changed up in thoughtful ways. The Brooklyn Burger is a firm customer favourite, but it’s an elevated burger: 6 ounces of Nova Scotia ground beef, Brothers smoked back bacon, PEI cheddar, a pickle and grainy mustard on a Stone Hearth bun served with a side of triple-cooked chips.

Of course, everyone is incorporating local ingredients into their food these days; there’s nothing particularly new about that. “When I started at Brooklyn Warehouse, I didn’t feel like there were that many places that were using super local and very thoughtful ingredients, so the pool was smaller to draw from than it is now,” she says, adding that the push is to not just go local, but to serve the best of what’s local. “Now it’s all about the quality, not just the price of things coming in either. We have such high standards.”

Ogilvie feels very fortunate indeed to have access to so much great produce. “It enables us to showcase what we have here in Nova Scotia in a new and creative way,” she says. “I have foragers that just show up at the back door and bring me mushrooms and beach greens, and it’s just like, okay, this is really cool. We have a little garden in the back too, so we utilize that as much as we can.”

Years of building relationships with fantastic suppliers such as Four Seasons, Common Roots, Afishionado and Getaway Farm has helped foster Ogilvie’s creativity and allowed her to keep serving new creations day after day. “I feel really lucky to work with all these people who are super passionate about what they do and have great products. You want to highlight that as much as you can, and make something really exciting in the process,” she says.

“The interesting thing for tourists if they come to Brooklyn Warehouse is that they are literally tasting Nova Scotia, and I think that’s fun for people who live here to celebrate, too,” says George Christakos. “Our restaurant is at the forefront of food that is really unique to this region.”

No time to stand still

When Ogilvie is planning her ever-changing menu, her goal is to create a connection with everyone who eats at The Brooklyn Warehouse. “I love being able to create something new each time and present it in a beautiful way,” she says. “It’s all-consuming but I love it, and hopefully all of that passion and love and thought that you’ve put into it reaches the customer. Hopefully, they get it, it excites them, and they have a great time here.”

Ogilvie’s efforts are certainly attracting attention, both in the city and out. She was showcased at the recent Devour! The Food Film Fest because organizers see her as someone to watch, and was recently featured in UK newspaper The Guardian.

Although Ogilvie says that being female hasn’t held her back in any way – “At the end of the day if you can cook, you can cook. It doesn’t really matter,” she says – there’s never been a better time for female chefs. “I think it is to her benefit that everybody wants to support young female professionals in culinary. She is in a minority and I think that the right people know it is tough for her to make a name for herself but it’s worth watching and supporting what she is doing,” says George Christakos.

Forging on

The Brooklyn Warehouse has always been ahead of the curve in food trends, and in terms of what is happening culturally. They crowd-funded an expansion back in 2013 when few of us even knew how that worked. Go back further to when they opened in 2007 and you’ll see that they were already innovators opening in the North End before other restaurants caught on to how great the area was, becoming hugely successful despite the fact they opened in times of economic depression. “Although we didn’t seem to open at the right time, we definitely opened in the right place,” jokes Leo Christakos.

When it started out, Brooklyn Warehouse was known as a meat-centric restaurant. “Our chef Graeme Ruppel was very heavy-handed with sauces and fat content, which was fine at the time as that was where food was trending,” explains George Christakos. “When Mark took over he had a more refined French cuisine take on things and it really cleaned up the food and made it more precise, but what we’ve always wanted for Brooklyn is a more feminine touch on the food, and that’s we get with Steph.”

But what exactly does that mean? “It’s the feminine sensibility of the food with regard to the look of the plates, the portioning of the plates, the use of vegetable, it’s healthier, it’s cleaner, it has more finesse to it and speaks to our overall brand,” says George Christakos. “We’re at a period where we have the most female chefs in our kitchen, and it’s a really good time for the Brooklyn Warehouse.”

In the past ten years that Brooklyn Warehouse has been open, the food scene here has definitely improved, and although that has brought increased competition from other restaurants, Ogilvie says that’s a good thing. “It is nice to see that happening here, and having more competition only forces you to get better,” she says, and that means even when everyone is striving to use fabulous local produce. “When you have all this great product there’s no excuse for your food to be lacking because we are so lucky here when it comes to that.”

Getting recognition for the hard work that goes into creating this food though awards is always fun for Ogilvie, but it’s the feedback from those enjoying the food that matters most. “I have diners that ask questions every night, like what micro green was on top, or I thought I tasted this, that’s a lot of fun to get that feedback and know that they are engaging with it,” she says, “that’s when we know that we’re doing our job well.”