EFA: Egg Farmers of Alberta
MA: Chef Michael Allemeier
Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
EFA: Our guest speaker on this episode is Michael Allemeier. Michael is a culinary educator at the School of Hospitality and Tourism within the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, which is also known as SAIT in Calgary. He is one of only five chefs in Canada to earn their certified Master Chef designation from the Canadian Culinary Institute!
Please share a little more about who you are and what it is you teach at SAIT.
MA: That is the question of the decades, isn’t it? I’m Michael Allemeier as you so well put. Next year, it’ll be my 40-year anniversary of being in the kitchen. So clearly, I don’t know when to quit and what that represents is I love what I do. I started my career doing a classical traditional three-year apprenticeship, and I have just put in my dues, and I have shown up every day. I have an opportunity to manage some great kitchens in Western Canada. Cooking has taken me all over the world. I feel that I’ve never worked a day in my life and that I have a very engaging lifestyle. I think for any young chef that is a healthy perspective to have in this industry.
EFA: Having been at SAIT for over 13 years, what stands out the most to you about in your role?
MA: The great thing not only about culinary education, but about our industry is that the industry is constantly changing. We, as educators, are obligated and responsible to change appropriately so that our students, our graduates, our alumni, are as prepared as they can be for this constantly changing world. I mean, we just have to look at the last few years to understand what change can do. The reality in education is we’ve had to do a lot of changes to adapt to what is happening. Our industry, whether it’s people in industry or education, is a constant evolution.
EFA: I’m sure being a chef too is challenging and a rewarding journey for many. What’s been your greatest achievement while in the career?
MA: You could look at some of the highlights that I’ve had in my career. I remember when I was in Vancouver running the kitchens at Bishops. We cooked for Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton for the 93 Summit. That was a dinner I won’t forget too quickly, cooking for those two state leaders. Also being recognized when I was at Mission Hill Winery in the Okanagan by Travel Leisure Magazine of being one of the top five winery restaurants in the world.
For me, one of the greatest accomplishments are the teams, the people. I’ve been very fortunate to manage some amazing kitchens and some amazing teams. And for me it’s always the people, because you think about the hours, you think about how much time it takes for chefs to commit to the craft and to the trade you’re surrounded and this is something I always used to tell my team, that the reality is we’re going to spend more time with each other than our loved ones and our family. It’s the amazingly rich, strong, diverse people that I’ve been able to spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen with over the years.
EFA: Yes, and those are quite the achievements you’ve listed off and I really like the aspect of a team because it’s so true that a good team is what you need. Now, an interesting fact about you is that you are from South Africa originally, so what was the decision that made you move to Canada?
MA: Born in Johannesburg in the late 1960s, we left South Africa in 1978, and my mother was English and she was very liberal in her belief system. At the time apartheid was the state of affairs in South Africa and the reality is my mother didn’t want us being raised in that environment and we had an opportunity to leave and we left South Africa in 1978 and went to Hong Kong for a couple of years before immigrating to Canada. And for me, those are very influential years, especially our time in Hong Kong. I think about where did my food values and my food beliefs start and firmly believe that they were forged in that environment. I mean, you look at the culture, the eating and dining culture and food culture of Hong Kong it is legendary. How they respect ingredients and respect food, and it has such a food is such a great value to the culture. And then when we moved to Canada and I finished my education, it was easy to make my decision of what I want to do with my life.
EFA: What made you decide to become a chef and want to teach?
MA: Well, it was a bit of a history lesson here in the early 1980s, terrible recession. Like the rest of the world was gripped in it. I needed something that was going to be recession proof. That was something that my folks really kind of instilled on me. The reality is eating is the universal constant. This is something that people need to do several times a day and I knew that feeding people would be one of these recession proof industries. Being raised on three continents I kind of had a bit of a travel bug. I love the adventure that came with it. And food was one of these things where it was always an effortless endeavor for me. It always came to me naturally. You never have two days that are identical, and I love that. For me, we kind of say that the kitchen industry finds you, you don’t find it. I truly feel I was one of these people which this industry found me, and I haven’t looked back since then.
EFA: I love how you said no day is the same. I’m sure in the kitchen it’s like that. With your program at SAIT, how many students or the average number are enrolled?
MA: We have our culinary program, which is cooking Culinary Arts, and then we have our BPA program that is our baking and pastry arts. Then we also have our professional butcher and charcuterie program as well. We probably have close to 400 in the culinary program between both years. Then we also have close to 120 or 150 in the pastry program and close to 50 in the butchery program as well.
EFA: For sure. And then a big change happened when the pandemic took place here. Did you notice a big difference in your program during that time?
MA: 100%. Like everyone, we had to pivot, and we had to adapt and we had to change and we tried online, but the reality is that wasn’t a very successful program for us because the strength of our program is that we are a hands-on applied learning program. Students have to be in the environment, they have to touch food, they have to taste, that they have to see, it’s fully immersive and you just can’t get that in a virtual world. The great news is that we are back to our regular programming. We believe in teaching through doing, and that is really a strength to our program and a strength to all our outlets. The reality is that they obviously learn the theory of everything but we’re all about doing things, we’re all about that applied education. I think that’s part of the reason why our graduates have a 96% employment rate because when they do leave us, they understand the theory, but they’ve got all this experience their belts. And in between first and second year, they have to do a paid internship as well, so they have to go out into industry.
EFA: Looking at consumer preferences and the eating habits and how it’s evolved over the many years and with consumer trends taking a shift are there any trends that you’ve seen pop up?
MA: Yes, and the thing with our industry is it is in constant evolution as far as trends and fashions. I think about all the decades I’ve been in this game and all the different trends and all the different fashions that have come and gone, we’re very subject to that. I think one of the biggest influences that’s affecting our program and industry in general it’s the cost of food and the cost of ingredients. This type of inflation that we’ve been going through recently, is a solid learning opportunity with our learners about what food costs and how to utilize the most out of your ingredients at the end of the day. Food waste and utilization of ingredients and getting the most out of your ingredients so you can create the best value. The reality is there isn’t a kitchen out there nowadays where they’re not paying attention to their cost of ingredients and rising ingredients. How do you create value for your clients at the end of the day? Sure, it’s easy to say, we just increase prices across the board, but you have to be more creative than that at the end of the day because the market can only bear so much.
EFA: Plant-based diets are seen an uptick in popularity. Are you including more recipes that are tailored to this type in your classes?
MA: Yes, I think you’d have to be living under a rock nowadays if you didn’t realize that this is a big section or segment of our industry. People for many reasons are embracing plant-based diets. You know, there’s financial challenges, there’s environmental challenges and health challenges. So, people are kind of going towards plant-based diets, more so than I’ve ever seen in my nearly 40 years in the kitchen.
EFA: For sure. Here’s a fun question for you. What are some of your favorite ingredients that you like to cook with?
MA: Eggs, obviously! I mean I’ve always been on Team Egg for a long time and just personally we have two sons and they’re older now. They’re out of high school but I remember the teenage years. Trying to feed two teenage boys is an endeavor unto itself. It really is. And a lot of the time we would fall back on eggs. I mean, you got after school activities. You’ve got 15 minutes for dinner. I think one of our favorite dinners was breakfast for dinner is always a hit. Even doing simple French omelets, we got a little bit of cheese, a little bit of mushrooms, whatever, you know, we can put together a couple of omelets very quickly. Makes a great dinner, then get them off to their activities. It always worked out really well but I think about some of my favorite ingredients or favorite techniques or methods to do with eggs and French omelet, which I mentioned, which is a very technical thing to get right to, to cook that just, you know, perfectly. Souffles, huge fan of souffles cheese souffle. Part of our Christmas tradition, we always do a chestnut souffle, which is awesome.
And this is from Burgundy in France, it’s a dish called Oeuf en Meurette, and basically what it is, is eggs poached in red wine. Burgundy is famous for its red wine, which is pinot noir grape. And this one of the arts or one of the secrets or tricks to poaching a good egg is that the poaching medium needs to be acidic. So your water, if you put a little bit of white vinegar in it and acidifies the water, it actually makes a better poached egg. It keeps the egg all together. Coagulates and congeals and comes together in a nice little ball and, and young, fresh burgundy can be quite acidic and it’s actually perfect medium for poaching eggs in. And so picture. Eggs poached in red wine with a little bit of red wine vinegar, and then it is served on toast or bread that is being fried in little bit of butter and rubbed with a clove of garlic. It’s probably one of the most decadent egg dishes and one of my favorites to make. If you’ve never had eggs poached in red wine, it is unbelievable. It is a classic and if you go to Burgundy, it’s everywhere. It’s on every menu out there.
EFA: I have never heard of that and even thought of that. I guess I’ll have to give that a try. And what about any unique ingredients?
MA: I think about all the different types of eggs that I have cooked. I have cooked quail eggs, I’ve cooked duck eggs, I have cooked goose eggs, lots of chicken eggs, of course, we’ve got friends out in Springbank that have quite a flock of heirloom breeds. The most unique is I got to cook an ostrich egg once. Now, if you’ve never seen an ostrich egg, they are massive. They’re about the size of a volleyball and I believe one ostrich egg is an equivalent of 30 hens eggs and just opening it is a feat unto itself. We made probably the largest frittata that it’s ever done because you’ve got an egg which is the volume of 30 hens, how do you fry that?
I love frittatas as well. It’s one of the simplest ways to use eggs and it’s a great fridge cleaner as well. It works really amazing in that regard. The ostrich egg by far is one of the most unique ingredients I’ve ever had the privilege to use.
EFA: A very unique ingredient indeed. So talking about ingredients and maybe about cooking methods now is there one of those that you find is the hardest to learn?
MA: The thing I notice especially with our learners is how to poach an egg, that always seems to be a struggle, and there’s definitely some tricks to that. Having the egg at room temperature helps a lot versus taking them right out of the fridge. I always encourage people if you’re going to cook them, take them out of the fridge to warm up. Make sure you’ve got some acidity in the water and don’t use too much water. I think a lot of people use a full pot, but you only need a couple of inches of water and then regular white vinegar. It should be quite acidic; you should be able to taste the vinegar. If you taste the water and you can’t taste the vinegar, you don’t have enough. You need the acidity to keep that egg nice and tight and then it’s all about temperature. As cooks, we manipulate heat. That is one of the single biggest skills that a cook can do is to manipulate heat. When you poach an egg, it has to be a very low temperature. You want the water barely simmering. There should be barely any movement. What I like to do is stir the water around a little bit, so it’s got a little bit of a vortex going in it, and then crack the eggs into like a little bowl. Poach it to your desired doneness, and you’ll end up with one of the best eggs. I know there’s a lot of things you got to get right and one of my favorite expressions in cooking is cooking isn’t very difficult. It’s about getting a lot of little things right.
EFA: Eggs are a staple food item that’s used in hundreds of restaurants and very versatile too. How are eggs used in your program and offhand, do you have a number of how many you would go through in a week?
MA: Absolutely. A lot of our programs, our culinary and our baking pastry program are rooted in classical French technique, so the reality is we could not run our program without eggs. I talked to our purchasing team and on average our school goes through about 220 dozen eggs a week. Now that’s between our baking and our culinary programs. The reality is our pastry team relies on eggs for so many things. They are a stabilizer in cakes, they’re a leavening agent, and they are essential in doing custards. They’re so versatile and then in the culinary program, the reality is one of the components we have is breakfast cookery and I mean, how can you do breakfast cookery without eggs?
Currently I’m teaching cold foods and the number of eggs that we use in cold foods alone, you think about hors d’ oeuvre like a deviled egg or how we use them as garnishing. Eggs stabilize all of those. And I was reminded the importance of eggs and baking, and I’ve been obsessing about doing coconut cakes lately. I’ve been trying all these different variations of coconut cake. I got distracted on one of my last recent ones, and I forgot to put the eggs in the cake, it wasn’t until I was getting ready to put it in the oven and I was like let’s just see how this goes. I was shocked at the difference. The cake totally sunk, it lacked structure, and it was concave. It literally looked like a bowl and it was still delicious. Then I did the identical recipe with those three missing eggs and it was remarkable difference. It really showed me the power of eggs; how it gives the cake structure and strengthen support.
EFA: Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who’s forgotten to throw in an egg into a recipe before. And yeah, the outcomes are not as you’d hope or expect with your expertise and for the casual cooks out there do you have another egg hack that you regularly use?
MA: I think everyone needs how to learn needs to learn how to crack an egg using one hand. And if you can use both your hands and two eggs at the same time, it’s one of the quickest, easiest ways of opening an egg. For me, some of my favorite hacks, and I mentioned one of them earlier about cooking eggs when they’re at room temperature. If you’re frying an egg and it’s at room temperature versus out of your fridge right away, you will get a more consistent, nicer cook. If you look at a lot of baking and pastry recipes, they recommend that the eggs are at room temperature, and you do get better results for that at the end of the day. For hard boiled eggs I’ve always had lots of people and students come to me with the challenge of how do you peel an egg so that the shell comes off really well. I find if you steam eggs, boiling them and then shock them in ice water right away. When we use the term, shock, it basically means to put something that’s hot into an ice water bath of solution. This stops the cooking process right away. I find if you steam an egg for the perfect hard boiled egg steam them for 15 minutes and then shock them, the shell comes off effortlessly and you get these magic moments when you can peel an egg and it comes off in one solid piece. If I’ve got a lot of eggs that I need to crack, if I’m doing like a lot of scrambled eggs or omelets or when I need a lot of beaten egg together. I like to use a conical sieve or just the regular sieve and crack the eggs into the sieve. Then just using a whisk, wooden spoon or a spatula, to pass the eggs through there and you end up with this perfectly smooth shell free egg solution which is awesome.
EFA: Real good tips you just had there and for sure the one that I still have to master and get better at is kraken an egg, because I always do the side of the bowl and I got to try it with the one hand.
MA: When you master that technique, it is amazing. I think the trick to that is you can’t hesitate. You hold the egg in your hand and some people like to use the side of a bowl. Some people like to use a flat surface. I’m good either way, it’s whatever you’re comfortable with and it’s important that you don’t hesitate. You want to crack the egg really well so you get a nice clean break. Hinge it and open it and let the egg drop out and move on to the next one.
EFA: Lastly, in your view, what is the value that eggs bring to food, either as a standalone or combined in a recipe?
MA: I’ve got such respect for eggs because they are one of the most nutritionally sound things you can eat. Especially if you’re have a family, especially if you’re on a budget, and especially if you love super delicious things. You can’t beat the value of eggs and they have so many micronutrients to them. Such a great and delicious source of protein as well. They are super fast and very versatile. I think about how many things in the culinary world are dependent on them. I mean, you couldn’t make any cakes, you couldn’t make custards meringues, the list just goes on and on how they’re like the unsung hero, the foundation of so many of these dishes.
EFA: They really are a great friend in the kitchen. If you want to learn more about Chef Michael Allemeier, you can check out SAIT’s website or find him on his Instagram handle at ChefAllemeier Michael Allemeier CMC (@chefallemeier) • Instagram photos and videos.
To learn more about SAIT’s culinary program, visit Program: Culinary Arts – Southern Alberta Institute of Technology – Acalog ACMS™ (sait.ca).