Diced potatoes browning in an electric pan is among the early memories Morgan Wilson has of cooking. At seven or eight years old, it was his first time – making the Christmas morning potatoes with a little salt, pepper and paprika – cooking with a sense of pride he still feels decades later feeding both his kin, and those far from home, over the holidays.
“The ground was laid at an early age,” he says. A second generation chef, Wilson was introduced to the commercial kitchen in 1987 through an after school job and crafted his way through kitchens with Delta, Marriott and Four Seasons hotels in Germany, Australia and Canada.
Tradition is important to the executive chef at the Fairmont Empress Hotel, it’s part of the lure that drew him back to B.C. three months ago.
“Kitchens have strong traditions within them,” he says. Like a secret handshake most customs are held beyond the doors to the dining room, but camaraderie is visible.
“We refer to the team as a brigade. There’s a very strong bond and that’s definitely true here,” says Wilson who leads a team of 80 culinary professionals at the iconic hotel. “Everybody has a lot of pride in what we do.”
Wilson settled into the historic Inner Harbour hotel just over three months ago, drawn as much to the landmark building by tradition as a return to the West Coast.
“After eight years in Ontario, when the opportunity came to come to the Island, I was looking forward to the lifestyle.
“And – it’s the Empress.”
The family is back in time for its favourite holiday, Christmas, when tradition rules the roost, as does turkey.
“The Christmas turkey is always the big one,” he insists. “I always brine my turkey. We (at the hotel) make thousands of litres of brine.”
For the non-traditionalist, Wilson suggests pulling tried-and-true thyme and sage from the equation and trying a brine flavoured with maple syrup, orange and cloves.
“That starts giving you a whole different flavour profile,” he says.
He’s a “slow and low” turkey cooker. Getting Tommy in the oven at 165 degrees before the traditional Christmas brunch.
When guests come calling outside of the big dinner, he’s quick to haul out a cutting board inherited from his father – also a chef. Then things get cheesy as the host kicks into gear.
Wilson fills the large two-by-two-foot board with myriad cheese. He always includes a nice ashy goat cheese, aged cheddar and double or triple cream brie. A variety of flavours and textures fill the spaces between. “You have four or five different cheeses, but you can put out different things as well. I like the interactive nature of it.”
Honey, fruit compote, candied nuts or toasted bread can create the tasty conversation piece.
Cheese board or full-blown meal: “the key to impressing people is doing the basics really well,” Wilson says. “Don’t get out of your comfort zone. Don’t try a new dish for the first time, master it before you trot it out for 10 people.”