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The man behind the CurdsBy Michelle Brunet | Jun 1, 2012
Tags: Bill Pratt, Cheese Curds
For Chef Bill Pratt, gourmet burgers are a way to carry on a family legacy and share his international experience with Halifax.
If you’ve seen the long lines at recently opened Cheese Curds on Pleasant Street in Woodside, you may think burgers and poutine are good, but what’s all the fuss? A look at the menu helps: local beef pounded fresh everyday, gourmet lamb and pork schnitzel burgers, hand-cut fries, onion rings made from scratch and an epicurean’s delight of toppings from tomato bruschetta and pickled onions to lime and dill cucumber sauce.
For Chef Bill Pratt, Cheese Curds is about a love for good burgers that goes back to his boyhood. Pratt was born in Halifax and moved from coast to coast since his father was a military cook. His grandmother’s homestyle restaurant was a touchstone. “All the grandkids would cook burgers from when we were knee high to a grasshopper,” he recalls.
When Pratt was 17, he joined the military after graduating from a cooking program in vocational school. Following in his father’s footsteps, he embarked on a 27-year career as a navy cook. In 1983, he was selected to represent the Canadian navy and help prepare meals for Prince Charles and Princess Diana aboard the royal yacht Britannia. Thirteen years later, a more seasoned Pratt served as private chef for Willem-Alexander, Prince of Orange (crown prince of the Netherlands).
Amidst cooking for royalty and receiving the Order of Military Merit, Pratt says that serving in the military stands out most. “To me it’s important that the little guy feels just as special as the big guy,” he says. “Food is morale onboard the ship. Every day I would serve the junior ranks, and most of them called me by my first name and I was okay with that. They were hungry and tired. They didn’t need my attitude; they needed a friendly voice.”
In addition to working 40 hours a week on naval ships, Pratt would work 40 or more in restaurants and other culinary settings. While in Edmonton, Pratt went back to school to become a Certified Chef de Cuisine. While in Halifax, he began staging at Chef Michael Smith’s now defunct Maple restaurant. “Staging” is a fancy term for volunteering, something chefs are ambitiously willing to do to learn. “Within hours, Bill was on the pass of the restaurant helping run the board,” Smith says. “He figured out the board the first day. That’s amazing, that’s unheard of.”
Since then Smith has called Pratt his logistics chief. “The special events I do all over the place are immensely complicated with very high standards,” he says. “There are a lot of demands on me. I need someone to oversee the kitchen for me and that’s always Bill.”
Their many culinary adventures have included two Olympics: the Sports Illustrated and International Olympic Committee venue at Salt Lake City and more recently the Olympic Village in Whistler for the 2010 Winter Olympics. There, Pratt ran the kitchen of seven chefs and 100 cooks, serving 12,000 meals
Chef Paul Rogalski (owner of Rouge in Calgary) was among the culinary team that worked those 16-hour days. “The 2010 Olympics was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. With strong leadership and support from Bill and Michael, it ended up being an epic achievement for us,” says Rogalski. “Bill is an amazing organizer with boundless energy and unsurpassed leadership skills. He also has a great sense of humour, which makes the hard days so much easier.”
While in Whistler, a special episode of Iron Chef America (the American version of a hit Japanese show in which teams of chefs compete head-to-head to prepare creative dishes in an hour, using a theme ingredient) aired.
Michael Smith took on celebrity Chef Bobby Flay in “Battle Avocado.” Pratt and Rogalski had been a part of Smith’s team in Kitchen Stadium. “In the middle of that one-hour battle, I would look up and see Bill having the time of his life,” shares Smith. “Bill loves hard work—it really energizes him. I always find that so inspiring.”
Many of Pratt’s culinary advent-ures have included fundraising events. In March, he was the team coordinator for 7 Chefs and a Table, a seven-course dinner to raise money for the Bethany Hope Foundation. Among the culinary gurus were Smith, Rogalski and Craig Flinn, Chef at Halifax’s Chives Bistro. “I witnessed Bill put all of his expertise together in terms of making a potentially complicated dinner service flow very, very well,” Flinn says. “He’s always calm and he never loses his temper. He’s the picture of professionalism.”
Flinn often met with Pratt during preparations for the Cheese Curds opening. “We would stand in the middle of his restaurant space and he’d show me his ideas and he would want me to criticize him,” says Flinn. “Usually I couldn’t criticize him because his ideas were so well thought out. He always wants constructive criticism from people that he trusts.”
Both Flinn and Smith were present at the Cheese Curds grand opening to support their friend. Pratt explains that all of his time away from his family has led to opening a place in their hometown. He adds that his wife Nancy has been extremely supportive and having his two teenage sons, Guy and Andre, pounding out burgers by his side has been a true highlight. “I probably could have opened another fancy bistro in the city but at the end of the day, I’m a cook, a father and a husband,” he says.