Chef's Choice: Bala Kumanan 

click to enlarge FINE FOOD FELLOW Hy Aisenstat launched the Hy's Steakhouse chain of restaurants in the 1950s and executive chef Bala Kumanan is carrying his legacy by preparing fine food at five restaurants across Canada.
  • FINE FOOD FELLOW Hy Aisenstat launched the Hy's Steakhouse chain of restaurants in the 1950s and executive chef Bala Kumanan is carrying his legacy by preparing fine food at five restaurants across Canada.

Step through the front door of any restaurant in the Hy's chain and one is immediately struck by the quality of the setting.

That feeling is further confirmed when dinner or lunch is served. Bala Kumanan, a French-trained chef, oversees the quality of the food at each of the five outlets — soon to become six — as the executive chef of the high-end restaurants that span from Vancouver to Ottawa. Between those two points there are restaurants in Winnipeg and Toronto with Calgary set to return to the fold within the next few months.

According to Kumanan, a Calgary restaurant is in development — in a way the chain has come full circle as Calgary is where it all started. The creator of Hy's, a fellow with a big smile named Hy Aisenstat, grew up in Calgary. When his father died, he pulled out of his pre-law studies at the University of B.C. to support his family. Aisenstat moved from owning a small oil company to operating an Edmonton restaurant called the Steak Loft.

With support from his friend Peter Bronfman, the Hy's tradition started.The year was 1955. Aisenstat had raised $20,000 to open the first Hy's Steakhouse operation. Barbara Mathewson was Aisenstat's girlfriend at the time. She and chef Fritz Dobernick worked with Aisenstat to increase its popularity, with the restaurant intended to be a sideline business. Aisenstat and Mathewson eventually married and he worked as a stockbroker while together they ran Hy's Steakhouse.

Success came over time, and according to Barbara Hy's Steakhouse customers came for more than just the food.

"People just loved to see him," she said of her husband's popularity at the time.

According to Kumanan, the Canadian high-end beef served at Hy's comes from a supplier in Calgary that has been providing beef to the restaurant from the early days of the business.

"Hy's has been meeting people's expectations for 50 years with old-fashioned table sizes," says Kumanan.

From these humble beginnings, Aisenstat opened a Hy's Steakhouse in Winnipeg in 1958. In 1960 the Aisenstats, now with a family, moved to Vancouver and opened a west coast restaurant. Between the 1960s and 1980s a number of restaurants were launched across North America in cities like Victoria, Lethbridge, Regina, Saskatoon, Chicago and Beverly Hills.

Aisenstat passed away in 1988 and his wife followed 20 years later. The Hy's restaurant chain went through a period where it was publicly owned with stocks traded on the stock exchanges in Toronto and Vancouver. Hy's is now owned and operated by Hy and Barbara's three sons.

While the sons steer the business, Kumanan prepares the steaks and seafood initially made popular six decades ago.

The executive chef isn't one of those chefs who operates the kitchens in his restaurant group from behind a desk at head office. He was at the Whistler restaurant, which was just named Whistler's best restaurant for steak in Pique's annual Best of Whistler survey, the weekend before Christmas.

He says these days the restaurant's home made French fries are very popular along with their baked russet potatoes. Kumanan says Caesar salad and spinach salad are also popular with the various cuts of beef served at Hy's and those who prefer seafood to steak have a few items to choose from.

"We have lobster tail, prawns, scallops, king crab legs and Dungeness crab cakes," says Kumanan.

Whether dining in Whistler, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto or Ottawa, Kumanan says the menus are basically the same across the group of restaurants billed as steakhouse and cocktail bars.

Consistency is one of the things Hy's does best. The Vancouver outlet, known as Hy's Encore, has maintained much of the original décour it featured when it opened in 1960 even though the space has been updated.

The kitchens across Canada run by Kumanan are the product of hard work by a young entrepreneur from a Russian family that moved to Canada with very little. The Aisenstat family has come a long way from the 1900's in Russia. David Aisenstat, the oldest son of Hy and Barbara, is now the president and CEO of the Keg Restaurants while his two brothers, Neil and John, operate the Hy's chain.

Red Wine Sauce

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons shallots, minced
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
  • 1 cup beef broth, home-made or packaged (not canned)

Preparation

In a small saucepan, melt one tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add the minced shallot, and sauté for two minutes until lightly caramelized. Stir in the wine, the bay leaf and coarsely ground pepper, and bring to a low boil. Let the wine boil down until it is reduced to 1/2 cup, about 10 minutes.

Stir in the beef broth, and bring to a low boil, reducing in half again, another 10 minutes. The sauce will be shiny and deep rich brown. Take the saucepan off the heat, and remove the bay leaf and discard.

Whisk in three tablespoons butter, a tablespoon at a time.

Just before serving, whisk in any cooking juices from the meat.

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