TORONTO — Known for fostering ties between farmers and chefs, Jamie Kennedy is revered in the industry as the godfather of Canadian cuisine. The iconic chef joined Foodservice and Hospitality editor and publisher Rosanna Caira at the KML Icons & Innovators breakfast event, held last week at the Chelsea Hotel in Toronto, to talk about his meteoric rise to culinary fame — and the challenges he faced along the way.
“My mom was a terrible cook,” he said. “But I had to say, once in a while she would bust out the Singhalese recipes and the smells would draw me into the kitchen.”
With the support of his parents, he began his career in the kitchen of the Bay Street Car, a subsidiary of the Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto. “I think my starting wage was $1.78 an hour,” he said of the three-year apprenticeship program.
A pivotal point in Kennedy’s career came when he met Michael Stadtländer while working in Europe. “I think I found in Michael what I was looking for in myself,” he said of his relationship with the German chef who would become his close friend. When Kennedy was asked to interview for the chef’s position at Scaramouche in Toronto, he encouraged Stadtländer to return to Canada with him. “Michael, almost from the moment we met, was curious about Canada and he had this romantic notion of getting out in the field and making a fire and it occurred to me that Michael should come to Canada. [Scaramouche] hired both of us — we were hired for our passion. It was a difficult decision to move from the young, bohemian vibe [in Europe] and come to Canada. But it set my career [in motion].”
After leaving Scaramouche, Kennedy opened Palmerston Restaurant in 1985, which focused on local ingredients and cuisine. This was the beginning of an era of success for the chef, which included opening a number of restaurants, as well as founding Knives and Forks — an initiative aimed at connecting chefs with growers to promote local cuisine. But, there were also dark times, Kennedy admitted candidly, recalling financial troubles that forced him to close Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar and rethink his career path.
Not one to dwell on past mistakes, Kennedy now spends his time at his 115-acre farm in Prince Edward Country, Ont., tending his vineyards and hosting the Summer Dinner Series at J.K. Farm for culinary enthusiasts. “What I bring to the table is the years of supporting local farms and wineries and to speak to the local food movement and allowing people to discover for themselves the amazing abundance of food that we have here. It was a nice place to land.”
A pioneer of Canadian cuisine, Kennedy defines it as “a cuisine of the regions of Canada. [Because of] the vastness of the country — and we are country that represents the world and our indigenous people — to define [Canadian cuisine] is like trying to tie down a beast. For me, it’s about celebrating taste of place, from coast to coast. Getting away from the homogenization of food culture.”
He’s also practicing what he preaches. “Right now, I’ve got two acres [of the farm dedicated] to vines and am thinking about how to steward this land under may watch,” he said. “I’ve decided [to take the] 70 acres of arable land and return it to food production. The route I’m going is grain — organic rye and spelt.
This is what we need to do now to reactivate local areas, to bring those communities back.”
So what inspires such an accomplished chef to continue innovating? “The farm will inform my next moves,” he said. “There will always be events involving food, but at this point in my career, not having a restaurant has afforded me more time to travel — to undertake projects that are meaningful to me,” including, he revealed, a ship voyage aboard the Canada C3 retracing the Northwest Passage in celebration of the 150th birthday of Canada.
“I will never retire,” he admitted. “That interaction with people is what made me want to create the farm experience. That gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
For a full transcript of the interview with chef Jamie Kennedy, check out the November issue of Foodservice and Hospitality magazine