After years of striving for excellence, Jonathan Gushue has tapped into a winning formula
Chef of The Year
It’s late afternoon on a crisp, fall November day. Inside the cavernous Metro Toronto Convention Centre, a collection of top chefs from Southern Ontario is set to take part in Gold Medal Plates, an annual culinary fundraiser that pits creative cooks against one another in the hopes of being declared the province’s best chef.
Jonathan Gushue has travelled from Cambridge to Toronto, battling traffic on the QEW and leaving his kitchen in the hands of his culinary brigade, so he has enough time to prep his ingredients and psych himself up for the night ahead. The affable Gushue is no stranger to pressure. As executive chef of Langdon Hall, the 39-yearold graduate of Georgian College in Barrie, Ont., directs the foodservice operations of the stately 52-room hotel situated on 200 acres of expansive gardens and trails in southwestern Ontario. Most days you’ll find him in the kitchen early, conferring with his team and poring over the myriad details involved in the preparation and execution of hundreds of meals a day.
For now, however, he’s managed to leave the hurly burly world of hotel dining behind, though never far from his mind, so he can test his mettle against some of the province’s most creative and respected chefs, including Jamie Kennedy, Ted Corrado and, ironically, Frank Dodd, one of his mentors and the man Gushue replaced at Langdon. What will take place over the next several hours of intense competition will determine who will represent Ontario at the Canadian finals of the competition in Kelowna, B.C. next February.
Ultimately, though it’s Dodd who wins the competition, for Gushue it caps an exciting and eventful year. In fact, the Newfoundland native has been smiling a great deal this past year — and justifiably so. After toiling behind the stoves for the past 13 years, the last five at the inn, Gushue is coming off his best year ever. Late in 2009, Relais et Châteaux, the international association of inns, of which Langdon Hall is a member, proclaimed Gushue a Grand Chef, a designation it has conferred on only four other chefs in Canada and 14 around the world. And, earlier this year, San Pellegrino’s World’s 100 Best Restaurants list declared Langdon Hall one of the Top 100 restaurants in the world, with a 77th-place ranking. In between, the hotel has received, for the fifth year in a row, CAA/AAA’s highest ranking, the Five Diamond Award.
Anyone who has ever worked with Gushue, or had the pleasure to indulge in his cuisine, will tell you the accolades are well-deserved. The father of three (two boys, aged 10 and seven and a girl, aged four), who has been married for 11 years to Karen Collingwood, a fellow Newfoundlander, is one of Canada’s finest chefs, winning high praise for his creative and local fare, his business acumen and his passionate commitment to staff development.
Scan his varied and impressive résumé, which includes time in England and Japan as well as three years at Four Seasons where he presided over Truffles, and you’ll notice accolades follow him. While the acclaim is gratifying, and testament to Gushue’s enormous talent and creativity, the down-to-earth cook with the chiseled good looks of a GQ model, says cooking is all about putting in an honest day’s work with the goal that “the guest has the best meal and the best experience. That’s what everyone is after,” stresses Gushue.
And, that’s what Langdon Hall guests are getting. With a contingent of 32 cooks, Gushue and his talented team are satiating the varied requirements of the 100-seat Dining Room and Wilks’ Bar, a casual 18-seat eatery, not to mention the countless meals prepared for the inn’s thriving wedding and conference business.
“Langdon Hall has a sense of place,” explains Gushue. “It has its own personality.” Clearly, food plays an integral role in the rich history of the inn. Though worlds away from St. John’s, N.L., where Gushue was born, he’s in his element serving French cuisine with a crisp, modern twist. “We don’t want to just feed people, we want to produce quality food people enjoy without feeling heavy and weighed down,” he says.
These days, he’s focused on ingredients and combinations. “We try not to focus so much on the classics. We want to offer guests something different — a great flavour combination that’s not typical,” he explains pointing to dishes such as lobster with pickles and wild raspberries from the garden ($45); seared pig’s jowl, autumn olive berries ($24) and bison striploin, confit tongue, tail rillette and fried chicken mushrooms ($45). “Nothing is overpowering, but it all comes together.”
Gushue is a big fan of local products. The inn has its own forager as well as its own expansive vegetable and herb garden. “We’re always going to use truffles, and I love using olive oil from France,” says Gushue, “but our location makes us ideal for veal, rabbit and lamb from Caledon. We’re surrounded by a wealth of farmers, and we do a lot of charcuterie.”
“His support and promotion of local farmers, suppliers and artisans has encouraged a new kind of tourism to the region,” says Jill McGoey, general manager of the inn. Gushue has even imported James McGuire, a renowned baker from Montreal, to help develop the inn’s original line of bread recipes. And, the kitchen makes its own butter and peameal bacon.
But, as creative as he is, Gushue also appeals to customer’s tastes and the restaurant’s bottom line. Today’s diners are demanding and expect excellence at every turn, he says. That means Gushue continually tinkers with the menu, editing it to meet today’s tastes and price constraints. “We now focus on a market-driven menu,” he says. “We don’t have any signature dishes, and we don’t have anything that never comes off the menu.
“What’s really thriving,” says Gushue, “is the hotel’s casual dining. People want food that’s less complicated and more casual.” To tap into the trend, the inn’s pub was recently reinvented to highlight accessible food. “Our terrace and veranda and bar and lounge has really picked up. And, we’re changing the format again to keep it fresh. people want to go out more often, and they want to enjoy themselves. So instead of seeing $600 dinners, we now see people eating out more often and having informal and inexpensive meals.”
Last year, the inventive chef also introduced a hugely popular barbecue series. “We brought in Toronto chefs such as Michael Bonacini and Jamie Kennedy. People are already asking what we’re doing next ear,” he says, adding he’s looking to showcase young rising stars next summer. It’s no wonder Langdon Hall is coming off a solid year. “The volume has exploded,” boasts Gushue. “We average 75 people a night in the Dining Room, but two weeks ago we had our busiest week in the history of functions with 117 booked for dinner on a Wednesday night. We
used to have peak periods; now we’re always busy.” But, whether it’s casual fare or refined elegance, it’s all about pleasing the customer. “No one is really after an award,” says the humble chef. “The main goal is to put [your] best foot forward.”
He’s quick to point out how blessed he is to have great chefs who are passionate about learning. Members from his team even report to work on their days off to cross-train with the pastry department or watch the butchering of whole animals. “We have great buy-in here,” Gushue says. “I have a group with a thirst for knowledge. They all have a trust and wealth of knowledge. There are no big heads here; they just want to get the job done.”
Of course, talk to any member of the team, and they’ll tell you it’s the opportunity to work with Gushue they most relish. “Jonathan has an obsessive eye for detail. He never rests at ‘good enough,’” says Rob Howland, the former pastry chef at Langdon. “It has to be the best it can possibly be before it goes out. There’s no mediocre in his world.”
For Gushue, it’s all in a day’s work. “The best thing you can give your staff is integrity and hard work. You need to be devoted to the cause, providing a fair work environment. Above all, you have to constantly give them a platform to learn and grow, and as long as you’re teaching them something, they’ll be happy and stay.”
Like many chefs, Gushue works long hours, but he manages to find time to give back to the community. This past March, he chaired the Slow Food Terroir symposium held in Toronto. He’s also a big supporter of charities, including the David Suzuki Foundation, Connestoga College’s Hospitality program and the Mayor’s Festival of Arts.
After such a prolific year, one wonders what’s next on the horizon. In the short term, Gushue has collaborated on a North American Relais et Châteaux cookbook with culinary heavyweights such asDaniel Boulud. But, beyond that, he’s passionate and focused about developing Canadian cuisine. He hopes there’ll come a day when aCanadian eatery can receive the kind of international acclaim bestowed on Denmark’s Noma restaurant, recently voted number 1 restaurant in the world. “If Denmark can do it, then Canada can, too,” says Gushue, with a discernible Newfoundland lilt in his voice. “We have to have young people come up and know there is a fit.” Ultimately, he says, “It’s about being proud of where you come from.”
photography by margaret mulligan