Icons & Innovators: Chef Jamie Kennedy, the Godfather of Canadian cuisine

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Rosanna Caira: You got your start at the Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto. Tell us about that experience and what led you there.

Jamie Kennedy: I’d just finished high school. My family had been living in the U.S. for six years — my dad had been teaching at Yale University and his contract there was done, so we all moved back to Toronto. I graduated and wasn’t going to university so I started pounding the pavement. I did have this interest in cooking. During high school, for example, I founded a culinary club. It was an eye-opening experience for me into this world of gastronomy and I loved it. So, when we moved to Toronto and I was looking for a job, I gravitated towards kitchens. I walked into the Bay Streetcar, which was a subsidiary of the [Windsor Arms Hotel] — a grab-and-go place on The Path level, below Bloor Street. It was just after lunch service and the woman there said ‘No, there’s nothing here, but go to the hotel.’ I wandered up to the maître d’ stand and said ‘are there any jobs in the kitchen?’ He took me to the chef’s office and chef Herbert Sonzogni was in there, speaking with a couple of his sous chefs. [At the time] there was an apprenticeship program that was tied in to the industry and there was funding that would match, dollar for dollar. I think my starting wage was $1.78 an hour, and so the government matched that. He said, ‘if you’re willing to give three years, I’ll hire you as an apprentice.’ And I said ‘sounds great to me.’

RC: What was the biggest lesson you learned in the hotel environment?

JK: There was this para-militaristic thing, which I got to understand was, historically, Escoffier — our modern, demigod chef that we all look up to. And the whole system in the kitchen is modelled after what he brought in with his experience as being a chef working for officers, and understanding the ranking system. I was yearning for a bit of structure.

RC: You then moved to Scaramouche, where you worked with Michael Stadtländer. What was it about him that made you two work so in sync?

JK: I found in Michael something I was looking for in myself. We actually met in Europe when we were both working as commis chefs de cuisine at the Grand Hotel National in Lucerne. He had just come out of the military and I had just arrived at the hotel, having finished my apprenticeship in Canada and looking for European experience. Michael also felt he was trying to bust out of the established path for young cooks in Germany, because he didn’t see much opportunity. All our conversations were about what was happening in nouvelle cuisine in France and in Europe, at that time. Around that same time, I had an invitation to come back to Toronto and interview for the chef’s position at Scaramouche and it occurred to me that Michael should come to Canada. It took me a while to get him into the country. In the meantime, I was hired, but Morden Yolles, owner of Scaramouche, being the detail-oriented man he is, hired both of us. He felt he could work with us — he was hiring us based on our passion, not on our experience. But bottom line, Morden gave us this incredible opportunity. It was difficult to make the decision to break out of that young, bohemian vibe [in Europe] and come back to Canada to take on this very serious job, which decided the rest of my career.

RC: Do you still collaborate with Michael today?

JK: Being really young and carrying on this partnership of sorts as co-chefs, it’s very difficult to do. Especially for young people, with all of the attention and adulation we were getting — where do you put that? And so almost inevitably, it challenged our relationship. I probably garnered more of the attention, being the hometown boy, and we realized very quickly that we probably should stop working together in order to preserve our friendship. So, I started my own small catering company, called Menus Gastronomiques and Michael went on to open Stadtländer Restaurant. We’re still great friends.

RC: You went on to open your own restaurant, Palmerston, which became a seminal restaurant in Toronto at the time. What was the impetus for you to open it and how did Palmerston come about?

JK: I felt isolated, having gone from Scaramouche into this small catering company. I was able to produce beautiful food in a very controlled environment. Because it was catering, I always knew how many people I was dealing with, how much food I needed to buy — there was plenty of time to plan and execute. But I missed the restaurant; I missed that community of people all moving towards service together. I met Eric Savics, who had come to Scaramouche and was really supportive of what I was doing philosophically with food, and he said he would back me in a restaurant venture — that’s what Palmerston would end up being.

RC: You were instrumental in the notion of Canadian cuisine and local products, which was revolutionary at the time. What prompted you to do this?

JK: I remember taste experiences — corn, tomatoes, blueberries, those kinds of things that, when they’re in season here, are just explosive on the palate. We were all used to purchasing from other places, other than Ontario, for all kinds of reasons, but it was really a taste thing. This started to make me look at what was possible, plus interviews with my great aunts — and I say interviews, because it was really like that. I started to notice their tradition of canning — you know those old Mason jars with the broadband lid. It occured to me that this was a way people dealt with getting through the winter when we didn’t have the luxury of being able to buy from anywhere else in the world. And so I thought, okay, this is a pathway to defining culture for a place, Southern Ontario, and the canning jar became emblematic or iconic of my own brand. That brought along with it this limiting of myself to write menus according to seasons and according to what was possible in Southern Ontario at any given time of year. Those were the parameters for my creativity in the menus. So, I imposed limits on myself, in order to further the culture along and in doing so, teasing out the sources of supply.

RC: Was that difficult to do, given where Canada was back then in terms of the supply system?

JK: In the early days, yes, it was. That’s what prompted Knives and Forks, which was an organization that was [formed] to allow chefs in the city to have access to growers in the rural areas around Toronto who were equally as invested in this passion for developing a dialogue and local provenance of food. This was a breakthrough for us, because these people were operating on the fringe and this allowed them to come into the city. I remember having our first big conference at the O’Keefe Centre and these growers came in, got on their soapbox and said what they wanted to say. That led to the formation of the Knives and Forks farmers market, which was an industry-only market at the beginning. The idea was that chefs would convene at the market and buy produce from these local suppliers, and also have a chance to socialize. The socializing part never really came to be, nor did the adherence to it being a professional market — there wasn’t enough traffic — so it became a public market. But it was a viable market; it really worked. One of the events that came out of that was Feast of Fields, which was aimed at the public and designed to bring people out of the city to experience the rural environment. But it was also about bringing the chefs from the city into the rural environment to collaborate with the farmers. The chefs were partnered with a farmer and the two would stand at booths and serve food. By the time you’d gone through the whole thing, you’d experienced a full menu of food that was sourced locally.

RC: With all the focus on local and Canadian cuisine today, do you think local food is sustainable?

JK: Yes, I do. I’ve seen great inroads and a lot of us had started off [pushing back] against the established modes of receiving food. It’s about changing the demand, so if Sysco, or any company like that, would respond to whatever chefs really want, it’s a very simple answer. But the most work that’s been done, in the last 20-odd years I’ve been paying attention, has been largely through education. Changing people’s mindset about the value of food, supporting local economies, getting over the barrier that, yes, it’s more expensive. It’s more expensive because we have a wonderful social contract in this country that demands we pay people fairly for their work. Which leads us to the philosophy behind slow food, for example, which is about good, clean and fair — ‘fair’ meaning all the things we almost take for granted living in Canada.

RC: Are we where we want to be with Canadian cuisine?

JK: The age-old question is what is Canadian cuisine? This is something I’ve been asked forever and now I respond by saying Canadian cuisine is a cuisine of the regions of Canada, like the vastness of the country, geographically, coast to coast to coast. We’re a country that represents the world now, in addition to our Indigenous peoples who have a food culture to offer to the mix as well. So, to define it is like trying to tie down this beast. For me, it’s about celebrating taste of place. That’s how I would describe Canadian cuisine — practice it coast to coast; get away from the homogenization of food culture.

RC: You had a great run with Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar and it was a really popular destination. Unfortunately, the restaurant had financial issues. Can you speak to that?

JK: The Wine Bar — that whole era for me — was a cautionary tale for an entrepreneur. Because of the critical success of the Wine Bar, I felt I could do anything, and you start to believe in your own hype a little bit. That’s a very dangerous thing and it caused us, at that time, to expand beyond our capacity.

I made a decision to build a commissary kitchen, Gilead, because we were starting a catering business in addition to the Wine Bar and were going back into the Gardiner Museum as an exclusive caterer. It was in an exciting, new building that was getting accolades for its architectural design. We were being billed as the exclusive caterer there and this gave us the confidence to invest in Gilead. However, what we didn’t plan for was the additional cost to the company to run a commissary kitchen — let alone pay for the expansion or the build-out of that space — and we didn’t build enough capacity into that space once it was going.

Plainly said, we didn’t create enough business for ourselves. Because we were so exposed with the number of staff we had hired and additional costs every way conceivable, we got into trouble very quickly.

In addition to that, our ability to broker the interest we had in catered events at the Gardiner was not good. We didn’t staff our front office enough to take the calls; we were missing meetings and we got a reputation very quickly. It hurt us badly, enough so that, in the end, I had to sell the Wine Bar, which was the jewel in the crown of the company, in order to address debt.

It was a very tough time of my career. But I insisted that we not declare bankruptcy — that was a route we could have gone but I felt an allegiance to all of the suppliers around me that I owed money to, that I wasn’t going to let them down. That became our MO for the next 10 years. And, quite honestly, there still remains some of that difficult financial legacy. But I’ve learned so much about business.

RC: What was the biggest lesson you learned?

JK: I was naively successful for the first 30 years of my career. I did very well, but it was always about having these ideas and the ideas being good and people wanting to support them, but we just kind of made it through the business part without paying attention all that much. And so, when this happened, all of a sudden I had to really start paying attention as the owner and operator of this company. So now I’m a much better business person as a result.

RC: Staffing is always one of the most difficult issues in this industry. How were you able to be so successful when so many other restaurants have a hard time hiring and retaining people?

JK: A lot of that was creating upward mobility within the company as much as possible, starting with apprentices. Developing an apprenticeship program — because that was my model — and I believed in the model. I hired apprentices for a three-year program and they moved between departments. I required them to write their CFQ at the end for their Red Seal because we need to establish some importance in the educational component; the importance of it, in hiring later in their career. A chef sees Red Seal, it means something. And then, I’d kick them out. I didn’t allow them to stay after three years. After they’d written their CFQ, then out they’d go. They needed to go and work for other chefs, become journeymen [and follow] that path.

It’s also about establishing a culture of respect in the kitchen and being very actively involved myself, checking in on that all the time and not letting things get out of hand.

RC: In 2015, you closed the restaurant, moved to Prince Edward County and immersed yourself in the farm. What prompted that decision?

JK: It was a difficult decision to close Gilead. To tell my staff — long-time employees of mine — I’m closing this place and have no offer of employment after that date, was a very difficult point to reach. There was a lot of emotion attached to it, but it was clearly the right decision. When I look back on it now, it was not working. I was still servicing debt and, at that time, the catering contract at the Gardiner had ended and so Gilead itself was put into this position of having to shoulder the cost of doing business.

RC: But it pushed you into doing your Summer Dinner Series at J.K. Farm. Tell us about this series.

JK: It was a nice place to land after this emotional departure from Toronto. I also have to mention the relationship I had with Windows by Jamie Kennedy in Niagara Falls — that was another wonderful project to keep me in the restaurant world. [At the farm dinners] we create these emblematic, rural experiences with open fires and I bring people up into the vineyard at the beginning of the event to decompress from being in the city, from the drive from the city, because most people who are coming are either from Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal.

There are 60 people at each dinner. What I bring to the table, as it were, is all those years of experience creating and preparing food, but in a much more focused sense, using ingredients that are actually grown on the farm. It’s an opportunity to speak to the local-food movement in a gentle way. It’s not preachy; it’s just allowing people to discover for themselves the amazing abundance of beautiful food we’ve got available to us, right here.

RC: What made you want to write cookbooks?

JK: Each of [the three cookbooks] are a snapshot of what’s going on; what I’m thinking, So, in a way, they become a journal or a souvenir. The last one deals with more stories around food, the culture of food and photographs. Jo Dickins, who provided all the photographs for it, essentially documented, through photographs, my work of the last 10 years while I was at Gilead.

RC: How do you want to grow your business today?

JK: The farm will inform my next moves — I’m going to start growing food. There will always be events on the farm, because it’s a beautiful place to come to. But at this point in my career, not having a restaurant that is my daily ‘I go to work at,’ has afforded me more opportunity to travel and get involved in other projects that are meaningful to me and are only possible because I’m more mobile. For example, I’m about to embark on a cultural and scientific expedition that has been going on since June 1, called Canada C3 — a 150-day expedition from Toronto to Victoria via the Northwest Passage.

RC: You have four children, a girl and three boys. All three of the boys have followed in your footsteps to some degree. Can you tell me a little bit about what they’re doing?

JK: The boys worked with me this summer, waiting tables at the Summer Series. They poured wine, usually, and they also work the market in Wellington, Ont., selling fries on Saturdays. So, a word on the fries — [J.K. Fries] have always been this bridge into the larger customer base.

Operating within the fine-dining milieu over most of my career, I’ve always yearned to reach a broader audience. This kind of food, which is emblematic of our culture… everybody likes fries, so to me, the challenge was just to differentiate from the norm and bring it up into a point where you can start to identify the ingredients that go into them and where they come from.

I remember selling them at the Santa Claus Parade, setting up inside the ROM grounds with my kids, freezing cold, selling fries through the fence.

RC: How do you get inspired to innovate these days?

JK: Interaction with people. What drove me to create a dining series on the farm, for example, is what really gets me jazzed. And, as long as I can still do things I get jazzed about, I’ll stay with it. Using food as a means to that end is very powerful. You bring people around a table and discussion happens, because you’re providing this experience that allows them to not worry, for the time that they’re at the table, about anything so much as what’s on their minds. What are the ideas they have that they’re sharing now with their tablemates? It gives me a lot of satisfaction to provide that vehicle for thought and exchange.

RC: In today’s social-media environment, is the power of food even more powerful? Has it changed the way we approach food?

JK: It’s made us long for a tactile experience with food. In a way, it becomes more meaningful — the actual eating and sharing around a table — because it’s analog, it’s not virtual. Although many people just stop and take photos endlessly of their food while they’re eating it and I don’t really agree with that — people should be paying attention to themselves.

RC: What do you think makes a good leader?

JK: When I was growing up, my mom and my sister were big people in my life. And I remember, during the late ’60s, there would be neon orange and neon pink signs that they would put on the fridge, the stove, the dishwasher, the washing machine that said ‘this exploits women.’ So, my dad and I and my brother were in fear and awe of this new-found women’s liberation, people adhering to those values. My mom and my sister taught me a lot in the early days about inclusiveness and not getting too defined in who we are; that there’s this equal nature we need to observe in the kitchen. I certainly have done that in the kitchen — I’ve always given equal opportunities to individuals, period.It’s about the culture that, we as leaders, are putting into our workplaces. It starts at the top. People look at what’s tolerated at the top and they act accordingly.

RC: What kind of advice would you give to people entering the industry today?

JK: Showing up for work every day is the main thing. But in a broader sense, it’s [realizing] what you may have come to understand through media about expectations of grandeur, simply isn’t reality.

Like in any industry, it’s about, to use the cliché, ‘paying your dues,’ but working at something, as long as you’re into it, and recognizing, first of all, whether you’re cut out for this kind of work. Do you really think that you want to be a cook? That’s a fundamental question you need to ask yourself at the beginning. For me, the most successful apprentices and young cooks I deal with are the ones who are like sponges — they just want to learn. They’re not about their own opinions at this stage in their career; they’re about absorbing whatever it is that you have to offer. When students position themselves in that way, that’s when I want to teach and share. It brings something out in me.

I look back on my own career, early on in the apprenticeship days, and that’s what I did. I just shut up. I may have had thoughts in my head, but it didn’t matter, I just kept on doing what I was doing. Because at the end of the day, or the end of the years, you look back on that time, and there was incredible value to that experience. And, you may have learned also what you wouldn’t want to do as a leader — I would not want to be a racist, sexist, misogynist chef, because I’ve seen that; I’ve seen that it doesn’t work. I see the reaction that people have. I see they are living in this environment of fear and it’s so counterproductive to bringing out excellence in individuals. If you can nurture an individual who’s got great chops, then you have done that person a great service and it’s incredibly satisfying, as a leader, to see people emerge in that way.

RC: You’ve won the Order of Canada and are the godfather of Canadian cuisine. How does it feel to look back over a lifetime of work and see your role in this movement?

JK: You just don’t stop, right, you just keep going. You don’t give yourself time to reflect on these things. I’m responding to what drives me and what gives me pleasure, too. It’s been a wonderful trip so far and it’s not over yet. And if that’s what it takes to get people to come to the party, well, I’ll just keep doing that.

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Rosanna Caira
Rosanna Caira is the editor and publisher of Kostuch Media’s Foodservice and Hospitality, and Hotelier magazines. In her capacity as editor of Canada’s two leading hospitality publications, Rosanna directs the editorial and graphic content of both publications, and is responsible for the editorial vision of the magazines, its five websites as well as the varied tertiary products including e-newsletters, supplements and special projects. In addition to her editorial duties, Rosanna also serves as publisher of the company, directing the strategic development of the Sales and Marketing, Production and Circulation departments. Rosanna is the face of the magazines, representing the publications at industry functions and speaking engagements. She serves on various committees and Boards, including the Board of Directors of the Canadian Hospitality Foundation. She is a recipient of the Ontario Hostelry’s Gold Award in the media category. In 2006, Rosanna was voted one of the 32 most successful women of Italian heritage in Canada. Rosanna is a graduate of Toronto’s York University, where she obtained a BA degree in English literature.

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