Rough, stupid and funny,” are three words chef Greg Laird uses to describe his 19-year-old self. From a kid who started at McDonald’s, to becoming the owner and head chef of a popular Toronto pâtisserie, Laird has a come a long way.
His culinary journey started after high school, when he left McDonald’s, “I was a bit of a delinquent. I finished high school and didn’t have much direction in my life,” says the 29-year-old chef.
Ultimately, he decided to go back to what he knew — cooking. As a line cook at a popular local gastro-pub the Twisted Kilt in Toronto, he learned to make “real food, in a real kitchen, working with a real chef,” and the experience triggered something in Laird.
“When I started at the gastro pub, I stepped back and thought maybe I could become a chef,” says the Scarborough, Ont. native, who quickly climbed the restaurant ladder, eventually ending up at The Tempered Room, where he would soon become owner.
The pâtisserie had been looking for a chef de cuisine and, while Laird had been offered a job as head chef at another notable Toronto restaurant, he wanted to broaden his horizons and learn the pastry side of the kitchen.
The Tempered Room had gained notoriety for its light, flaky and perfectly layered croissants — which are the result of a long and arduous process. “The croissants are our figurative and literal bread and butter,” says Laird. “They started me on the croissants and, to be honest, I [was nervous] in the beginning.”
Laird soon mastered the croissants, and just over a year into his time at the Tempered Room someone came into his life that would change everything.
His co-worker, best friend and eventual co-owner and wife, Humera Ali. The mere mention of her name brings an uncontrollable smile to his face. Laird credits Ali with his growth as both a person and a chef.
“Working with Hum, giving her the credence that she deserves has helped me grow as person and a chef. I sit back and go holy crap there is a whole other way of doing things,” says Laird.
Where he is calm and calculated in the kitchen, Hum takes risks and loves trying new things, the yin to his yang and without her Laird doesn’t think they would be able to run the company like they do.
“There is no way I’d be able to do this without her,” says Laird.
Laird’s approach to cooking is clinical and methodical. “There are two aspects to cooking — the art and the science. The art is apparent in the final product and it’s what attracts customers. The presentation is how it looks on the menu, how it’s plated, but before you can get to that step, you need to understand the science,” he explains. “Everything from emulsifying an aioli, to the ratio of the butter to the acid to the eggs. It may look great on the plate, but when you start to eat it, if the science wasn’t there, the taste won’t be either.”
Today, his culinary philosophy is a delicate balance between the art, science and love of food, while his business philosophy focuses more on diversity and equality; as he and Hum look to hire people of all backgrounds and treat their employees with a respect that they consider rare in the industry.
“I want to create something approachable, yet elevated. It comes down to caring — you want to put that attention to detail in everything you do,” says Laird.
“We want the Tempered Room to become a staple in Toronto, not because we have the best croissants, but because we are a game changing employer who pays employees fairly and gives them the time off that they deserve,” adds Laird.
So how does Laird describe himself now? “Rough, caring and a little less stupid.”