Rosanna Caira Lifetime Achievement Award: John Higgins

Photo by Margaret Mulligan

John Higgins and royalty just seem to go together. At the young age of 20, the native of Scotland landed at Buckingham Palace to cook for Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family. Years later, after arriving in his adopted home of Canada, one of his most celebrated roles was as executive chef of the King Edward Hotel in downtown Toronto — a hotel named for the Queen’s great grandfather.

This year’s recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award has also worked for several renowned hotel companies in between, including Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. He started at the Inn on the Park and eventually moved to the brand’s Yorkville hotel before transferring to the company’s Washington property. He left the iconic brand to helm the kitchen of the Sutton Place Hotel, where he honed his culinary skills.

But it’s his role as director of Enterprises & Brand Ambassador, the Centre for Hospitality & Culinary Arts (CHCA), at George Brown College — where he’s worked since 2002 — that has given him the opportunity to mentor and influence tomorrow’s generation of cooks and chefs, while helping to pave the road for culinary change.

Wherever he’s worked, Higgins’ star has shone brilliantly, winning a host of accolades and distinctions. In fact, the road to success has been driven by a razor-sharp focus to learn the tenets of cooking, a steely determination to never accept anything less than the best and a heart-felt desire to help others succeed — all of which have made him both a respected and well-liked chef.

Higgins’ upbringing as one of two children born to a steelworker and nurse in Bellshill, Scotland, as well as his close-knit family ties, have served him well. But, perhaps, it was the fact he was born with a clubfoot that taught him the importance of perseverance and never letting a challenge hold him back. “The doctor told my mother I’d never walk, but I’ve always had a belief in myself that I could do what I set out to do,” says the affable chef, who celebrated his 60th birthday this past July.

From a young age, Higgins imagined he wanted to be a chef, but it wasn’t until he visited Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland that he knew for sure. “I was 10 years old when my uncle James took me to Gleneagles. When I saw the place, I knew what I wanted to be doing. It was one of the most gorgeous places I had seen. It’s so beautiful that, when I eventually pass away, I want to have my ashes there,” he quips in his charming, Scottish brogue.

Quitting school at 16, Higgins entered a four-year apprenticeship program at Glasgow’s Central Hotel, a railway hotel built in 1892 that housed the Michelin-starred Malmaison restaurant. “It was the place to go,” explains Higgins, adding “It was tough but it really made you think about whether you wanted to be a chef. They made everything from scratch and everything had to be perfect,” says Higgins, pointing out he spent the first three days of his apprenticeship cleaning turkeys and chopping parsley. “I cut myself so badly on the third day they had to take me to the hospital; there was blood everywhere,” he recalls. When he returned to the kitchen, he was met by a less-than-sympathetic chef de partie who belted out, “Okay Higgins, finish the goddamn parsley and don’t cut your other hand off,” says Higgins. “At 17 years of age, you just had to suck it up.”

Owned by British Transport Hotels, the company soon transferred him to another of its properties — the Gleneagles Hotel, where Higgins realized his dream. “There were 120 cooks in the kitchen; it was just nuts.” The first week Higgins was preparing sauces, before quickly becoming second commis. “I got promoted at age 19 to chef de partie. I was only in the door and I got a promotion,” recalls Higgins, “I had chefs who were 30 years of age reporting to me. I learned so much about myself. You had to figure things out by touch and feel. There was no sous vide or combi ovens.”

While working at the hotel, Higgins kept writing to Buckingham Palace hoping to realize another dream. “One day my mother phoned me from Glasgow and said ‘There’s a letter here for you from Buckingham Palace.’” He wasted little time driving home to find the request for an interview from the palace.” He quickly landed at the door of Buckingham Palace for the interview and got hired as Junior Royal Cook.

“I had the time of my life,” recalls Higgins, adding he got to live in the palace and see history unfold. “When I think back now, it was like slow food before slow food became popular. The staff was lucky to be working with great products that were second to none, as well as cooking on $20,000 kitchen ranges.”

Working at Buckingham Palace meant Higgins cooked for the Royal Family, whether they were dining at the palace, vacationing at Balmoral or sailing on the Royal Yacht Britannia. He even managed to dance with Princess Anne once at a social ball.

As much as he enjoyed his time at the palace, the dream of moving to Canada was embedded in his brain. Having been captivated by a postcard he saw as a child highlighting blue skies and maple trees, Higgins left London and arrived in Canada in 1981, becoming chef of the Four Seasons’ Inn on the Park in Toronto.

He soon realized the cooking scene in Canada wasn’t what he left behind in London and noticed a lack of respect for Canadian chefs in the kitchen. “It drove me nuts,” he stresses, adding he couldn’t understand why there were so few Canadians cooks or so much food being imported. “At Four Seasons, we’d bring in fish from Europe twice a week, but I saw lakes and figured there must be good fish here.” He worked to remedy that by cultivating a network of local farmers at a time when local food wasn’t on the radar.

Eventually he transferred to Four Seasons’ Yorkville property, where he worked with chef Niels Kjeldson — one of the city’s most influential chefs — before heading to the company’s Washington location. He credits Doug McNeil, chef at the Four Seasons Washington, and a fellow Scot, as his biggest influence. “It was the most amazing kitchen I had seen — quality, quality, quality. But it was the toughest three months of my life — perfection, perfection, perfection. He put me through the pain barrier, but if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today.”

Returning to Canada, he got what would be a life-changing job at the King Edward Hotel. Even after all these years, he still has a soft spot for his time there. “When I started to work there, I was told by GM James Batt, ‘The most important thing to remember is to make sure the food is good and costs are in line,’” says Higgins, adding he successfully reduced costs from 42 per cent to 35 per cent. More importantly, he created a lasting legacy of culinary excellence. “We cooked really good food at Chiaro’s. The secret was to keep it simple — good products, seasoned well and served with dignity,” says Higgins.

His tenure at the stately property also laid the foundation for his team-building and mentorship skills. “I prided myself on hiring talent and building a good team,” he says, one that featured five female chefs de partie — a rarity in those days.

Among his recruits was Lotte Andersson, one of the first women in the kitchen who today works at Cacoa Barry. Looking back on those days, Andersson recalls a great teacher. “He was so knowledgeable. He was good at explaining what and how he wanted things done — even with his thick Scottish accent,” she quips. “He was also great at letting us come up with ideas, giving us a free hand on evening specials at Chiaro’s. I remember him taking us to a pheasant farm one day. I’d never experienced that with the chefs I’d worked with before. John really wanted to educate and mentor and he started that long before working at George Brown College.”

“[He had] high standards for performance and professionalism,” adds chef Jason Bangerter of Langdon Hall, whose first job was under Higgins at The King Edward Hotel in Toronto. “He set high expectations by modeling them himself. He expected of you what he expected of himself. And, he provided you with the resources and skills to achieve what he expected.”

In between kitchen duties, Higgins always relished culinary competitions. “Of course, I wanted to win. But I also wanted to push myself, practice my art and have fun,” explains Higgins, comparing culinary competitions to the “catwalk of fashion.” Through it all, his goal was to bring what he learned back to his workplace.

“John was a strong believer in promoting and supporting his cooks to achieve and become better through culinary competitions and special events,” says Andersson. Earlier this year, the respected chef managed the Canadian team competing at the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France. In recent years, he’s found TV fame as a judge on Food Network’s Chopped Canada and Top Chef Canada.

Ironically, as someone who quit school at 16, for the past 17 years Higgins has been a great ambassador for the CHCA, where, along with the school’s academic leaders and faculty, he’s worked tirelessly to help expand the currency and relevance of programs through industry input, model mentoring for students, forge strategic relationships with global chefs and industry leaders and run the CHCA’s myriad enterprises.

“I wanted to have a differential between the college and the world and to get industry back in here,” he states. “It’s important for us to be connected. I always say, this isn’t a retirement home for aging chefs.”

He was also a pivotal force in launching the Chef’s House, a teaching restaurant operated under the watchful eye of master chef Oliver Li, allowing young students the opportunity to learn first-hand how to cook and deal with kitchen challenges, in a restaurant setting.

Next up is a special project that will see Higgins develop and build a kitchen at Chitkara University in India, as part of the college’s longstanding partnership with the institute to enhance educational opportunities for both Canadian and Indian students.

Higgins’ vast network of leading chefs around the world has helped him bring them to Canada to visit the school and educate and inspire today’s crop of students. Students have had the opportunity to listen to and meet culinary heavyweights such as Paul Bocuse, Massimo Bottura and Alain Ducasse. Many have also had the chance to work in their restaurants. “I was like a kid in the candy store when Bocuse visited a few years ago,” admits Higgins.

After years creating great dishes, Higgins has found his calling. He’s happily ensconced in academia, moving between his varied tasks, being the best ambassador for the school and the industry and helping to steer the school’s expansion. At the end of the day, Higgins takes pride in getting things done and not giving up when met with challenges. But, what makes him happiest is “seeing people be successful.”

It’s a sentiment not lost on Lorraine Trotter, dean, CHCA, “Chef Higgins cares deeply about the next generation of culinary and hospitality professionals coming into the industry he loves. John’s effectiveness with students and those new to the business stems from his deep appreciation for the opportunities and mentorship he’s had in his life and a core commitment to pass on that support and coaching. Those of us privileged to work with him closely see it every day — John’s deeply held values of appreciation for what he’s received and his caring for others. He has so many talents: innovative thinking, building connections and great business judgement, to name a few. But, at the core, it’s his honour and caring that fuel his impact and incredible leadership.”

Clearly, his role at the CHCA is more than just a job — it’s a passion, one that keeps him plugged into all things hospitality, both at home and abroad, where he travels several times a year. Despite having worked in some of the most respected kitchens in Canada and the world, Higgins remains a populist, believing food should always be approachable and, ultimately, taste good.

And, despite the success, he’s never lost sight of his humble beginnings or the people who have helped him succeed. The proud Scot still travels home twice a year to visit his mother and a collection of uncles, aunts and cousins. He’s looking forward to taking the trip of a lifetime when he’ll journey on the Queen Mary with his wife Arlene, whom he describes as “the best flipping thing since sliced bread.”

As for the future, he’s not quite ready to hang up his chef’s apron. After accomplishing so much in a career that spans more than four decades, Higgins would like to see the industry step up its efforts to “pay employees decent wages and treat them better by dealing with issues such as mental health and addiction.

“This is a tough industry to get into,” admits the talented toque. “You have to be respectful of the people who work for you. It’s a great industry,” adds the veteran chef, “but we need to get better.”

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