Over 30 years, chef Jamie Kennedy has helped change the Canadian food scene forever, building an international reputation in the process. Here he tells us about how he started, and how he’s now helped others on the route to success.
In life, timing is everything. And it was great timing, “through sheer dumb luck”, that brought Jamie Kennedy through the doors of Toronto’s Windsor Arms Hotel at 2:30 in the afternoon, the perfect time between lunch and dinner service to catch the chef at ease. The new high school graduate needed a job, the first stage of a plan that included travel, then university.
The maitre d of the hotel’s Courtyard Cafe took a shine to the young 17-year-old and formally introduced him to Herbert Sonsogni, the renowned Swiss chef, who ran his kitchen with the precision of that country’s emblematic clocks. It was 1974; George Brown College and Canada Manpower were trying to give young people entering the foodservice industry the kind of classical training that was available in Europe. “He didn’t offer me a job,” recalls Kennedy. “He offered me a three-year apprenticeship.” And in typical, easy-going fashion, Kennedy simply agreed. Today he laughs, “I often wonder if that maitre d knows what he did for me that day.”
Stepping into a professional kitchen was probably the right move for the kid whose passion for food seems to have been inbuilt. At his high school, he was one of the founders of the Culinary Club, a group that explored other cultures through their cuisines. “I’ve always been intrigued by food,” he says. “I have a theatrical nature and the whole sense of occasion that a restaurant represents has always appealed to me.”
He did finally travel after his three-year apprenticeship, and spent two more years learning about food and kitchens in Switzerland. It was there that a friendship was forged that was to make a significant impact on the Canadian restaurant industry – Kennedy met Michael Stadtländer.
Their entrée came through Morden Yolles, the innovative founder of Scaramouche in Toronto. Aware of the winds of change that were blowing through the culinary world – nouvelle cuisine was sweeping across Europe – Yolles wanted to bring that fresh, lighter approach to Toronto. He boldly asked a very young Jamie Kennedy to be his chef – a mighty big task for someone only a few years out of training. Kennedy agreed on condition that he be allowed to bring Stadtländer along as his co-chef. The pair took Toronto by storm, and began to change the Canadian food scene forever.
“Michael had an agrarian background so he had this connection with food and its provenance,” says Kennedy. “I was an artist and food was my medium. We both felt we were non-conformists. We were actually defining it as we went along.” He adds with a laugh, “The challenge was making it work as a business model.”
Indeed, the business aspect of being a chef often takes a back seat to the things Kennedy feels are more important – nutrition, flavour, and yes, artistry. While other chefs might simply buy a bag of carrots, Kennedy’s are organic, locally grown and usually heirloom varieties.
His assistant, Jo Dickens, who is responsible for paying the bills, laments, “Our food costs are huge! We spend more on a dozen eggs than you probably do. They’re organic, free-range eggs from a heritage breed; we get them from a small farm near Brantford.” Apart from being descriptors, these are the reasons for the choice, she explains, and adds one of the most important, “They’re delicious; you can taste the quality.”
“It is impossible to articulate the impact these two men have had on the culinary arts in Canada. They are chefs, artists, environmentalists and activists”
For Kennedy there has never been compromise. “Where the rubber hits the road for me is that it’s a personal expression of this place. My food reflects where I work, and what the seasons give me,” he explains. “Sure, sourcing it entails more phone calls, but the rewards are huge. It’s about excellence on the artisan level. You get to know these people and they get to know you; you work together with a unified purpose, to avoid big business and global economies, and avoid issues of food security, and you provide self-reliance for communities around the world.”
Getting close to your suppliers means visiting them. Dickens accompanied Kennedy on a recent visit to Purdy Fisheries on the shores of Lake Huron. “I think, for Jamie, these visits fill the well and bring him close to the source of the food,” she says. “I think that’s what really inspires him. In some ways, local food is his focus because it reflects his gastronomy – and because of the taste. The small carbon footprint is just gravy.”
To make the connection between suppliers and diners, he hosts regular Local Food Movement dinners at Gilead, one of three current Jamie Kennedy operations. The other two are Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner (in the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art) and the most recently opened Windows by Jamie Kennedy in Niagara Falls. At these dinners, the two sides meet and communicate. Enabling and fostering that communication is something Kennedy sees as part of his job, “You have a group of people around a table tasting your food made with ingredients from this place. And here’s the man who raised that lamb. It creates a value added experience.”
These are approaches both Kennedy and Stadtländer forged at the outset. “Michael and I have never wavered from the core values we brought into Scaramouche. We left each other but we’ve remained friends and we still share the same ideology. I have things to do, ideas to share, paths to forge that are unique to me.”
The pair has continued to work together through the years. In 1989, their unwavering dedication to healthy food led them to found Advocates for Organic Agriculture (also known as Knives & Forks), a non-profit organization that promotes the environmental and human benefits of organic agriculture. Knives & Forks united chefs and restaurateurs who want the freshest, chemical-free food with farmers looking to market wholesome, local organic food.
To spread the word, they created Feast of the Fields. Every year at harvest season, food providers, breweries and wineries gather with foodies in a rural setting. This annual event celebrates the best of local, organic bounty and the farmers and producers find a ready market in the hundreds of visitors. Most importantly, they spread the organic, locavore message.
Feast has spawned similar events across the country. For Kennedy, it’s all about respect for the food and his guests. The nutritional value of large-scale food production has been called into question, he points out. “Nutrition is important to a chef; people have to walk away from the table feeling good and satisfied.”
While Canadians pay less for their food than almost any other country, they are beginning to realize there may be hidden costs of cheap food – food safety, lack of nutritional value, and the destruction of local economies. “It’s changing,” says Kennedy. “Convincing people they should be supporting local agriculture has been helped by a growing distrust of agribusiness and issues of food safety. And the cost gap is narrowing with the increase in the price of fossil fuel.”
Nonetheless, the higher cost of a commitment to local sourcing has meant looking for efficiencies elsewhere in the operation. His trademark decor doesn’t entail elegant furniture and appointments. Instead, gleaming jars of preserves – fruits and vegetables, often from his own farm in Prince Edward County – make their own statement about what is truly important to this chef. And despite a large kitchen staff (everything is prepared from scratch), he works long hours.
He came close to losing it all five years ago. When the economy took a downturn, Jamie Kennedy Kitchens hit the first brick wall its creator had ever faced. “I’ve always enjoyed critical success and just floated along. I never really analysed that success,” he admits. He’s changed that approach. “It came about through classic mistakes. Sometimes through reasons of your own doing and through things you can’t presage, things happen. The important thing is not the crisis but how you face it.”
Kennedy’s candid about his bankruptcy concerns at the time, but he says, “I looked around. My feelings settled on the individuals who are part of this enterprise. No way was I going to let that go!” Curiously, the goodwill he had built through 25 years in the business stood him in good stead. No one pressed him – not his creditors, not the bank, not even the government. And five years later, he’s come through it, stronger than ever.
He continues to teach his apprentices, promote causes he feels strongly about – you’ll find him on the guest chef list for a host of events from Empty Bowls (an international grassroots event to fight hunger) to the Great Canadian Cheese Festival held in Prince Edward County annually to promote Canadian cheese. Last summer, he drove hundreds of miles to Nova Scotia to participate in the Canadian Chef’s Congress, founded by Michael Stadtländer to ‘connect chefs to the land, in solidarity with farmers, fishers, gardeners, foragers and all artisanal food producers.’ “The thing about Jamie is that he puts his energy into things he believes in,” says Dickens.
In 2010, that relentless energy and determination to spread the message about local food led to recognition on a large scale. That year, Canadian Governor General Michaëlle Jean and her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, introduced the Governor General’s Award in Celebration of the Nation’s Table, “to recognize and celebrate outstanding efforts in improving the quality, variety and sustainability of all elements and ingredients of our nation’s table”.
Five categories recognize achievement in creativity and innovation, education and awareness, leadership, mentorship and inspiration, and stewardship and sustainability. And while Kennedy could easily have qualified in any of these, he and Stadtländer were jointly presented with the inaugural award for leadership with these words: “It is impossible to articulate the impact these two men have had on the culinary arts in Canada. They are chefs, artists, environmentalists and activists. Their food is sublime and they are leaders in the field.”
Later that year, Kennedy was also presented with The Order of Canada in recognition of his years of commitment to his country. While he is immensely proud of both awards, there’s a kind of “aw shucks!” attitude as well. He sweeps his hands through his trademark disheveled curls and laughs, “Sometimes I get the feeling I’m considered an elder statesman, or achieved mandarin status in this industry. But I’m not sitting somewhere dispensing sage advice; I’m still very much involved.” Apparently timing is still on his side.