Cover Story : Jamie Kennedy – There is Life After Restaurants
By Cece Scott www.cecescott.com
Touted as one of Canada’s first celebrity chefs, Jamie Kennedy is also a member of the Order of Canada, and a recipient of the 2010 Governor General’s Award in Celebration of the Nation’s Table.
Kennedy’s appetite for gastronomy was sparked some 50 years ago at the age of 10 when his father moved his family to Connecticut. In his senior year, Kennedy was the the president of the cooking club.
Following his high school graduation, and the family’s return to Canada, Kennedy was at a crossroads. He hadn’t applied for post-secondary education, so decided to work in order to fund his desire to travel. Cooking was something that he was genuinely interested in, so it might be said that it wasn’t a coincidence that he wandered into the legendary Windsor Arms Hotel at exactly the right time on that specific day. “I was fortunate to have arrived at the hotel between the lunch and dinner service,” says Kennedy. “Had I arrived closer to noon or the dinner service, it would have been a different reception. There was time to look at a young candidate. Ultimately I accepted a job offer as apprentice cook, which determined my life for the next three years.”
Once Kennedy earned his certificate as a cook through his apprenticeship and in-school training at George Brown College, he pursued his dream and travelled throughout Asia and Europe. After returning to Toronto, Kennedy started working at Scaramouche in 1980 with partner chef, Michael Stadtländer. “It was an incredible experience for one so young,” says Kennedy. “It was the foundation for my career in Toronto.”
Kennedy’s entrepreneurial trajectory began in earnest after he left Scaramouche in 1982. He opened a series of eating establishments that Torontonians from every walk of life enjoyed for decades.
One of Kennedy’s greatest fans, Toronto criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby, once stated that Kennedy was the heart of Canada’s food movement – a nod to Kennedy’s dedication to the sourcing of local and sustainable ingredients. It was Ruby who successfully nominated Kennedy for the Order of Canada in 2010. “It has been my life’s work to create regional dishes and encourage others to do the same thing in their areas,” says Kennedy.
Known for his culinary innovation, Kennedy’s creativity flourished. He opened a series of restaurants, which included Jamie Kennedy Menus Gastronomiques, as owner and chef. He did two stints as a partner and chef at Palmerston Restaurant, and was the Chef de Cuisine at the Founder’s Club. At J.K. ROM he was the owner and executive chef, and the owner and president of Jamie Kennedy Kitchens. He was also the owner and executive chef of Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner, as well as the owner and executive chef at Gilead Cafe & Wine Bar.
During this period Kennedy was also authoring several cookbooks, which included Jamie Kennedy’s Seasons, Whitecap Books, 2000; Great Soup Empty Bowls, Whitecap Books, 2002; J. K. The Jamie Kennedy Cookbook, HarperCollins, 2014. Kennedy also dedicated his time to many causes within the industry, including co-founding Slow Food Toronto, 2003. In 2011, Kennedy received the Chairman’s Lifetime Achievement Gold Award from the Ontario Hostelry Institute.
I approach each day with an attitude of – what am I going to achieve today? -Jamie Kennedy
Kennedy’s culinary stardom rose to such a height that at one time he had three active restaurants, a booming catering business and 100 people on the payroll – all of which were pulling him in a myriad of directions. “It didn’t really work for me,” says Kennedy. “It was a tough go. I made a couple of classic entrepreneurial mistakes and it threw me into a tailspin.”
In 2014, Kennedy handed over control of Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner. “It took a lot out of me, but I was determined to keep going,” says Kennedy. “And I did. The solution for me was to get back to a business model that I was comfortable with.”
For Kennedy, it wasn’t that he lost his passion for his craft, it was more about the financial challenges that he was facing. After a quiet year of recovery, Kennedy was back with a more reasonable framework that included a small restaurant and a catering sideline. “I really strove to find a comfortable work model – one, in which, I didn’t feel overwhelmed or drained by – rather, that I could flourish in.”
After 40 years in business and a lifestyle that had come to define him, Kennedy closed the Gilead Cafe & Wine Bar on March 31st, 2015 and transitioned to his 115-acre rural property in Prince Edward County. “After Gilead closed, I moved all of my pots and pans to the farm,” says Kennedy. “Having this property has helped me to decompress and relax. My farm projects keep me busy and happy, and give me more balance.”
That balanced lifestyle includes more hobbies. Kennedy planted an acre of vines to familiarize himself with the process of growing grapes and making wine. “Taking the grapes and transforming them into wine through fermentation is a magical process. I have a whole other appreciation for wine now because I know what it took to grow the grapes. It is something that occupies my time and gives me physical work. I get right in there and cultivate the vines. I would encourage others to find something that turns them on.”
Retirement is not attached to an arbitrary age for Kennedy. He recognizes the struggles and limitations that other people have, and appreciates that he’s in good health. “I don’t regret not being young, but I do understand the expression – youth is wasted on the young – more than I did when I was young,” says Kennedy. “At this age, what we yearn for the most is that level of energy and flexibility that youth had.”
When the work week is over, Kennedy enjoys returning to the city of Toronto with his Aussie Shepherd/Border Collie, and taking in cultural events that have nothing to do with cooking. “I want to stay working as long as possible,” says Kennedy. “It’s good for your mind and your sense of self and well-being. And, because there is a physicality to cooking, like any craftsman, the longer you do it, the better you become. I have a more confident approach and calmness about my cooking now, as opposed to 20 years ago.”
Kennedy admits that his biggest challenge was finding a balance between his work and his private life. These days he spends more time with his children who range from 21 to 33. One daughter lives in Los Angeles, and the other three are within reasonable proximity.
As an avid supporter of environmental issues and involved in a wide variety of community work, Kennedy was a pioneer in the nationwide farm-to-table movement. Once again, he will be hosting his five-course Summer Dinner Series at Hillier Farm, which is held in a rustic barn setting and features a feast of local organic delights. “I look around and I see a future here,” says Kennedy. “I feel incredibly lucky to have stewardship of this place.”
Niçoise-Style Salad with Local Smoked Whitefish
Giving classic French dishes a new regional Canadian flavour is something that has interested me for many years. Salade niçoise is a beautiful creation, full of sunny reminders of the south of France, where it originated in the sun-drenched city of Nice. Although the dish itself is arguably already perfect and I have great respect for tradition, in the interest of creating a local version that reflects our terroir, I have used the original to inspire this version. It uses one of my favourite ingredients, local smoked whitefish. It is especially delicious using fresh eggs, tomatoes, herbs and greens from my farm.
- 1 head of butter lettuce
- 100 grams fresh green beans, trimmed
- 4 new potatoes
- 4 small field tomatoes
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 shallots, finely chopped
- 30 ml white wine vinegar
- 1 small red onion, sliced into thin rounds
- 20 niçoise-style onions
- 4 hard-boiled eggs, quartered
- 350 – 400 grams of smoked whitefish, skin removed and cut into 4 pieces
- 4 fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
- 60 ml fine olive oil
- Tear the lettuce into bite-size pieces. Cook the beans in a pot of boiling water until tender. Remove the beans, refresh under cold water, drain and reserve. Add salt to the water and cook the potatoes until just tender; drain and cut into slices.
- Cut the tomatoes into quarters and season with salt and pepper. Stir together the shallots and white wine vinegar.
- Divide the lettuce among four plates. Arrange the prepared vegetables, onion slices, olives and eggs in a pleasing pattern on the plates. Top with the smoked whitefish. Sprinkle each plate with the shallot vinegar mixture and basil. Drizzle the olive oil over each plate. Season with salt and pepper. Serve.