Thomas Naylor: Executive Chef to Canada’s Ambassador to the United States

By Steven Chester
Thomas Naylor, Executive Chef to Canada's Ambassador to the United States

It didn’t take long in life before the signs appeared: Thomas Naylor was going to become a chef.

“Growing up in Montreal, my parents used to bring me to restaurants when I was a kid. At five, six years old, I was ordering cream of broccoli soup and having scampi and “pâté brisée” and my Dad was like, ‘Do you want a glass of wine with that?’ I was costing him too much money!” Naylor says with a laugh.

But Naylor credits his stay-at-home mother for his initial interest in the world of food. Coming home from school, he was fascinated by her cooking, and family events were always a favourite for culinary curiosities.

“She would make an angel food cake for Christmas, and she would soak that thing in rum for two months. It was the best! I still haven’t been able to duplicate it, not yet. It was basically my mother who started me off,” says Naylor.

Le Cordon Bleu beckons

After working odd jobs into his early twenties, Naylor decided to go to Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Ottawa. The young man who used to throw dinner parties for friends while a teenager immediately knew that he was in the right place.

Recognizing Naylor’s passion, in 1995 an instructor at the school introduced him to up-and-coming chef George Laurier, who had just opened a restaurant in nearby Hull, Québec. Working there while still a student, Naylor was able to learn beyond the basics, and passion and creativity were in ample supply. Shortly after, Naylor spent a summer at a lodge in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, learning the pace of high-volume hotel service.

From there, Naylor returned to Toronto to work under chef Martin Kouprie at Pangaea restaurant, a bustling fine-dining operation. He then moved to work under renowned chef Lorenzo Loseto, which he refers to as an “eye opener” – picking up techniques and flavour infusions he had never seen before.

Then tragedy struck.

“My mother passed away. I told the guys, look, I have to go back to Montreal. My mother was sick, and after she passed away, I just wasn’t happy at that restaurant,” says Naylor. “Something wasn’t right. I’ve always trusted my gut feeling.”

Up to the challenge

During this time, Naylor received a call from some friends who were opening up a hotel/resort north of Ottawa called Chateau Logue. A few requests for advice eventually turned into an offer for the position of executive chef.

Just before starting, Naylor spent some time learning under chef Trevor Ledlie at The Briars resort, where he honed his administrative skills and learned business basics like handling inventory and cost analysis – all tools required for the new position, which involved managing 20 different menus.

Then, from the ashes of tragedy came another opportunity.

“I went down to Ottawa and had dinner at Domus Café, owned by John Taylor. I was talking to him, and he said there was this job available in Washington. At that time in my life, I was very malleable. I felt like I could move around anywhere,” explains Naylor. “But I didn’t want to give up this executive chef position. I was only 27 years old at the time. I went through the whole rigorous interview process with the Canadian Embassy, and then I came down and got this job. I’ve been there ever since, 14 years now.”

Lays down foundation

Naylor visited Washington and took part in renovating the kitchen and making operational changes, then returned with his equipment, ready to embark on his new opportunity. His first day in the kitchen was September 10, 2001.

“The next day, I was asking ‘Who the hell is Bin Laden?’ I had no idea what was going on, and the ambassador’s wife had come home and said ok, this is what had happened. And then I learned what everything meant,” says Naylor. “You start a job, and then a few weeks later you’re making breakfast for the Prime Minister of Canada. It was off of a hot plate and a Foreman grill for Jean Chrétien. It was a crazy time.”

The culinary lay of the land at the embassy was much different. The ambassador at the time, Michael Kergin, was looking to transition from French cooking to a more Canadian theme. To do this, Naylor had to source ingredients in Canada and have them flown to Washington.  Today, small game comes from Quebec, as does venison and caribou; smoked salmon comes from New Brunswick, and other ingredients such as cattail hearts, milkweed pods and Saskatoon berry compote come via Toronto.

Hectic schedule

On a day-to-day basis, Naylor can be booked for anywhere from two to four events, depending on the season and who is in town. Scheduling and shopping must be done accordingly. He has one support cook in the kitchen who helps with prep work; Naylor does the rest. While some food is vacuum-packed and frozen, he keeps most ingredients fresh and shops locally most days.

While celebrity sightings are not uncommon in Washington, Naylor has had his share of encounters serving memorable guests.

“Meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger, that was kind of funny. I’m a big guy, and he tapped my stomach and said ‘I asked for a six pack, and you brought me a keg!’ So I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘I can’t believe Arnold Schwarzenegger just dissed me!’”

Naylor is now happy to call the D.C. area home and is in the process of moving into a new house with his wife. A brick-and-mortar operation may be in his plans down the road, but for now, Naylor says the embassy is where he wants to be.

According to Naylor, his latest culinary challenges come from his two-and-a-half-year-old son who has become a discriminating client.

“I used to make him all of these meals – he used to eat duck confit, braised lamb, salmon,” says Naylor with a chuckle. “He was only a year-and-a-half, and then right around Christmas time, he turned a corner and said, ‘I don’t want that!’ Now he just wants cheese or turkey sandwiches, and I’m like, ‘Come on, man, I went to all this trouble to make you vegetables!’ But there’s still hope. He’ll come back around.”

About the author

Steven Chester is the editor and social media community manager for Restaurant Central. His 14-year journalism background includes writing and editing for digital and traditional media. He is an expert in social media, online content and email newsletter development. Follow him on Twitter at @restaurantCRFN.

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