Chef Jamie Kennedy

Q&A with Chef Jamie Kennedy

Jamie Kennedy Kitchens (Toronto); JK Fries (Toronto); Windows by Jamie Kennedy (Niagara Falls, Ont.); former chef/owner of Gilead Café and Wine Bar (Toronto)

Biographical Information

Education: Began apprenticeship in October, 1974; attended George Brown College Culinary Program, 1976-77

Career Path: Apprenticeship, Windsor Arms Hotel (Toronto); Saucier, Millcroft Inn (Alton, Ont.); employed at various other restaurants in Canada and Europe; owner of several successful foodservice operations

Years of Experience as a Chef: 35+

What are your earliest memories of cooking?

My earliest memories of cooking would definitely be at home with my Mom. I remember when I was a kid taking her an omelette that I had prepared and had just learned how to make through watching Julia Child on television.

Why do you think you were drawn to a culinary career?

I was always fascinated by cooking and watching television shows like the Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child when I was a kid, but also the theatre of restaurants struck me when I was very young — this phenomenon of being able to go into a room and sit down and have people ask you what you want to eat and then bring it to you captured my imagination from a fairly young age. In high school I started a culinary club — for no particular reason, I suppose, other than it was on my mind. After high school I was debating about what my future would be and my parents agreed that perhaps going to university right off the bat wasn’t a good idea. So I thought, why not immerse myself in something like an apprenticeship, work at the same time and learn a trade? I came right out of high school in June of 1974 and started an apprenticeship in cooking in October of that same year.

How would you describe your previous or current restaurant(s) or foodservice operations?

They’ve always been small restaurants, with the exception of maybe JK ROM which was about 90 seats. Before that was Palmerston (about 50 seats), the wine bar after the ROM (which grew from 60 seats to about 100) but that was a different style as well, more small plates cooking and a menu that changed all the time and encouraged people to experiment with food and wine combinations. It was all becoming more focused on representing Southern Ontario with food and wine — cheeses, growers, wines, meats — and some very specific direct relationships with growers started to evolve. In 1989-90, Michael Städtlander and I started Knives and Forks, an organization whose sole purpose was  to bring together farmers outside of Toronto with chefs in the city.

If you knew you were eating your last meal, what would you have?

Probably a whole fish of some kind, likely a pickerel. There’s nothing like ordering a baked or grilled whole fish and taking it apart slowly — particularly if it was to be my last meal! — with a nice bottle of local Ontario Riesling to accompany it.

What is your philosophy about food?

As I get deeper into my career, what becomes most important is a more enlightened philosophy about what food is. I stop and pay attention to exactly where the ingredients are coming from and how they have been raised. I try to avoid genetically modified organisms. I wade into the political arena by taking a stand about things like that. Obviously sustainable fisheries are important; I don’t support any fisheries that are not sustainable. Cooking with the seasons and looking at the real value of food are important to me and I hope to educate people around that and support local food economies as much as possible. It has become a very thoughtful thing for me.

What is your favourite ingredient?

More and more I’d have to say vegetables. Ecologically speaking, dining from a more vegetable-based diet makes a lot of sense for the planet. There is a wealth of opportunity in the vegetable kingdom that is relatively unexplored. We grow amazing fruits and vegetables in Southern Ontario. Healthwise, I always feel better if I’ve dined vegetarian.

What do you think is the most overrated food trend right now?

I would hesitate to say overrated but this craze about pork might have had more than its fair share of attention. Of course there is a lot of history and tradition with how pork or the pig has sustained villages over time in Europe and Asia so I don’t want to take anything away from that. But like anything that is new in North America, people have a tendency to grab onto a trend and wring it out and I think that is what has happened with the princely porcine.

What do you think is the most underrated food trend?

Certainly vegetables but I also think about what the ocean has to offer, and I’m not necessarily talking about fish and shellfish but the vegetable matter in the ocean. There are possibilities there that have been unexplored when you consider than 70 per cent of the earth’s surface is covered by water and we have barely even touched that resource in terms of the abundance of plant life. In Japanese and other Asian cultures there is a kind of reverence for sea vegetables but there is more to explore in that respect. I read an article in the New Yorker recently that said kelp could become the new kale. Things like that have relevance, particularly as we are struggling to figure out the future for a generation facing global warming and reducing our carbon footprint. The course we are on certainly is not sustainable.

What are the essential ingredients for success in the foodservice industry today?

From the point of view of owning and operating a restaurant, the foodservice industry is not something you should play around with, so to speak. It’s more of a calling and I’ve always treated it as such. It’s challenging to balance your personal life when you run a restaurant. It’s not to be treated lightly but there is so much joy in it as well — the sense of community that you have when you become immersed in a restaurant operation. There is a definite feeling that a restaurant is part of a large community and also a way to contribute back to that community. If you’re not making enough money through restaurant operations to be able to donate to causes, you can always exercise your philanthropy through your work.

What new projects or opportunities do you currently have on the drawing board and where do you see your career path leading in the next few years?

Right now I’ve put myself out there. I am quite open to new opportunities in a way that was difficult when I was running a restaurant. I am at a stage where I can now consider other interests. For example in 2010 I was one of a dozen or so recipients of the Governor General’s Award In Celebration of the Nation’s Table (along with good friend and fellow chef Michael Städtlander). But as you know, every award needs financing to be given on a regular basis. So one of my pet projects is to reanimate that award and have it handed out every two years in several categories. As one of the original recipients, I would like to see that and I think it is very good for Canada to have that kind of recognition program on a national scale. It’s just another way of bringing an industry together across the country.