The idea of a the “celebrity chef” has become a pop culture mainstay in recent years, whether they’re screaming at protégés that their work has too much creme and not enough brulée, or testing contestants’ famous chicken recipe for tenderness. But there is one chef who has expanded these guidelines on how to be a famous chef and has created not only wonderful food, but also a more positive community both in Canada and in the culinary world at large. Jamie Kennedy studied at the respected George Brown College before being swept off to Switzerland by the owner of the Windsor Arms to be his personal chef. Since returning to Canada in 1980, Kennedy has been instrumental in making Toronto a place to go to for groundbreaking uptown, five-star dining. In addition to his work at Scaramouche and his own Palmerston Restaurant, in 1989 Kennedy co-founded Knives and Forks, a trailblazer in implementing ‘farm-to-table’ practices and in cultivating lasting relationships between farmers and chefs. Fast forward to today, and Kennedy’s hand is still as strong as ever in the way Toronto enjoys their food (whether at the ROM or the Gardiner Museum), inspiring progress in the way we look at food and agriculture, and the relationship between them.
To go way back to the beginning, when did you realize you wanted to be a chef?
I was 17 years old, and I had come to a fork in the road; one tine led to visual arts and photography, and the other pointed in the direction of the culinary arts. I interviewed for a job as an assistant filmmaker at the CBC, and I interviewed for a job as an apprentice cook at the Windsor Arms Hotel. I got the job as an apprentice cook. My path was blazed.
What is your favourite dish from childhood?
Dr. Martin’s Mix. My mother learned how to make it from Peg Braken’s “I Hate to Cook Book.”
Do you remember what the first thing you cooked was?
It was an omelette for my mother. I was mimicking the directions that Julia Child had given me from her television show.
What inspires you?
I try to respond to things that are happening outside of myself, outside my body; the city that I live in, the rural community around Toronto, and the people I meet.
Do you have a favourite type (ethnicity) of food?
Depends on what day of the week it is. I love everything.
Could you describe the experience of working in Switzerland, and learning the culinary craft of European cooking first-hand?
The Swiss experience began long before I set foot in Switzerland. My apprenticeship was like living in Little Switzerland in the basement of the Windsor Arms Hotel.
Did the experience change the way you look at food?
The experience certainly informed how I would look at food in the future, but the experience was all about learning how to work: how to work in a team environment toward a common purpose. The skills of cooking came later.
How would you define the ‘Slow Food Movement’?
The Slow Food Movement is an organization of people that are concerned about the future of food, and look to models of food production that hail from an era that pre-dates modern times. So it’s an effort made by Slow Food to reconnect with artisan food production and respect for individuals, for the environment, and for tradition.
Tell us about the experience of receiving such a distinguished award as the Governor General’s Award in Celebration of the Nation’s Table?
It was a personal honour, but it’s also showing how there’s a turn in the tide in respect to how people in our society value our sector, that they value gastronomy as something that contributes to the culture of our society.
When did you realize that the importance in the ties between chefs and farmers had to be taught to consumers in Ontario? Would you regard it as necessary transparency?
It became an important part of the strategy of the Local Food Movement to develop models that made sense economically: driving that connection home to people through representation in farmer’s markets, and awareness about new business opportunities; for example, the distribution company 100 KM Foods. It’s really about making food that’s grown in the community available to people in the community, at a price point that is not considered elitist. For the price to come down to what we’re used to will probably never happen, but with more demand there will eventually be some parity, as better distribution models evolve.
How has awareness of this important relationship helped to change the Toronto culinary landscape?
It’s propelled it into a new era of excitement, with many owner-operated restaurants coming into being that are exponents of local food provenance.
You purchased farmland in PEC (Prince Edward County) while the ROM (and your restaurant there) were being renovated, and have grown vegetables, herbs, raised livestock, and cultivated a vineyard there; why PEC?
We chose the County because it was an exciting new cultural area that also has a history of farming and agriculture, and being a city dweller, I personally wanted to become more connected with the supply side of my work.
If you could sit down to lunch with any chef, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
It would be Auguste Escoffier because of his ability to communicate ideas at a time when there wasn’t the technology that exists today. I find this fascinating and I would like to learn more about how he did that.
What would you say is your cooking philosophy?
It’s very much to do with furthering the ideas around the Local Food Movement, the ideology of the Slow Food Movement, and educating young cooks in the workplace to that way of thinking.
Do you have any plans for expansion beyond Canada?
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Home-based on the farm during the growing season, observing the developing seasons, and having access to the city during the winter months.