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article imageCanadian chef celebrates local food with his own stories Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Dec 22, 2014 in Food
Toronto - Canadian chef Jamie Kennedy made a name for himself in Canada's culinary world through his poetically simple approach to cuisine. A new cookbook finds the chef reflecting on four decades of cooking and the re-birth of local food culture.
“Really it’s just telling stories — true stories”
Jamie Kennedy is in the office of Gilead, his restaurant in Toronto’s east end, talking about his latest cookbook, JK: The Jamie Kennedy Cookbook (Harper Collins). Though it’s his third book, it reads like his first, filled with not only delicious, home-friendly recipes, but numerous personal tales involving kids, customers, friends, colleagues, and longtime employees.
Born in Toronto, Kennedy started cooking at a young age, and created at culinary club at his school. He completed a three year apprenticeship at George Brown College in Toronto, and trained at the prestigious Windsor Arms Hotel kitchen, before working in Europe for two years. Kennedy was wooed back to Toronto by an offer from the French restaurant Scaramouche and went on to open his own restaurant, Palmerston, which garnered wildly enthusiastic reviews and a huge following. In 1994, he opened a restaurant at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, expanding his catering business at the same time, and in the 2000s, launched both JK Wine Bar and a restaurant at the Gardiner Museum, located directly across from his old digs at the Museum.
In 2007, Kennedy opened the Gilead Café and Bistro in Toronto's east end, but facing serious financial collapse, he dramatically scaled back operations in 2009, selling the Wine Bar and Gardiner locations. He's since scaled back catering as well, and, in addition to running Gilead, commutes regularly between Toronto and his farm, located roughly two hours east of Toronto in scenic Prince Edward County.
As befits his food activist history, Kennedy maintains strong connections with local growers (he has been vocal in his support for embattled raw milk farmer Michael Schmidt, for instance) and constantly advocates for sustainable farming and food distribution methods. He's been recognized for both his culinary skill as well as his commitment to furthering Canada's food culture, being awarded the Gold Award for Chef of the Year (from the Ontario Hostelry Institute) in 2000, and the First Recipient (alongside chef and longtime friend Michael Stadtländer) of the Governor General's Award in Celebration of the Nation's Table in 2010.
“I m at a point in my life where I feel more open   Chef Jamie Kennedy says   and have more things...
“I'm at a point in my life where I feel more open," Chef Jamie Kennedy says, "and have more things to talk about. I've put things in perspective.”
Harper Collins Canada
JK: The Jamie Kennedy Cookbook details different points throughout Kennedy’s storied life and career. The book, done with Toronto-based food writer Ivy Knight, features a smart balance of stories, recipes, and gorgeous photography by Jo Dickins showing him both at Gilead and on his farm. “The idea of a collaboration struck me as something that would be fun,” Kennedy says of working with Knight, between bites of risotto, his blue eyes scanning the intimate street where the intimate Gilead is housed.
Topics for the book's chapters were primarily driven by Kennedy, with direction from Knight. Everything, from his experiences as a father of four to his 2009 financial crisis, was recorded and transcribed for potential inclusion. The stories in the book nicely mesh with Kennedy's original recipes (including his popular frites) to form a compelling portrait that looks fondly back in time, while staying firmly, proudly in the present.
“The book takes on a life of its own as it’s being written,” Kennedy reflects, “and I think it was not what the publishers probably had in mind when they approach someone to write a cookbook. (We were) certainly not following the usual formula. […] I’m so grateful that the publishers, in their wisdom, supported us.”
Out of the many interviews in the book, the ones with chef Michael Stadtländer particularly stand out. The two men cooked together in the late 1970s at the Grand Hotel National in Switzerland and later became co-chefs, cooking for Scaramouche, one of the best-rated and most hyped restaurants in Canadian history. Stadtländer co-founded the annual Ontario food event Feast of Fields with Kennedy in 1989. That same year, they launched Knives and Forks, connecting Ontario chefs with local organic farmers in order to further the use of local, sustainable ingredients in restaurants. In 2008, Stadtländer founded the Canadian Chefs’ Congress; in 2011, they held Foodstock, a “culinary protest” against a mega-quarry in rural Ontario. Considered a pioneer in the farm-to-table culinary movement, Stadtländer (together with his wife) runs the highly celebrated Eigensinn Farm in Northern Ontario. To say he's been in influence on Kennedy's food ethos would be an understatment.
“Having Michael in there is a natural fit,” Kennedy says of his friend’s inclusion. “He’s probably in there more than most.”
"(The book) is Jamie looking back at 40 years of working in this city and province," Knight explains. "He wanted to include as many people as possible that helped to shape his career and whose lives he’s become a part of."
Canadian celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy s latest book combines personal stories with signature recipes...
Canadian celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy's latest book combines personal stories with signature recipes.
Veronika Roux-Vlachova
One of the most charming stories contained in concerns an annual fish fry in Prince Edward County. Local residents, particularly seniors, were highly suspicious of a celebrity chef coming into their community; Kennedy figured out a way to keep within the event budget while simultaneously drawing a wide swath of the community together for an event marked by its lack of pretension and its deliciously simple culinary offerings. The event has become so popular now that tickets have had to be capped.
The story is a wonderful example of Kennedy's synthesis of sustainability, community, and pleasurably simple gastronomy. It was a central element in the genesis of JK: The Jamie Kennedy Cookbook, too. “When we put together the publication proposal,” Knight recalls, “the first thing Jamie wanted to talk about was the fish fry. That was the first thing we typed up.”
“Out of the old people that came that first time, there’s one woman who was moved… certainly to tears, at the event itself,” Kennedy remembers. “She wrote me this long letter after the event, about how she laments how things had gone wrong in food distribution and the small family farm model not working anymore. Those are the kinds of things they used to do.”
The fish fry story is special because it so clearly illustrates Kennedy’s food ethos, one that embraces community and education as a core part of its mission.
Kennedy sees that desire for a more sensual, authentic experience in the times he’s brought people from Toronto to his Prince Edward County farm. “They leave their anxieties and bad behaviour behind and they’re just there, open: ‘What's that growing?’ ‘What's this? ‘Oh, look at the vines!’ “Isn’t it beautiful here?’ ‘Wow, the air!’ It’s something people yearn for.”
Running a farm is a lot of work, however, as the stories in JK: The Jamie Kennedy Cookbook (particularly those relating to his grape vines) confirm; the hard work is balanced by the reward of a environmentally sustainable long-term cycle that strengthens ties with communities and re-establishes older food systems that thrive outside of industrial oversight.
Jamie Kennedy cooks al fresco at his farm in Prince Edward County  east of Toronto.
Jamie Kennedy cooks al fresco at his farm in Prince Edward County, east of Toronto.
Jo Dickins
“Getting involved as many years ago as I did, it seemed clear to me this is how we’ll define ourselves gastronomically set ourselves apart somewhere else in the world, by championing our local food heroes, our cheese-makers our winemakers,” he explains. “That same theory or philosophy is being practised everywhere in North America now. It’s been in Europe for hundreds of years already, but that was our model, at first we imitated but now we’re realizing we don’t need to imitate, we can use our brains and our collective passion to develop food culture ourselves.”
Kennedy himself has made a huge contribution to Toronto’s food culture for many years, particularly with his popular JK Wine Bar in the aughties. Along with trying local wines, cheeses, charcuterie and produce and ever-revolving menu (reflected the seasonal availability of various foods and purveyors), customers could watch chefs cooking in front of them, and be deliciously educated in various aspects of food culture.
Scott Vivian, owner and chef of BEAST Restaurant in downtown Toronto, worked at Kennedy’s popular JK Wine Bar, then his Gardiner Museum restaurant, between 2006 and 2009. “I feel like the Wine Bar, for the majority of its existence, was the epicenter of gastronomy for Toronto,” Vivian reflects. “It’s where people went, whether you lived and worked in the city or were visiting from other parts of Canada, you went to see what cool new products were on offer.”
 It blew my mind   chef Scott Vivian remembers of working at the JK Wine Bar   to know things got do...
"It blew my mind," chef Scott Vivian remembers of working at the JK Wine Bar, "to know things got done, and done so deliciously, so beautifully, partially because there was not a ton of stress and pressure. It gave you opportunity to concentrate on cooking and making really nice food.”
Jo Dickins
The preserves lining Wine Bar’s walls were all a part of the experience, providing education and sparking curiosity. “Canning and preserving had been around a long time but it was usually tucked away in a basement. Jamie used that as design-on-display so people could enjoy it visually as much as enjoy eating it.”
The JK Wine Bar was both a delicious culinary experience and central to educating both consumers and other chefs on where their food came from. “Jamie was very transparent about suppliers he used and with other chefs who were interested in making connections with those people.”
Vivian, who didn’t cook side-by-side with Kennedy, nonetheless absorbed his kitchen sensibility, one made apparent by the inclusion of longtime employees in JK: The Jamie Kennedy Cookbook. “A lot of his ideas and philosophies soaked into everybody so even when he wasn’t there, things ran as if he was there all the time,” Vivian recalls. “He treated people, with a lot of respect, and he knew everybody’s name. Those kinds of values and treatment really hit home with me.”
Knight echoes this sentiment in her own experience working with the chef. "He is an angelic fella!" she says fondly. "And he’s a rarity in that world."
The good treatment of his employees and support of local purveyors and growers has made Kennedy something of a culinary folk hero, but he sees himself as less a crusader than an educator. “We’re making a cultural statement by saying we have to support local, and a gastronomic statement saying we have to further excellence in gastronomy,” he explains. “In the fullness of time there’ll be another more important lens people will look through, because we’re doing this work today, there is already in-roads into how we get better at growing and distributing local food.”
It’s clear Kennedy is as inspired by changing food systems as he is by cooking. His influence, in terms of his gastronomy as well as his activism, now extends to several new generations of Canadian chefs. It's a legacy he takes in stride.
“There are so many others doing the same thing,” he says thoughtfully. “I’ve kind of become an elder statesman in this world of local gastronomy. There are younger chefs that are hopeful that what they’re doing is the right thing, and I really want to reinforce that the more, the merrier.”
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