Jamie Kennedy Talks Food, Failure and What’s in His Fridge

Jamie Kennedy’s name has been synonymous with quality local food and some favourite restaurants of Toronto young professionals (YP) for the past three decades. To many, he is known as one of they city’s original celebrity chefs… and he didn’t need a TV show to achieve this status. His long-term commitment to local food and sustainable agriculture (before it became a thing), as well as his forward-thinking approach to gastronomy, have been instrumental in shaping Canada’s culinary landscape. For those living under a rock (or perhaps new to Toronto), in addition to catering some of Toronto’s most prestigious events for years, Kennedy has been Executive Chef and Owner of a handful of acclaimed Toronto restaurants like Palmerston, Jamie Kennedy at the R.O.M. (aka JK ROM), and the once-beloved Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar on Church Street (a no-fail date option of times past). Most recently, he transformed his former Gilead Cafe by adding dinner service and an expansive wine list and calling it Gilead Wine Bar. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the famed entrepreneur, however, and in 2009 he was on the verge of bankruptcy. We caught up with Kennedy and he chatted about everything from the vibe at Gilead Wine Bar to when it is time to close a restaurant’s doors, along with advice he would give his 25-year-old self.

Congrats on the recently revamped Gilead Cafe, now Gilead Wine Bar. We know it’s still early, but what have the customers been most receptive to so far? Are there any favourite dishes or wine?
It is always interesting to assess that and try to figure out what sells and why. When you put out a menu, you obviously feel strongly about all the menu combinations, along with all of the wine. But I think that what people actually go for right now seems to be weather-dependent things. So richer meat dishes sell more when it is snowing outside, and if the weather lightens up a bit, or if it’s a Friday, then we will sell more fish. It really does seem to be those types of indicators that form how people order. The over-arching thing, though, is the vibe of the wine bar. It is kind of a fun, construct-your-own-dining-experience in the sense that, for example, there are different formats of wine poured, so you can sample a wine for three ounces, or you can pour the whole glass, or the bottle. So this makes the place work on any timeline, even if you only have half an hour and want to get something to eat before a show or something; you can come in and that’s cool. Or, if you want to stay for three hours and have a multi-course gastronomical experience, you can do that too.

Would you say that it is that vibe and atmosphere that makes it appealing for young professionals?
I’d say so. I mean, we launched the idea 10 years ago at the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, and nobody could have estimated how popular it would become or how great the response would be to that type of concept, especially with young people. At the time, we had presaged what people desired, but they didn’t have a place to experience it. With the wine bar, finally they did and they came out in droves. The initial format I was thinking for Gilead was probably not the best, because it is kind of an obscure location. I had thought it would be a place where people would want something a bit more traditional, and tried that route and it had its success, but it was kind of lukewarm compared to what the wine bar had been 10 years ago. This area has become a lot more vibrant in the past few years as well, so a wine bar works.

You are associated with Windows in Niagara Falls – what was the inspiration behind that?
Windows is a restaurant that I have consulted on; it’s not my restaurant, though it bears my name. Really, though, the idea there was to bring the ideology around farm-to-table dining to Niagara Falls, which hasn’t typically been known as a gastronomic haven. Rather, when you go to Niagara Falls, you would get the big US chain restaurants and the same mass-produced food. There is nothing to differentiate one place from another. So our goal was to connect Niagara Falls with the foods and wine of the region. This is done through the process of creating and preparing food and serving it to people with a story, so that when people come to Windows they understand by the end of their experience what it is they’ve just experienced, and that’s a new eating experience in Niagara Falls.

And what has the reaction been so far?
It was a little difficult because people are so traditional and used to a non-gastronomic environment – but it’s working. People are waking up to it, and as people become more and more aware of food issues and where things come from, these kinds of places become more important to them. There are obviously also many tourists in Niagara Falls. When visitors tour to a place, they also want to have an authentic and genuine dining experience that they can take away from that place.

True. Speaking of locally sourced food, do you have any advice for young professionals who can’t yet (or refuse to out of principal) splurge every week on groceries at Whole Foods?
The key to that is to get more involved with cooking. Go to a farmers market and start to engage in that whole ritual of farmers bringing food to a market every week and support them. Go out and buy a few tomatoes, buy a head of lettuce, and before you know it you start to get to know the growers, then more dialogue happens, and you can engage and learn more. I mean, you can buy really expensive things for sure, but if you are careful you don’t have to spend any more money than you would spend buying in a grocery store.

Do you notice more farmers markets in the city in recent years?
Oh yeah, not so much in the winter, but in the summer they happen every day in different parts of the city. It means important alternative sources of food for people living in the city to buy… and that’s they way it should be. It is not just about buying the food, but a little bit of a lifestyle change. It’s about breaking patterns, taking more time and slowing things down a bit to become less cerebral, less virtual, and willing to trade virtual time for real time spent for walking in markets and engaging with vendors. People are poised and ready for those types of experiences now more than ever. I see it really clearly in the reaction when people come to my farm from the city.

What are five things that are always in your fridge?
Well, there are always treats for my dog. I am probably not typical because I am at work a lot and do a lot of my eating at work, but at home I keep a few basics: yoghurt and fruit puree, granola, maple syrup, peanut butter, bread and beans.

I know that things have not always been completely smooth sailing for you, especially around 2009 when you were on the verge of bankruptcy. What did you learn from that experience and what advice could you offer other young professionals on bouncing back?
Well, I don’t think that my experience was unusual. If you traced many of the success stories of entrepreneurs in business who are steering their own ship, many share a similar story. Across the board, many have faltered and things have not always been amazing. My own path was always pretty OK, but looking back I probably wasn’t operating as best as I could at any point in my successful time – the 25 years before 2009 – and then the sky fell down. There was nothing wrong with the initial concept, I just got in a tight spot and was thinking about other things and other expansions and wasn’t paying enough attention to my core business. When you are dealing with a large staff and have all of these responsibilities, things can spiral down very quickly if you aren’t managing your business well. It is not about abandoning what your concept, ideas or core philosophy is – ever. When you do falter, you have to keep following along with core principles, but recalibrate your business to meet what’s going on today. It is obviously easier said than done. Do not give up; hang in there and stay persistent.

With that said, when would you say that it is time to close shop and move on?
When your heart is no longer in it and you aren’t feeling the fire in your belly anymore. That’s an internal feeling that you need to recognize. Of course, there is the imperial evidence, like your books, let’s say, but that’s only one part of it. If you still feel strongly that this is a path that you still want to follow, then stick it out. If you are not feeling it, though, you are probably right and you are fighting yourself by continuing.

Knowing what you do now, what life advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
It is a very competitive world out there, no matter what sector you practice in. So whatever area you’ve chosen, you have to be very aware of how you can differentiate yourself from others so that you catch a percentage of the market through whatever you are doing that is different to ensure your success.

Last question: what travel destination would you visit again just for its culinary offerings?
Mexico City. 

If you’re in Toronto, check out Gilead Wine Bar for yourself at 4 Gilead Place.

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