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Chef Jamie Kennedy Gets 'Grilled' On Fish, Farmers And The Future

Grilled: Jamie Kennedy On Cuba, Wine As Food And 40 Years As A Cook

For most people, back-to-back 15-hour work days sounds like a punishment.

Yet for chef Jamie Kennedy, it's all part of the job at the first-ever Equinosh exhibit inside the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto. If events could be recipes, Equinosh would be one ingredient comprising Grow Op, a four-day celebration of landscapes, food, art and music in April.

Kennedy, a chef known for his commitment to sustainable, local and in-season cuisine, has some back-up to serve the dozens of hungry guests, thanks to the Gladstone's resident chef, Mario Paz and chef Miriam Streiman. The trio dish up bowls of lamb stew, rounds of foraged mushroom salad and plates of strawberry rhubarb meringue well into the night.

Like the glass of red wine he sips later that evening, the founder of Jamie Kennedy's Kitchens' first foray into Grow Op goes down smoothly. Yet in other ways, Equinosh mirrors one of Kennedy's crazier attempts to highlight local produce: his trip to Cuba.

"I was invited to represent Canada in the International Cigar Festival that happens every year in Cuba," says Kennedy. "Canada was honoured as 'country of the year' for the cigar festival. When you’re nominated, you're basically asked to come and bring your culture with you."

As a guest, the Order of Canada recipient had to showcase Canada through its cuisine, an experience which quickly became a "nightmare" for the chef.

What would you say is the wildest thing you’ve done in or out of the kitchen?

Probably Cuba. Cuba’s an interesting place because there’s really no infrastructure to support how a modern kitchen operates. It was like a nightmare — cooking a dinner for 500 people in a kitchen that barely functioned with a support staff of Cubans who have a whole other approach to work than what I’m used to in Canada.

I had this almost panic moment where it wasn’t going to happen and in addition to that, they held up my ingredients at the airport. I had brought in caribou, oysters from the West Coast, oysters from the East Coast — really interesting and indigenous, Canadian ingredients to form this whole menu and experience.

At the end of the day, I said, ‘If I don’t get these ingredients by this time, I physically won’t have the ability or time to prepare the food in the way it needs to be.’ Magically, at that moment, the food gets delivered and it had been stored and refrigerated in pristine condition.

Pristine. Condition. I had this nightmare feeling or vision of it being in some f**king hot room at the airport and all these perishable things like oysters and lobsters just perishing.

Not an experience I’d want to repeat, but one I’m so happy to have in my memory.

What’s your definition of Canadian food?

Canadian food is not about specific ingredients or dishes. Maybe the Italians would say ‘this pasta dish is authentic’ because that does exist in certain countries. They’ve got hundreds of years to back it up. Our history has been fractured, given the fact that we’re not even 200 years old, but the makeup of our population is from people all over the world. When you talk about what’s Canadian, the answer is the beauty of the regions.

What’s a Canadian restaurant you’d recommend someone visit?

I think Michael Stadtlander's Eigensinn Farm is an important stop. His food is thought-provoking. It gets you really thinking where food comes from so it starts to turn those wheels, you know?

Do you get to travel a lot?

Yeah, I do. It’s part of my work, certainly to check out other places and sometimes it’s my work that takes me to certain places like Cuba and sometimes it’s just curiosity.

What’s the most memorable food city you’ve been to?

That’s a hard one. In no particular order: Barcelona, New York City, Paris, London. I didn’t even mention San Francisco yet. And I haven’t been to Chicago yet, but I plan to go. I think it’s an important food city.

France is unique and original. There’s a lot there in what I studied. A lot of my inspiration is from French canon. So France, Paris are important to me.

Barcelona because I think it’s really cool what’s happened in the post-Franco days. After the ‘70s, suddenly Spain presented itself as a country to the rest of the world and before then, not so much. But there’s obviously a thriving food culture alive for centuries there that is only now being discovered by the rest of the world and that’s pretty exciting.

Do you view yourself as a chef or are you beyond that?

I’m a cook. I’ve been cooking 40 years and this is my anniversary. As you see today, I’m still cooking, it’s my prime occupation. However, along the way, the world of cooking has allowed me to witness and participate in a new food culture in Ontario that didn’t exist in my time and there are others that are certainly sharing in this experience with me, my generation and a younger generation.

It’s very rewarding to see the seeds that we planted as it were, 30 years ago let’s say, are flourishing with the new generation of cooks coming up. So old guys like me are still holding onto their ideologies and working continually to showcase what’s possible in artisanal food and wine production in Ontario. I feel like we’re not alone anymore.

What do you like to make after a nice boozy night out?

Honestly, a beautiful meal for me would be bacon and eggs. Like really nice bacon and make it myself. Really slowly cooked and cook some onions in the same pan, same fat, and break some really good eggs in there — like eggs from a local producer — and honestly, that is such a great late-night, drinking meal with toast from the bread we make at the restaurant.

Favourite cheap food thrill?

I’m a big fan of Vietnamese banh mi.

What would be your last meal?

I’d have to say fish. There’s lot of luxury ingredients out there that are certainly seductive but I don’t think I’d want that as my last meal. I think fish because there’s nothing more I love more than eating a whole fish — the whole thing. It can be a snapper, it can be a rock bass, it could be anything. But the idea of having a pristine, whole fish that I can take my time eating, simply with some beautiful olive oil, some salt and lemon and nice wine.

Oh yeah, gotta include the wine.

I consider wine food. I don’t really consider it a beverage or a source of alcohol — which of course it is — but there’s something about wine that with food, it just so beautiful. It can be poetic. Wine and food together can be poetry. Not all the time, but it can be.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?

I think I’d be studying languages. There are things in common that being a chef has in common with studying language. History holds the key to the puzzle. When you start analyzing language, you have to look at history to understand why it is spoken the way it is. The same way with cooking. You have to look at the historical references to understand why dishes evolve.

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