On a recent afternoon, Jamie Kennedy was hunched over a sink at his Corktown café Gilead, his dark, curly hair covered in white fish scales as his mouth hovered dangerously close to a pickerel’s. Instead of delegating the messy job of cleaning fish to a junior staffer, the chef was doing it himself. As he scraped up and down the gleaming length of the pickerel – scales flying at his face, sticking to the lens of his glasses – he talked about how things spiralled out of control a few years ago. He barely flinched.
After launching the local food movement in Toronto and becoming known as “Toronto’s original celebrity chef” (before the era of TV cooking shows, which he was offered, but turned down), and after many successful restaurants over three decades – the ground-breaking Scaramouche, Palmerston, and Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar – he found himself on the verge of bankruptcy in 2009. He was forced to close three restaurants. Around the same time, he separated from his long-time partner.
“Pretty much, the whole world turned upside down,” he said.
Four years later, Mr. Kennedy is back. Next week, he launches Gilead Wine Bar – named after the alley it’s located on near King and Parliament – in the space that has been functioning as a lunch and brunch-only café for the past year. He’s taking lessons learned from his failed expansion, and betting big on experience. He’s doing things the way he knows best: small-scale, simple, and honest.
But in the time since 2009, Toronto diners have changed. Mr. Kennedy’s trademark ethos of eating local, still relatively novel a decade ago, is now generally accepted wisdom. Dozens of new, casual fine-dining restaurants with young, ambitious chefs have popped up, each more innovative than the last. Mr. Kennedy may be coming back, but will have diners moved on?
“Our culture has been becoming wiser and wiser over three decades,” he said, explaining he’s not out to compete with the younger guys. Unusually soft-spoken for a man whose career is working in loud kitchens, the 56-year-old comes off as shy, until you realize he’s simply wrapped up in thought.
“There’s a wisdom here that runs pretty deep,” Mr. Kennedy said. “We understand the value of experience.”
Still, Mr. Kennedy can expect “a bunch of younger, tougher, hungrier people competing for the same diner dollars,” said Michael Olson, chef-professor at Niagara College. And diners accustomed to foam and fireworks on their plates may no longer be dazzled by Mr. Kennedy’s farm-fresh, simple approach.
“Now that the local food movement has become the norm, if people go to a place that’s considered a higher level of dining, there’s an expectation – they don’t have to beat me over the head to tell me where the peppercorns come from,” Mr. Olson said. “That’s no longer a new thing.”
Still, he said, there’s a lot of respect in the food community for Mr. Kennedy, especially because he mentored many of the “new guys” in their earlier years.
“I love all these hip, new, fun places opening in Toronto, but what Jamie does is very different and distinct. He’s the old guard in the best way – in the most beautiful, elegant way,” said Tobey Nemeth, who was chef at the wine bar, and now co-owns Edulis.
“He deserves to be here. He should be setting an example for all the rest of us.”
Mr. Kennedy tried dinner at Gilead in 2010, but in a more formal style – proper courses with “fancy prices attached.” It didn’t work. “There were too many disparate elements,” he said, pointing to the warehouse building and still-developing neighbourhood.
Gilead’s new dinner menu goes back to what Mr. Kennedy does best: small plates with local, seasonal ingredients and a few old standards, such as his signature fries. Few dishes will be priced above $20.
Mr. Kennedy grew up in the Don Mills area, the son of an artist mother and a “a career CBC man” (his father produced arts programs, such as The Umbrella in the 1960s). The family moved to a town near New Haven, Conn., when he was 10, after his father began teaching at Yale.
From a young age, Mr. Kennedy loved food. He watched Julia Child on television, and formed a “culinary club” in high school. The kids would take turns hosting dinners at each other’s homes, sipping wine and “pretending to be really serious.”
He returned to Toronto after high school, enrolling at George Brown College while working in the kitchen of the Windsor Arms Hotel. After that was a three-year stint in Switzerland, before taking the helm at Scaramouche with Michael Stadtlander in 1979, then at Palmerston, Jamie Kennedy at the ROM, and Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar– all to critical acclaim.
Then, 2006 came. Mr. Kennedy took on two new kitchens in a year – Corktown and Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner, on top of the Church Street space where he was already running two restaurants. “We were seduced by the possibility of expanding and leveraging off the name,” he said.
But, with the spotlight on him, his company, Jamie Kennedy Kitchens, didn’t step up to the challenge.
“We were out of our comfort zone,” he said.
“I thought we had things pretty much in control, but we didn’t,” Mr. Kennedy said. “We wouldn’t return phone calls. We would forget to show up for meetings.” A former server who worked for Mr. Kennedy described standard procedures at other restaurants, such as locking up the liquor, or keeping track of linens, as non-existent at the company.
And it seemed his heart wasn’t in it, either. Expansion felt at odds with his “core values,” he said – of small-scale, human interactions.
“We weren’t working anywhere near capacity,” he admitted. “Did we want to be working more to capacity? Maybe not. Maybe it wasn’t the culture of the company.”
He also admits to taking his “eye off the ball,” distracted by his dream of retreating to his 116-acre farm in Prince Edward County – of cooking at one-off events there, and growing food for the restaurant. From July, 2007 until November, 2008, he was living full-time there, only commuting back to Toronto a few days a week.
These days, when Mr. Kennedy talks about the future, his goals are more modest: “just to get to zero.”
He won’t say how much he still owes, only that he hopes to be out of the red in the next few years. He’s no longer interested in expansion – “it didn’t sit right with us,” he said. The farm, where he still likes to spend some weekends, will have to wait.
As Mr. Kennedy finished cleaning the fish, his mind turned to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the 2011 documentary about an 85-year-old sushi master whose obsessive pursuit of perfection he admires.
“This guy has basically given his life to the preparation of fish. It seems like a simple thing, but within that simplicity is a myriad of detail, respect and knowledge,” he said.
“His is the long story,” Mr. Kennedy said, finally stopping to pick a fish scale off of his glass lens.
“He has 12 seats, he doesn’t even have a bathroom. But still, the level of excellence is unquestionable. It’s just a distillation, a refinement over time of that very simple premise.”