How did you discover that you had a love for food?
My wife Ivy showed me what good food was. Before then, my parents would cook a lot, and my grandmother would show me how food could build relationships and bring people together. When I started to date Ivy, her and her mom would take me to the newest Chinese restaurants. Places that would do things in specialties, like peking duck or lobster. Life changing Chinese BBQ. Everything was in Scarborough. I grew up going to all French schools, and I really think that contributed to my success in France. I lived there for three years, and all my French came back to me. I needed that foundation to get ahead when I got there. No one was going to take their time speaking to me. If I didn’t have that base, I think it would have been very difficult for me to stay there.
Tell me about the decision to go to France.
It was so cool – my first time was in 2003, which was pretty early on in terms of transmitting information over the internet. There wasn’t much knowledge that you could find on these French gastronomic homes, but I knew that I had picked up a book from Alain Ducasse and I knew I had to work for him. He was doing so many cool things I had never seen done before. It was so unique from any other cookbook I had picked up.
What’s the path to you becoming a chef?
No chef has a linear path. If I want to become a lawyer, there’s steps to do that. Same with being a Doctor. With a Chef, there’s none of that at all. I started off in the best restaurants I could find. Auberge du Pommier. I went there and worked for free, I wanted to focus on being the best I could possibly be. I knew where I wanted to go eventually, so it wasn’t about making money. I was 17, and still in high school. I would go in and hammer out mise en place. I found people were so much more patient with me because I was learning.
“No chef has a linear path.”
I was their first hired employee at Steak Frites, which was their newest restaurant. Started out as a dishwasher, and was patient. I knew something would open up. A couple of the cooking staff ended up leaving and at that point I was ready at that point to step in.
In your restaurants there’s a huge intersection between art and food. How did that come about?
I’ve always found that there was much more to the restaurant experience than the food, drinks, and service. Most restaurants are graded on that. There’s the feel and the atmosphere, the whimsical heart of our food brings out so much fun that is missing from so many restaurant experiences. The way we go about it is showing our sense of humour. I’ve always cooked for the 2%. I kind of hated that I wasn’t able to even afford to go to the restaurants that I worked at myself. I knew that when we were going to do this, I feel like I can do something a little special, where we show off what we are about. Show off your personality. The most successful restaurants are the ones that share a bit about the restaurant owner or the chef.
“Show off your personality. The most successful restaurants are the ones that share a bit about the restaurant owner or the chef.”
After I eat in the restaurant, I want to feel like I know them just a little bit better.
There’s culture in every bite of every dish. Why is it important for people to travel and experience things through food? I’ve never been to Jamaica for example. How do you bring that into the food?
At its core, all I want to do is travel around and discover food. I think it’s the Sagittarius in me – constantly striving to learn. Food really centered me. I wasn’t the best student when I was younger, I had a hard time concentrating and going to class. I had more fun playing sports and activities where I could never perfect it 100%. I devoted myself to that. It was really when I started to learn more about delicious flavour and how I could make food better, that really inspired me.
I became addicted – I just wanted to learn about food. That’s what I do when I travel. I’m always searching. I went to the Maldives with my wife and I noticed that they had an abundance of tuna. Why is it that the tuna that they get is so different from the kind in Japan? You discover so many things. I tried tuna curry. Tuna Pizza. Things like that. It was so unexpected.
Can we touch on Dubai? You were just talking about the 2% aspect, and how you managed to open a restaurant up there?
I never imagined I would have a restaurant in Dubai. When the opportunity presented itself, it felt right. Not for any more reason other than my business partner. He came to see us when we were in business for two or three months. He knew immediately he wanted to do something with us. He had gone to London and Jamaica to find a modern Jamaican restaurant. There’s a familiar difference in what we do. At the core, we might serve jerk chicken. But, it’s not done the same way.
The last thing I want to do is confuse a whole bunch of people. When you take inspiration from many different cultures and bring them together, you still have to have a dish that makes sense.
Tell me about Patois, and going through a big, unexpected incident that threw your restaurant off course? You seem to roll with the punches really well.
I keep myself busy not because I want to, but I feel a sense of responsibility to our staff. They weren’t the ones that caused a fire – we had a neighbour that committed arson. When that happened, I said to myself I didn’t want to lose these people. They’re so loyal to us, and have been with us upwards of two years. We had such a great team that gelled so well (and I still feel that). For that reason, I went into emergency mode and organized the union summer market. Nothing but nice things to say about the people that organize that. What normally takes several months to plan, we did in five days.
We had no idea what was going to happen, but I knew I had to keep the team employed. I fronted the food costs, and all they needed to do was show up and work it, be the biggest and baddest stall. All of the money that would come in as revenue was for the staff. That’s why we ended up opening Jackpot so smoothly. It’s been all the same team.
What makes the perfect beef patty?
We have a lot of family that do patties as well. We’re pretty lucky because we grew up with patties. There’s even a cool way to eat patties. Ways to cool them down super fast – I’d want to eat them as soon as they came out of the oven. The crust is what makes the patty – it’s 70% of it. It’s all about the texture, it needs to have that flakiness. Some companies that aren’t around now, would make emulsified dough. Tender, not flakey. More like apple pie.
I think it’s about all the layers of the crust. Layers of crispy. It sounds so crazy, but when I talk to my cooks about it, it’s like a croissant, there needs to be shattering layers of crispy. Building different layers, so when someone bites into it it’s like a puff pastry. The filling is 30%, it needs to be juicy and rich, it can’t be too watery. It needs to be able to stand up on its own.
You talk about hunger from a mental state – what is the hunger now that you have three restaurants?
Hunger goes further than a desire to hustle. It’s more than just hard work. I’m always seeking success. Every time I get some small amount of success, I just want more and more. I want to please people – I think we can be doing anything. Selling lightbulbs, producing keyboards, whatever it is. This hunger that I have in me is different. It’s more about feeling the need to satisfy my soul through satisfying other people. It doesn’t mean that I’m trying to satisfy the masses, it means I want to hit people right in their heart. I want people to have an emotional connection just like we do. And I think that’s the most addictive thing for me.
“Hunger goes further than a desire to hustle. “
People are so fiercely devoted to what we do, and trying all of our restaurants. Patois was a reflection of me when I was a little bit younger and rowdy, a little less knowledgable about the business. It was about creating a fun party spot for people to come in and get down.
Ting Irie was starting to get into my stride, so that we could do something a little nice. At Jackpot, I want people to feel at home and comfortable. It should feel like Southeast Asian comfort food. In our new spot it’ll be something completely new. There’s many different layers of how we represent ourselves.