A couple months back I got a Facebook message from Chef Chris Jess asking me if I’d take part in a “Celebrity Chef” fundraising event in support of blah blah blah blah. I stopped paying attention after the “Celebrity Chef” line and wrote back a quick “Yes”.
In the intervening weeks and months Chris made an effort to include me in writing promotional material and sent me a copy of his proposed menu. His menu was a riff on my menu and imitation being the highest form of flattery… In fact this whole event was an exercise in ego masturbation for me.
No one has ever referred to me as a “Celebrity Chef” before. I’ve never been comfortable with either word. My mother Elinor was a celebrity during her years in politics. That was her role. Even my brother David enjoyed some celebrity as a politician. I never aspired or desired to be famous. Still don’t despite the amount of air time I’ve gotten from Dragons’ Den and other tv shows. It just sorta happened. Oops.
“Chef” is even more difficult for me to wrap my paper hat covered head around. I was an Chef’s apprentice to Scott Cook when I worked at Rip’n Richards Eatery in Fernie, BC. I graduated, with honours, from George Brown College’s Culinary Management Program. However, I never wrote my Chef’s exams and thus I don’t have my “Red Seal”. I never call myself a “Chef”. I call myself a cook. A very good cook.
So you can see how Chris Jess’ invitation might appeal to me in a Haloweenish kind of way. Sort of like a very masculine Snow White. Minus the glass slippers. I get to dress up and be someone I’m not for just one night? Ok. Let’s do this.
I called Chris and asked him when I was to show up. ”The dinner starts at 6pm but we load in at 4pm. But it would be great for you to meet the students and see the project we’re raising funds for. Why don’t you just come for lunch?” he said. “Ok,” I said not really thinking this through. ’Not thinking Things Through’ is turning out to be a pattern in my life: just say yes and don’t worry about the details. If it works, just go with it, right?
I emailed Chris and asked the address of the school. Fergus, Ontario? Where the fuck is that? I figured I’d plug it into my phone and find my way at the appointed hour. About a half hour north of Guelph, as I turned onto the gravel road, surrounded by farms I started to think this whole thing was a big mistake. As I pulled into the parking lot I texted a friend. “WTF was I thinking? Why’d I get here so early? This’ll be a long day.”
Was I ever wrong. After signing in at the Main Office, I was met by Erik Eastmuir. Erik seemed nervous and and a little awkward. Chris told me later that Erik decided not to wear his trademark Canadiens cap thinking it might offend me. He’s right. It would have (not really but we totally bonded over our mutual love for Ken Dryden). Erik showed me to the class where I met Chris Jess for the first time.
Walking into a new room to meet new people in a school (or any) environment can be overwhelming. There’s so much going on. However, within about 35 seconds Chris gave me a potato latke. “Eat this,” he said. It was delicious and perfect. At that moment I knew we’d be friends.
The next two and a half hours flew by. Chris gave me a quick tour around the school and explained what we were raising funds for. Turns out Chris started “The Food School” five years ago after seeing something similar in Stratford. He converted storage closets and cafeteria kitchen space into a teaching and training space that is beyond impressive.
Most impressive of all were the students. Because I was there for 2 periods I got to see one group work, clean up and then another group start. Chris was amazing at directing them, demonstrating techniques, setting expectations and giving feedback. The students were driven in a way that would be the envy of any teacher.
“The event tonight is an extension of the Food School idea,” Chris said. ”We’re calling it the Farm School and it’s meant to provide a relevant context for learning about farming and food production in a farm setting.” Wow. Here we are surrounded by farms and in a community where, like many communities if you believe Jamie Oliver, people have lost the connection to where there food comes from.
And here’s this Chef from Montreal, Chris Jess, who’s helping reestablish this connection for the over 300 students in his Food School program. I thought how much I would have loved to find this program in my own High School. How much time would Chris have saved me if I’d have found this in my teens? And now the Farm School? Genius. Pure Genius.
At 3pm Chris asked Erik to take me to the Legion Hall in Elora where the dinner would be held to get my meat steaming and drop off some other supplies. After that Erik took me on a walking tour of the town. Famous for the Elora Gorge, the very pretty town has an interesting history. As a professional tour guide Erik was able to bring the buildings and natural beauty to life during our hour long walk around the place. We stopped at The Cork where Chef Ben has put together a mouthwatering menu as well as The Cellar where Chef Mike has done the same. I’m def going to return to do some fressing when Ben get’s back from Ireland.
Erik showed me back to the Legion Hall where Chris and his student volunteers along with Chef Brian Schmeler were in the process of Kicking Ass. That’s an industry term that means ‘preparing to serve 140 people an awesome meal’. We joined in the Ass Kicking crew and got to work. Unless you’ve experienced it, there are few words that can describe the pure joy of being part of a team that loves it’s work. But if you have been fortunate to experience that feeling then I don’t need to describe it to you. Bliss.
Again, it was the students who really made this fun. They never stopped smiling. Never stopped looking for things to do. Joked and teased and generally made the idea of work being work a bit of a lie. There was no where in the world I’d rather have been at that moment than among them.
At 6.30 pm it was my time. My meat was ready to slice. I brought two briskets and proudly gave my fellow Ass Kickers samples of my Smoked Meat. I beamed with pride as they ooohed and ahhhhhed. The meat was excellent. The first course was plated and just before it was served Chris introduced me at the microphone. Being very shy I refused to step up and say anything. Of course that’s a lie. I introduced the first course and thanked Chris and the students for including me in this most perfect day.
The rest of the night was simply magical. I met many of the diners and shmoozed as I like to do. Chris’ menu was a big hit and the students pulled it off like seasoned pros. There was so much love in that room I was tempted to take the snow storm as God’s way of suggesting I spend the night. Order of Canada recipient Anita Stewart even generously offered my a room for the night. What a Lady!
But knowing when to leave a party and not overstay ones’ welcome is an art I’m always trying to perfect. Before I checked out I connected with Calantha, Sonia and Yasser. Calantha and Sonia own and run the Elora Bread Trading Co and Yasser is the Chef behind Artisanale French Country Cooking in Guelph. They invited me out for a beer but I suspected that if I joined them I may never have left this wonderful place. I simply can’t wait to return.
This morning I got loads of Fb friend requests and some lovely messages from diners and students. But this one from a student touched me deeply: “Thank you for your time last night. It really made a difference in our lives. I hope we meet again.” I told him that was perhaps the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me.
Thank you all for making my day, evening and night so memorable, warm and special. Special thanks to Chris Jess for everything you do. Georgia is the luckiest little girl to have you for a dad and your students and community are similarly fortunate to have you in their lives. I look forward to Lobster Night in April and a Pig Roast this summer to among you again but I certainly won’t wait so long. You rock. You all rocked my world.
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