Ensconced within the pristine halls of Toronto’s Gardiner Museum, Chef Jamie Kennedy’s most recent room is a study in organic elegance. Surrounded by walls of glass overlooking the ongoing renovation of the Royal Ontario Museum, the aptly named Jamie Kennedy Restaurant at the Gardiner Museum is well-positioned in Toronto’s historical heartland.
Having spent nine years working within the ROM’s kitchen, Kennedy has found himself right at home across the way at the Gardiner Museum. While the role of cultural commissary might seem strange to some, for Kennedy it provides the ultimate showcase for his endeavours.
“I enjoy being an extension of a cultural experience,” said Kennedy, between prepping the dishes for alive magazine and readying the kitchen for another busy afternoon of service. Indeed, there is as much to be gleaned from any one of Kennedy’s plates as there is from any other exhibit in the building. Each is a study in seasonal simplicity and regional abundance as much as a celebration of unmitigated good taste.
Surrounded by history, Kennedy’s mind is, as always, firmly fixed upon the present with one eye on the future. As seasonally minded a chef as there is to be found in Canada, his perspective is rooted in his role as a culinary vanguard for the past two decades. Without a wink of irony, what keeps Kennedy on the cutting edge of haute cuisine is his deep-seated reverence for tradition and regionalism.
While the quiet enclave of the Gardiner restaurant is worlds away from the open-faced kitchen kinetics of the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar and the formality of the Jamie Kennedy Restaurant opened in 2005, it provides a delicious synthesis of the two. Combining an unabashed passion for primary sourcing and seasonal sustenance, all of Kennedy’s creations carry the hallmark of a philosophy that has served him, and his countless guests, extremely well.
Speaking in tones well suited to the museum environs, Kennedy summarizes his experience succinctly. “In the late 80s a number of us had grown tired of the status quo. Working together with Michael Staetlander and Mara Jernigan, I started to explore the options and began reaching out to find local opportunities for fresh ingredients and inspiration.”
It has been a journey that has garnered him countless dining devotees, as well as the professional regard of peers and media alike. While other chefs have attracted attention with bold strokes and trendy takes on the meal of the moment, Kennedy has built his reputation upon the newly emergent honesty of haute cuisine.
“People are that much more conscious in their pursuit of a ‘real’ food experience these days,” explained Kennedy in his soft, measured manner. “That is what we are able to bring to the table, thanks to the wealth of local producers in the region.”
And while Kennedy is curious to learn more about a local nut farm that has sprung up in Niagara, he admits that he rarely sources his ingredients from that far away.
“Even here in the heart of Toronto, I am not really having to touch Niagara. We have farms in Burlington, from the North, and from the surrounding areas that keep us incredibly well supplied,” he said. “Everyone thinks of Toronto as the big city, but there is more growing on the Toronto doorstep than most realize.”
Pleasing palates and opening minds to the wealth of local bounty with every dish served, Kennedy is in his element regardless of season. Seamlessly transitioning menus to match regional availability, inspiring his crews with the simple wisdom of season, and never losing touch with the kitchen, Kennedy’s blend of common sense and culinary legitimacy is one that will never tire.