Life On The Line

Life On The Line

I never expected my life to turn out the way it did. I faced disillusionment with my industry, the heartbreaking loss of my mother, and a devastating car accident. But through it all, I found the strength to overcome these challenges and realize the dreams I didn’t even know I had.

This is the story of my journey. It’s a story about resilience, determination, and the power of the human spirit. It’s a story about finding hope in the darkest of times and never giving up on your dreams. Thank you for joining me on this journey and I hope my story inspires you to chase your own dreams and overcome any obstacles that may come your way.

I knew I had to make a choice. I couldn’t pursue both my passion for music and my love for cooking at the same time. So, I made the difficult decision to leave my band and move to Montreal to fully focus on my culinary career. I was 27 years old and this was the biggest decision I had made in my life up until that point.

But that decision changed everything. It led me to my dream job, to the Yukon, to earning my Red Seal certification, and eventually to meeting my wife and having my son. It set in motion a series of events that would shape the next decade of my life.

This isn’t a story about everything going perfectly and getting exactly what you want. It’s a story about disappointment, loss, pain, love, and self-discovery. It’s my story, and I’m grateful you’re taking the time to read it.

I was in my early 20s when I started my band. At the time, I was working as a cook at a diner. It wasn’t the type of high-end cooking I had always dreamed of doing as a child, but it was a start. I wasn’t the kind of person who made concrete plans or took action towards achieving my dreams. I just talked about them and didn’t do much else.

But everything changed when my roommate and I started playing music with some friends in our spare time. It was fun and we decided to form a band, called The Baketones. We were young and full of energy, and starting this band was a great experience. It was the push I needed to pursue my passion for cooking and start working towards my dreams.

As a garage rock band with a 60s punk style, we found some minor success. But eventually, we had to decide whether we wanted to pursue the band full-time or keep it as a hobby.

I eventually left the diner and, to my surprise, landed a job at an upscale steak and seafood restaurant. The chef, Brad, saw potential in me and gave me a chance. However, I quickly realized that I was in over my head. I had always dreamed of cooking high-end food like they did at the restaurant, but my anxiety and fear held me back. I was the only person on the team who hadn’t gone to culinary school and I let that insecurity get the best of me. Instead of asking questions and learning from my colleagues, I kept to myself and let my fear consume me. As a result, I didn’t fit in and I struggled.

But luck was on my side. The company had a more casual restaurant that needed someone, and I was transferred there. I felt more comfortable in this setting and began to thrive. Within two weeks, I was promoted to sous chef. It was then that I realized that even though I may not have had the same level of formal education as the other cooks, I was just as talented as them. From that moment on, I set out to learn everything I could and level the playing field. My culinary education had truly begun.

My Education

I never really enjoyed school. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work or understand the material, I just never applied myself and saw no point in it. Plus, during my last few months of high school, I was working two jobs and living on my own, so there wasn’t much time for studying. After high school, I had every intention of going to culinary school, but I was afraid of failing and created all sorts of imaginary obstacles to prevent me from trying. I had never cared about anything before, but cooking was my dream since I was a child. What if I went to culinary school and failed? It seemed safer to not try at all.

That decision ended up haunting me for years. As a final blow, the head of the awards committee told me at my high school graduation that if I had decided to go to culinary school, they would have given me enough scholarship money to cover the entire cost. My fear held me back from pursuing my dream and it was a mistake that I regret to this day.

There are many things that culinary school doesn’t teach you, things that can only be learned through real-world experience. However, what you do get from culinary school is a foundation of knowledge. You learn the language of food and this is where cooks who went to culinary school had an advantage over me. But when it came to real-world experience – being able to work a busy line, cook multiple dishes at once, think on my feet and solve problems quickly – I had the upper hand. I knew that if I filled in the gaps in my knowledge, I would be a force to be reckoned with. So, for the first time in my life, I applied myself. I studied every cookbook I could get my hands on, asked questions, read, and cooked constantly. Over a few years, I filled in most of the gaps that had held me back.

But once again, I found myself in a job that I didn’t love but didn’t hate. I felt trapped and stagnant, not just in my career but also in my relationship and the band. I had reached a point where I had taught myself everything I could and I needed to find a new teacher.

The summer I was 25, the four other members of the band and I packed into our drummer’s 1984 Volkswagen Westfalia and went on tour around New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario. It was two weeks of intense, crazy fun combined with long, hot, monotonous drives. That trip marked my first visit to Montreal, a city that would play a significant role in my future.

The decision to change it all.

I was twenty-seven when I decided to blow up my life. That may sound a bit dramatic, but it’s kind of what happened. I broke up with my girlfriend in March, it was now July, and I was still living with her and one of my bandmates. It was not a good situation. At some point that month, I was talking to my mom on the phone, and I mentioned how I was feeling depressed, and like I just wasn’t going anywhere with my life. She made an off the cuff suggestion that I should move to Montreal (as I had loved it so much when the band was on tour a few years earlier), I don’t know if she expected me to jump at that like I did or not, but I did. Six weeks after that phone call with my mom, I got off a plane in Montreal with no job, nowhere to live, very little money, and no plan. All of my stuff was either sold or in storage back in Nova Scotia. On the surface, it wasn’t the smartest move I’d ever made.

My mom telling me that I should move to Montreal gave me the permission that I needed to make that decision. It wasn’t that I need her approval. It was just that in my mind, I would now be able to justify failure. It was my mom’s idea, not mine; if I failed, I could pin the whole thing on her. Really though, it was what I wanted. I knew it was what I wanted, I was just too scared to do anything about it. The thing is, that when you put yourself in a crazy situation like being in a strange city, where half the people speak a different language, and you have nowhere to go, you figure out pretty quickly that this is your responsibility. No one is coming to save you. Blaming someone else doesn’t mean anything when you’re facing sleeping on the street for the night. So, I scrambled. I got in a taxi and told the driver to take me to his favourite cafe downtown. I went in, ordered a coffee and a croissant, as one does, and searched local listings for apartments, hostels, anything. One of the many things that I hadn’t taken into account was that this was a holiday weekend and every hotel and hostel was full. Luckily, after an hour or two of full-blown panic, someone had gotten back to me. By late in the afternoon, I was standing in my very own fully furnished bachelor’s apartment. It was a dump, but I didn’t care. It was cheap, and it was mine. I had stepped up for maybe the second or third time in my life and took control of something that mattered. I was proud of myself. But if I wanted to stay in Montreal, I needed money. It was time to find a job.

I had gone to Montreal to learn, not just to live and work. I needed a job, but more importantly, I need something that was going to teach me the things that I needed and wanted to know. The first call back I got came a day or two after I had arrived. It was a Chinese Restaurant on the other side of the city. I thought about it. It was a hard choice to turn down that offer as I had no other prospects at the time, but I couldn’t accept a job that was going to be just another job. On my fourth day in Montreal, I got another callback. This one was a Bistro and was only three train stops away. I went to the interview, got offered the job, and accepted immediately.

Olivieri

Bistro Olivieri was a small restaurant tucked into the back of a French Bookstore in the Côte-des-Neiges region of Montreal. The menu changed twice a day, every day and regularly featured offal like heart, kidneys, and even goat testicles. What was even crazier to me than the fact that these would be put on the menu was that they would sell out! You could never put goat testicles on a menu in Halifax and expect to sell even one order, let alone all of them. (Goat testicles are surprisingly delicious by the way. If you ever get the chance, try them.) The Chef at the bistro was a man from Alberta named Craig who’s food was influenced by Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. I was able to learn a lot from him even though I was only there a short while.

It was about two weeks after I had started at Bistro Olivieri that Craig announced that the sous chef would be leaving. That same day I was offered the position. Being the sous chef meant that I would be responsible for writing the lunchtime menu every day and getting Craig prepared for the evening service as well as doing the ordering, helping with inventory, and organizing the kitchen. It also came with a pay raise. Of course, I said yes, this was my dream job. I got to push myself and learn new things every day. It was amazing! It was the most fulfilled I had ever felt in a job, and I loved living in Montreal even though I was lonely. It was everything I had wanted it to be. But then in late January, early February, I got a call from my sister that my mom was in the hospital. It wasn’t urgent to the point that I need to come home, but I needed to be prepared to get back to Nova Scotia quickly if I had to. By late February I had sold or given away the few things I had accumulated in Montreal, I told Craig that I probably wasn’t coming back, and I got on a train headed for home.

Mom

I had been home at Christmas and could tell that my mom wasn’t doing great, but I had spent all of my life expecting to wake up, to my find mom dead. That sounds dramatic, I know, but she had been sick her whole life. She had spent most of her childhood in and out of the hospital. Before she had even started school, she had undergone multiple surgeries on her kidneys and had been pronounced dead a few times. But, my mom was a fighter. She had been through that, and despite being told she would never have kids, she had three. She went through being a single mother and moving with three small kids out of the city, to an old farmhouse that was so poorly insulated that frost would form on the walls on especially cold days. She chopped the wood for the fire, washed our clothes in the bathtub by hand and looked after all three of us while doing it. To put it mildly, my mom was a superhero. It may seem crazy to have moved so abruptly to the country, but when I was three, I was beaten pretty badly by some neighbourhood kids with hockey sticks, and my mom had had enough. So, she did what she thought was best for us. On top of all of this, when I was in my early twenties, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She beat it without chemo because her kidneys wouldn’t have been able to take it. She was not a woman who was going to go down easily. So, when I saw her at Christmas of that year, I knew she wasn’t doing great, but I didn’t know how bad it was.

I got home sometime at the end of February. The couple weeks before me leaving Montreal had been pretty rough. My family was hurting, and I was far away. I felt utterly alone, and I was drinking a lot to help cope with the pain, and it was affecting my work. Craig understood what I was going through, he had lost his mother a few years before, and he was incredibly supportive, but he couldn’t keep covering for me, and I knew that. So, when it was time for me to go home, it was also time for me to leave the bistro. I could have gone back, but in some ways, the conversation I had had with my mom that pushed me to go to Montreal, had created a connection to her there. When she died, a few weeks after I got home, I couldn’t bear to be anywhere that reminded me of her. So, I abandon the job that I had been dreaming of since I was a little boy.

When I had come home at Christmas that year, I had met a girl who lived in the Yukon and was back in Nova Scotia, visiting our mutual friends. She had come to stay with me for a few weeks in Montreal in January, and she invited me to stay with her (and her mom) in Whitehorse. A little more than two weeks after my mom died, I got on another plane, went to the other side of the country, and started a new chapter of my life.

Whitehorse

I arrived in Whitehorse on April 5, 2013; it was minus 35°f. April 5 happens to be both mine and the girl I was going to stay with’s birthday. The girl was Suzanne, who is now my wife and the mother of my son, but then, she was a girl I had known for four months. It was crazy that I had packed my bag and moved to the Yukon to be with a woman I hardly knew, but it didn’t seem crazy to either of us. It seemed like the most practical thing in the world. Once again, I found myself in a strange place with no job, luckily this time, I knew someone and had a place to stay. It took a little longer for me to find a job in Whitehorse than it had in Montreal, but I did eventually find one at a brand new restaurant, it wasn’t even open yet. The chef, Rob, was Hungarian and like Craig, and Brad before him, taught me a lot. But other than making a few good friends, and cooking a lot of good food, I got two precious things out of Whitehorse. I got my wife, and I got my red seal.

I don’t remember what the specific catalyst was that drove me to pursue my red seal; maybe it was Suzanne, perhaps it was the guys at work who already had theirs. Whatever the push to do it was, I was doing it. Generally speaking, there are two paths to getting your red seal. The first and most common path it is to go to school and get your journeyman papers, then do an apprenticeship and eventually, when you have accumulated enough hours, do a practical and a written exam. The other way is to work for years, declare that you think you know enough and have learned enough to pass the test. You have to prove that you have worked enough hours in a variety of restaurants and styles of cooking, then write the test. Obviously, I took the second path.

It was sometime in late May or early June when I contacted the Yukon apprenticeship board and declared my intent to write the test. The next available time to write it was in October so, I spent the next four months reading the culinary textbooks I had collected over the years and picking my chef and sous chef’s brains for information. By the time October rolled around, I was as ready as I was going to be. I went in and wrote the test passed it in, and waited to hear back about my results, which took twentyone agonizing days.

For those of you that don’t know, a red seal is an interprovincial trade recognition in Canada. Every trade from plumbing to electricians, to cooks, have it. It signifies that you know enough about your trade that an employer anywhere in Canada can confidently higher you. In most trades, getting your red seal also means a pay bump and more job options. What I learned after I got my red seal is that in cooking, it means pretty much nothing unless you work in hotels. But, at the time, it meant the world to me. It was my way to clearly and decisively prove to myself and anyone that doubted me that I knew just as much as anyone who had gone to culinary school. Finally, it showed me that the decision I had made a few years earlier to quit music and focus on cooking was the right one. Up until that point, it was the biggest and most proud accomplishment of my life.

As happy as I was to get my red seal, the moment I found out I passed was bittersweet. The person I wanted to tell most in the world was my mom. I knew how much it would have meant to her. It had been less than a year since she had passed away and it was her death that had pushed me to Whitehorse, and probably to get my red seal too. In some way, it feels like that was her final gift to me.

Turn the page

Shortly after, I got my red seal Suzanne, and I returned to Nova Scotia. It was home, and we both missed it. Other than getting my red seal, my only real goal was to become a head chef; that became my focus and caused me to make a few lousy career decisions. I was chasing the title of “Chef” rather than just trying to become the best chef I could be. I ended up running a few places that I shouldn’t have had anything to do with, which caused me to spiral out of control a little bit. Once again, I found myself drinking more than I should have been and falling into a bit of a depression. Just like before I had left for Montreal, I felt like I was just floating around with no direction. I was feeling this build-up of frustration with the industry where I had spent my whole adult life. I had my red seal, I had proved myself, yet I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I was the only person that my red seal seemed to matter too. What I thought was going to be a golden ticket was nothing more than a laminated piece of paper taking up space in my wallet. I was at the point where I was ready to walk away forever. I just didn’t know what else I would do.

The only shining light during this dark period was that my relationship with Suzanne was going great, to the point that we got engaged. She saw what was going on with me, and I think she was feeling it in her own work life, and so we decided to quit our jobs and go to Portugal for five weeks. It was a fantastic trip, but when we came back, we found ourselves again in the same position we were in before we left. Only this time, we were poorer and had to find new jobs and a new place to live. Rather than focusing on getting our work lives on track, we found mediocre jobs and focused our attention on planning our wedding.

On June 4 of 2016, Suzanne and I got married only a few feet away from where four years prior, I had told my bandmates I was quitting and moving to Montreal. Two months later, to the day, I was driving Suzanne to a bus station in Truro. It was raining. A kid, nineteen or twenty years old, was speeding, lost control of his car and hit our back driverside tire going at least 115 – 120 km. Our car spun out of control, possibly flipped, (we aren’t sure), crossed two lanes of traffic, and landed hard backwards in the median. Thankfully, everyone involved survived. But even though our injuries were classified as minor, they led to over three years of physiotherapy, chronic pain, stress, and depression. It wasn’t a great way to spend the first few years of our marriage.

Luckily, Suzanne’s injuries were less severe than mine, though it was no less traumatic an experience for her, then it was for me. My injuries were mainly sustained to my neck and shoulder. These “minor injuries” had a significant impact on my work. I was only able to perform limited duties for four hour days three days a week, and even that was more than I could handle at times. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t cook professionally. It was all I had ever done, and now I couldn’t do it. I was scared and lost. But then I got an offer from a catering company where Brad, the first chef to take me under his wing, worked. They wanted to start a cooking school and thought I would be a good fit. I didn’t have to cook day to day, which would be good for my body, and there was a lot of paperwork today, which was something I could do with my injuries. On top of all of this, I got to work with Brad again. So, I quit my job and went to work at the catering company.

Catering

I realized pretty quickly that the catering company and the job wasn’t what I thought it was. And once again, I found myself at a job I didn’t like, but this time I felt like I was being taken advantage of, and I had no other option. Because of my injuries, I couldn’t go to work in another kitchen anymore and I wasn’t qualified to do anything else. I was stuck.

The catering company pushed me into the public eye as the face of the company doing TV appearances and hosting an online cooking show. I didn’t mind doing these things, but I did mind that my face was so strongly linked to a company that was doing things I disagreed with and had no power to change. But I knew that my job hinged on me continuing to put my face out there. I needed some sort of backup plan, so I started this blog and an Instagram account, and before long, I started to get some notoriety on my own. I did an interview in the paper specifically about my Instagram account, and I got a call to do a TV spot completely separate from the catering company. To be clear, I wasn’t selling anything. I wasn’t taking business away from the catering company at all. But they didn’t like that I was getting the attention that in some ways was overshadowing them. I saw it as a good thing for the company because everything I did was linked back to them and gave them free publicity. That wasn’t enough. Then one day, near the end of April in 2018, I had a meeting with the owner of the company and the operations manager. It was made clear that I either had to delete this blog and my Instagram account, or I didn’t have a job anymore. Despite not having any real plan or prospects that was the easiest decision I’ve ever made.

Exiting the airport again

Leaving the catering company was both relieving and terrifying. I had that same feeling as when I walked out of the airport in Montreal. I knew that despite my fear and anxiety, it was my responsibility to figure this out, I got right to work. I knew that I couldn’t work every day in a kitchen anymore, but I figured that I could cook a few times a week as long as I didn’t have to keep pace with other cooks. There was a clear path for me to take. I just wasn’t sure how lucrative it would be.

For years, I had wanted to start my own business teaching cooking lessons and doing private dinners. I had even done a few before I move to Montreal, but at that time, I didn’t feel like I had the knowledge and skill to pull it off, that wasn’t a problem anymore. I had my red seal, and I had taught countless cooking lessons with the catering company, and I felt ready. Within a week or two, I had my first client for a series of cooking classes. Shortly after that, I got a few bookings for dinners, and within a month, I was making my living solely from dinners and lessons. There was no one telling me what to do. I cooked the food I wanted, and I worked when I wanted. For the first time in my life, I felt entirely free. I wasn’t rich, but I felt like I was. Over the next two years, the business continued to grow, and I began to make more money than I ever had working in restaurants, then came COVID.

The Now Times

In October of 2019, Suzanne gave birth to our son Llewyn. We knew before he was born that we didn’t want him to grow up in the city, so moving out of downtown Dartmouth where we lived, had long been on our minds. (In another strange turn of fate, we lived only a few blocks from where my mother had first packed us up and moved to the country.) But, as my business was still under two years old at that point we weren’t able to get a mortgage and we didn’t see the point in renting somewhere else. So, we put it off and put it off. Then just as COVID was hitting we had the opportunity to move to a family-owned home in Cape Breton. My business was completely shut down, it’s pretty hard to have a chef come into your house when you are social distancing, so we took the opportunity and moved to Cape Breton where we now live.

 

We are just coming out the tail-end of COVID and no one really knows what’s going to happen in the short term. What I do know is that it will be a while before my business is back to full strength, if it ever gets back to that point. Once again, I find myself with only one clear direction, this blog. I have been writing this blog for over three years and have published almost four hundred posts but until now it was always a hobby. I have always loved teaching people about food. Now, as time has progressed and I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never be able to work in a professional kitchen again, my passion has shifted more towards teaching as opposed to cooking. And so my goal now is to make this blog my full-time job. I want to be able to dedicate myself to sharing everything that I have learned over the years and I hope that you join me on this new and exciting adventure.

Thank you so much for reading my story. If you’d like to be a part of it, you can do so by subscribing to the blog below, by sharing a few of your favourite Chef’s Notes posts on Facebook or Pinterest. Finally, if you ever have any questions, have a suggestion for a post, or just want to say hello you can do so on the contact me page.

Thank you,

Ben

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