Chef Jennifer Dewasha is the Executive Chef of Colette Grand Café in Toronto. Colette is a picture-perfect French bistro serving updated classic dishes, found on the ground level of the Thompson Hotel. Joining the team in 2016, Chef Jennifer is a passionate supporter of local agriculture and sustainable products. Her impressive culinary experience kicked off in her teenage years where she spent weekends farming, gardening and expanding her knowledge and passion for food through hosting local, community-focused events.
From attending George Brown College to working for famed Chef Daniel Boulud at DB Brasserie, to working at the three star Michelin rated restaurant, Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas - her remarkable journey landed her back in Canada, opening Café Boulud at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto before moving to Colette in 2016.
We were thrilled to chat with Chef Jennifer about her favourite go-to meal, most under-rated spice, and advice she’d give women wanting to follow in her footsteps today.
What, in your opinion, is the most underrated or underused spice?
Mace. I love the summer cherry season and preserve both sweet and sour cherries with mace, simple syrup and long peppercorns. At Colette, we use these mace-infused cherries on ice cream, vanilla cake, and cocktails. The mace is the inner layer of the nutmeg skin. The peel is a bright red, lacy skin covering the nutmeg seed. Mace adds a subtle nutmeg flavour in savory sauces, sausages, soup, and charcuterie.
You’re a member of the Wahta Mohawks First Nation and studied Aboriginal Cuisine at George Brown. Is there a particular food or dish from your culture you would like to see on more menus across the city?
Wild game meats and fowl. The government has certain restrictions on restaurants serving wild meats in Ontario. These regulations limit exposing First Nation culinary experiences in the city. If hunting is monitored in a sustainable manner and protocols put in place so that these products are being handled and stored properly, we should celebrate these gifts of food at our tables. The flavour in wild game meat is incredible and nutritionally rich. Garnishes of local berries, tree bark essences, wild mushrooms and plants that grow in the Canadian Shield area accent these meats. There also needs to be an understanding that these products are special, unique to this terroir, and should be celebrated. I would like to see us giving thanks in ceremonies and on menus to share the First Nation culture with guests.
What’s your ‘go-to’ meal to cook at home, either for yourself and for when you're entertaining?
During the winter months, it is braising. While working for Chef Daniel Boulud in Las Vegas, there were a lot of short ribs and veal cheeks. For me, there is nothing quite like putting a pot of short ribs in the oven with some red wine, garlic, herbs, and vegetables. Sit back and let the magic happen. Turn on a movie and let the oven heat your house. The aroma of the garlic, wine, beef, and vegetables will tell your senses when dinner is ready because cooking is about using your senses; smelling the food, listening for a slow simmer, feeling the temperature of the oven rise, and of course, tasting. Robuchon pommes purée with French-style butter matches perfectly with the braise.
What dish on Colette’s menu do you enjoy making the most?
We have a weekday salad bar for lunch priced at $25. We showcase what is in season. Some of our favourites during this season are eggplant with coco beans, black garlic, and buttermilk; roasted apricot and brie tartines; jade cucumber, dill, and yogurt; roasted cauliflower, vadouvan oil, chickpeas, and labneh; and heirloom carrots, forbidden rice, kale, walnut tarator sauce, and dates.
I like to think of recipes as the distillation of lifetimes of experiences. What dish on Colette’s menu do you think represents your experiences the most and why?
Many dishes hold a lot of memories and experiences for me. The pommes purée I first experienced at Robuchon was silky smooth with a velvety texture that melted on your tongue. Making reduction sauces like Colette's Duck a L’Orange takes great pride; when you see the clarity and taste the intense flavour of the jus. It is about following proper techniques. I like also enjoy dealing with farmers that grow products that speak for themselves. The New Farm in Creemore, Ontario, grows my favourite spicy salad greens that pair well with oven-roasted apricots, fresh sheep’s cheese and just a few drops of olive oil. When people care about what they produce, your menu item can only get better with a few simple and classic steps.
What is the best advice you would give to young women who want to follow your footsteps in this industry?
Put yourself out there and do things you don’t always feel comfortable doing. Don’t hide in routine. When I was applying for jobs after George Brown, I had to do a cooking test at the Royal York Hotel. I was terrified to cook for Chef George McNeil at the time. I called the kitchen trying to tell the Sous Chef I didn’t want the job and wasn’t going to come in for the interview. She encouraged me to show up for my cooking interview and offered me guidance with my menu. I always remember her supportive coaching and encouragement to try new things and to do my best. I try to mentor young cooks in the industry. They need to make new dishes, learn new techniques and to not be afraid to fail. You learn from your mistakes and get stronger, not just in the kitchen, but in life.