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The "Bad Boy" of Island Cuisine

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By Fresh Bites

When you first meet him, he is hardly the vision of a man you’d expect to see icing a cake, de-glazing a pan, or sulking over a ruined soufflé.  With a bandana, tattoos, wrap-around shades, and biker boots, he looks more like a member of  Jesse James’ West Coast Choppers crew than an acclaimed chef.  But then again, this is why he is known as the bad-boy chef of Prince Edward Island.  If the island’s culinary scene was a Shakespearean play, the famous Chef Michael Smith with his easy meals, pristine pantry, and quiet island lifestyle would be the antithesis to Chef Gordon Bailey.  When he came to Toronto a few months back for the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, we met up with Chef Bailey for a few beers to learn more about the man who is making a significant impression on islanders and visitors alike.

At 33 years of age, he has been living on the island for 11 years after moving from Winnipeg to Summerside.  He still remembers when he arrived on the island on a crisp November day, when the tourist season begins to shut down, looking for a job.  He ended up working for free at a place that told him they “might have something available in a few months”.  They liked his work ethic and it turned into a full-time role which lasted 2 years.

He has no professional training, rather, years of experience working at various restaurants and cooking in the kitchen since he was 13 years old.  His training really took off when he landed on the island at age 22.  He spent two years at Seasons in Thyme, a restaurant in Summerside famous for its local focus and fresh seafood creations.  With two years under his belt, he entered a culinary contest, won second place, and left for Europe.  He spent the next 6 months working at various restaurants for free in and around Nice, France.  Here, he learned new techniques from the old-world masters in baking, braising, sauces, and more.  He explored the famous markets everyone had told him about but had never experienced on his own.  It was here, he explained, “I learned that food wasn’t just food for the body, it was food for the soul”.

After his lessons in Europe, he headed back to Canada to be part of Team BC at the 2000 Culinary Olympics and afterwards, at age 23, he landed the Executive Chef role at the Inn at Bay Fortune,  the famous inn and dining destination where Chef Michael Smith defined himself as “the Inn Chef”.  It was here that he learned the “other” side of the business – management skills.  “I had immense butterflies on the first day” commented Chef Bailey.  His three years as Executive Chef taught him to create a menu from scratch, the importance of people management and budgeting.  It is also where he defined his own style of cuisine.

Minimalistic is the best term to describe his cooking.  “I try to keep it limited to 2-3 flavours on a plate” commented Chef Bailey, “because the island allows me to work with really great product without having to fuck with it” he laughed.  He further explained that great cooking is all about finding the best products and highlighting them, not hiding them.  His must-read for any aspiring cook?  The French Laundry was the cookbook he found to be most inspirational – “anyone could actually replicate the dishes”.  But enough food philosophy, back to his career.

After three years at the Inn at Bay Fortune, he left the world of cooking to “clear his head”.  He could have gone to Europe again, or worked on a cookbook.  Instead, he opened a custom bike shop.  He left the stoves for a year and focused on making bikes from scratch.  He had always had a knack for it and spent many an hour in his own garage prepping and enhancing his own bike.  “There are parallels between cooking and building custom bikes”, commented Chef Bailey. “Both take raw ingredients or sheet metal and our hands are used to create an end product – there are so many possible outcomes”. 

In his one year sabbatical, he built two customized motorbikes and then went back to the kitchen in 2005 at a restaurant called Dayboat in Oysterbed Bridge, PEI.  Named after a fishing vessel that heads out early in the morning and returns by noon, the restaurant was on the water and off the highway and quickly became recognized as a Canadian gem.  EnRoute magazine named it one of the Top 10 best new Canadian restaurants of that year.  Here, he had the opportunity to work with some of the best seafood the island had to offer.  It was a seasonal place offering dining service from May to the end of October and his first experience as a restaurateur – not alone, but with a partner.  New York restaurateur Robert Shapiro had experienced his cooking at Inn at Bay Fortune and it only took one meal to launch a new business partnership.

“Being an owner of a restaurant with a partner doesn’t always work out” commented Chef Bailey.  He explained that while the restaurant was great and he was thrilled to be an owner, it was not the right fit for him.  After two seasons, he left the partnership.  He had learned some lessons from the experience and knew that if he was going to do a restaurant, he wanted to do it a different way.  But starting a restaurant of your own takes money and he had two choices, go back to making motorbikes or capitalize on his creativity as a culinary consultant.  He chose the latter and his next gig would prove to be very interesting.

Confederation Court Mall, in the centre of Charlottetown, needed a facelift when it came to dining options.  Instead of opting for a new design and filling it with franchised fast-food chains, Chef Bailey helped to create a destination take-out concept called The Urban Eatery.  While a food court, the Urban Eatery is a collection of themed purveyors offering fresh food that happens to be fast.  As part of the creative process, Chef Bailey introduced eight eateries which share resources yet offer very different cuisines.  The Ground-n-Pound offers barbecued meats, rotisserie chicken, and gourmet burgers.  Nearby, the Ripe Tomato offers stone baked pizzas while Vigor provides shaken and frozen “mocktails”, juices, and iced coffees.  A specialty coffee shop called Kickstart provides gourmet coffee and the Soup Guru offers daily fresh soups.  There is even a deli.  “I named each place within an hour” commented Chef Bailey with a laugh.  “It was fun to create a food court from scratch.”

It also provided him with the money he needed to open his current restaurant, Lot 30.  Named after the original 30th lot of the 400 lots divided up to make the original plan for Charlottetown, the restaurant is getting great reviews locally and press internationally.  It is a 68 seat dining room with a 16 seat bar and Chef Bailey and his team serve between 80 and 100 plates an evening.  “We highlight what we have in PEI at Lot 30” commented Chef Bailey, “with 95% of our ingredients coming from the island”.  Of course, this means plenty of seafood.  Everything is fresh at Lot 30 and the only freezer is a small chest version for storing ice cream.  The signature dishes include a Panko Butter Baked Oysters (See Recipe) and a Chilled Citrus Lobster Salad (See Recipe).  While seafood is a major specialty of Lot 30, they also offer a braised lamb duo, charcuterie, and seasonal features.  The focus is on the local.  We asked him what he liked about having his own restaurant.  “It’s mine!” he exclaimed with a smile.  And what don’t you like about it? “It’s mine, and all the bills that go with it”, he quickly laughed back.

One of the innovative features inside the restaurant are the “live cams” of his hands on the television monitors inside the restaurant.  At Daniel Boulud’s New York eatery Daniel, the kitchen crew watches the diners to know when to start the next course.  Technology used to perfect the service in a realm where timing is everything.  “We do the opposite” commented Chef Bailey.  “Many have never seen the work done by a chef to create their meal and this voyeur camera has been received well by our patrons”.  One can sit and enjoy a little “food porn” while they wait for their meal, observing only the hands of the cooks as they shuck oysters, plate a dish, or garnish and entrée.

After 11 years on the island, Chef Gordon Bailey is a great example for young aspiring chefs.  His first job was anything but glamorous and he worked for free to prove himself.  He did not attend the finest cooking schools and instead, learned on his own through practice and finding mentors.  He took the opportunity to take world experiences and use them to perfect his skills.  Many lessons can be learned from this 33 year old “bad boy of island cuisine”.  Mistakes happen and sometimes you learn hard lessons when an offer is too good to be true.  However, perseverance and a commitment to the quality of the food are key and staying true to this will bring success, eventually.  That, and hobbies like custom motorbikes to keep your sanity.

 

To help you enjoy a bit of Prince Edward Island in your own home, Chef Gordon Bailey provided us with two great recipes from Lot 30,

Panko Butter Baked Oysters

Chilled Citrus Lobster Salad

Give them a try this weekend!



Comments


This was a delightful and light read! It was great to get a behind-the-scenes and in-the-making of Lot30. Just when I thought I couldn't like the crew from Lot30 any more I hear about the road traveled to introduce Charlottetown to such fine dining and, yup..intrigue went up a notch :)!
Post Reply By Sherry in CHARLOTTETOWN on 2/7/2018 8:46:54 PM

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