The holidays will be different in 2020, and local restaurants and food businesses have created new ways to gather virtually and entertain and exchange gifts with family and friends, or thank staff and employees at year’s end.
Waterloo Region native Jeff Ward is Executive Chef at The Walper Hotel and the boutique hotel’s TWH Social bistro with its entrance off King Street in downtown Kitchener. Ward very familiar with the downtown of the city and Waterloo Region in general, but at the same time he has brought another perspective to his work here.
“I grew up in Kitchener,” says Ward who has stopped counting the years he’s been in the culinary industry, “but I spent about 20 years working in Toronto.”
As a kid, he washed dishes at the former Graystones in Cambridge and eventually headed off to the Stratford Chefs School. He soon was working various cooking stations in Oliver & Bonacini kitchens, and is familiar working alongside co-owner Michael Bonacini, a premier Canadian chef and restaurateur. That, Ward says, was an experience that was tough but which taught him a lot. And the training helped him open something of a landmark restaurant in Kitchener a few years ago, Marisol Restaurante, as well as help give him the foundation he uses to teach new cooks.
This June, Ward will celebrate three years with The Walper. “I’ve been downtown here for almost eight years, and I’ve seen it go full circle as far as dining and how people now see it as place to come visit to eat. Just think of the very good restaurants that make up our core,” he says, citing several in a single block just minutes from Social.
Regarding the Walper organization, Ward says he’s excited about the major refurbishing and new energy at the hotel “from the old bones out,” he says. “The Social is an outstanding example of that much, much beyond the food. It’s the look, the feel and the design that stretches out into the hotel. It’s a unique boutique hotel you won’t find anywhere else in Kitchener and very few places in Toronto.”
At Social, Ward has built a food and beverage program that is dedicated to simple, robust flavours without unnecessary adornment. “It’s recognizable ingredients done well and treated with respect. It is comfortable food that you can come once a week and enjoy,” he says. For the hotel, the same applies but the setting is ballroom grandeur and the classic Walper atmosphere. “There are some great business facilities here too,” he adds.
When it comes to beverages, Ward says they are pretty much local beers. “Typically, they are all southern Ontario craft beers,” he says. “It’s a profile we wanted to focus on.” The Social’s coffee is from Hacienda Coffee, while in the hotel it’s coffee from Smile Tiger. “We did a blind taste-taste here and Hacienda was the winner.”
All of that is secondary to what motivates Ward in his work with his staff. “I think we can’t forget that food is all about the basics. Something like classic Italian food is based on using ingredients around you and keeping it simple. Less is more,” says Ward who strives to teach young cooks that important philosophy.
“If you know the building blocks of food, you can take four ingredients and make it wonderful. I teach that philosophy and want to get young cooks excited about cooking. It’s a passion, and there hasn’t been one day in my career that this has really felt like work. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else, really.”
Rapid-fire round with Executive Chef Jeff Ward
Explore Waterloo Region: Best thing you’ve ever eaten?
Ward: There’s so much recently, but I would say crispy chicken skin at Jackpot Chicken Rice, on Spadina in Toronto.
Other career you could have pursued?
Ward: Police officer.
Ward: A craft beer. Or a single malt.
Something that gives you pleasure?
Ward: Mentoring young cooks.
Chef you’d most like to meet?
Ward: Anthony Bourdain.
What scares you in a kitchen?
Ward: Clumsy cooks.
Do you ride a bike?
Ward: On occasion.
Best footwear (for the kitchen or otherwise)?
Ward: Sika clogs in the kitchen. Blundstones outside.
A favourite teacher you’ve had?
Ward: A teacher in grade six. I had a big crush on her.
Who would you like to cook for?
Ward: “Bands” – Black Keys and Rolling Stones
Best thing about being a chef?
Ward: Enjoying every day and not feeling like “I have to go to work.”
Favourite city, other than in Waterloo Region?
Ward: “Cities” – Chicago and Toronto.
TV chefs who annoy you?
Ward: Guy Fieri and Rachael Ray