POSTED JULY 7, 2020
Most people can remember where they were when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the associated ones at the Pentagon. Most of the citizens of Europe and the certainly the U.K. also know where they were when the London tube and various other locations were the subject of terrorist bombings on July 7, 2005. That was fifteen years ago today. Janice and Jim certainly know that second one well. They were on one of the bombed trains close to Kings Cross, two cars back from the bombing and had to walk out of the tube and then through the chaos, up to ground level. They were a bit dazed and confused (well that’s not unusual for Jim) and once out of the tube station walked a long way until they could get a cab for a luncheon with chef Jamie Oliver at his Fifteen restaurant. They were on their way to see the place, meet Jamie and to run a crazy idea by him. That lunch occurred, and the rest of this piece is the story of what led up to it and what happened after.
When people retire, especially if they retire young, they are “full of piss and vinegar” to quote my aunt. For the first time they don’t have to worry about paying the rent, or mortgage but still have the energy to do things and often have a pent up demand to pursue some interests.
On Jims 48th birthday, January 24, 2002 he retired. Yeah, how rude is that. He did not retire wealthy, but was able to retire at that age and had a lot of things he wanted to do. One of the long list he had was going back to school – cooking college. While the college was known mainly for turning out chefs, him main interest was not actual cooking classes but the investment side of the restaurant business. He wanted to understand why restaurant businesses fail at an even higher rate than most small businesses do.
What he learned was that there are essentially five reasons restaurants fail. The section THE CHEF UPSTAIRS details these elements. His goal with this food based business was to solve for each of these variables and design a business that would reduce these five risks.
So in 2004 Jim set out to find a building to buy to renovate the second floor for this purpose. He found one on Mt. Pleasant in Toronto, bought it, designed the space, designed the website, designed the logo, put together the business plan and the design for a two storey addition to accommodate the needs of the operation. This also involved the renovation of the ground floor for a second user in the building to pay rent to reduce overhead, and securing the permits and approvals. And of course – building it.
During this time he and Janice also went touring around to see various chefs to run the concept by them. One such outing was to London to see Jamie Oliver, which I referenced at the beginning of this piece. Jamie was a little startled about the crazy morning they had experienced with the bombing but was very gracious and they had an exceptional lunch and conversation.
The trip sounds extravagant to just go for lunch with Jamie Oliver but it was actually part of a trip to visit their son Jason who was doing summer studies at the University of Edinburgh and at Trinity College Dublin. So the trip was a bit of business but also visiting Jason in his last days at Edinburgh then traveling around Ireland and linking up with him again in Dublin to take him and a a friend out for another dinner.
As most things in their lives Janice was an important part of the design, and execution of The Chef Upstairs, but on this one Jim used the opportunity to teach Jade Autocad for the design work, and worked with Jason on part of the construction. By spring 2006 they were opened.
So from 2006 to 2008 Jim ran it with a chef and tweaked the operation. Some events were as small as two people for a wedding proposal dinner, but more often the events were regular demonstration style cooking classes on various themes, sometimes corporate dinners where privacy was a key feature, and often hybrids of this where the cooking class participants would be shown the preparation of a multi course meal and get to dine at the same time.
A big attraction was that because the space was only for the group that day or night, the tablecloths, napkin folds, music, and décor could be tailored to the group. There was also orchestration in the schedule where a group for example might work out a plan with the chef to have champagne and canapes on arrival, then have a little gap when someone would give a speech, then a first course followed by a presentation etc. For family get togethers the chef would duplicate grandmas famous chicken pot pie, or her apple crumble as best he could and do it in one of her dishes to make the whole thing a great alternative to having an event at home.
By 2007 it was successful, but by 2008 it was turning into a job, in contrast to a fun challenge, so Jim bought another building to do a second location on Queen Street in Toronto and found a buyer for the operation so he could build out locations for the new owners and rent them the space. Nice plan, but then the 2008 financial meltdown occurred. The new owners, were able to continue with the first location but could not expand.
Fast forward twelve years to 2020 and the business still continues under the skillful hands of the brother and sister team of Greg Heller and Lori Heller, who were the buyers at that time, and they have added a hands- on second location for cooking classes. You can check out the current operation at: thechefupstairs.com
Ah but before I leave you there is a bit of a corollary to the Jamie Oliver story. While it had always been hoped that Jamie would fly over to Toronto one day to teach a class at The Chef Upstairs, that did not happen. What did occur however was that he did a book launch at the facility. Good on ya, Jamie. A couple images follow.
So that’s the story of what happened to Janice and Jim fifteen years ago today on July 7, 2005 and an introduction to The Chef Upstairs. I am working on that little section of the website to detail it a bit more than this as it was a big part of Jims life for a few years. Look for it in the next couple of months.