BATHURST – Last January, Joel Aubie saw his downtown restaurant damaged by a fire just two weeks away from the opening date. A year later, the former Top Chef Canada contestant has rebuilt and opened Fresco Kitchen.
“It certainly was the most challenging thing I’ve ever been through in my life out of all the experiences I have,” he says. “Seeing a project that was at 95 per cent completion be destroyed in a matter of minutes, it set us back.”
The restaurant suffered water damage that ended up being a 100 per cent loss for Aubie. He had put everything on the line, and the event took a toll on his mental health.
“I was head down for about two weeks once it sank in what happened, the realization of how big of a setback it was,” he says. “So, definitely the first couple of nights I literally cried into my beer.”
The 33-year-old chef also owns Jobie’s Mobile Kitchen, a food truck that serves burgers and salads in the summer. After the fire, the food truck had a good season which allowed Aubie to shift his focus to rebuilding the restaurant. It opened in November.
“I was super proud to be able to have [opened the restaurant] and turn it around and kind of come through. I definitely feel it from my community,” he says. “Now that we’ve opened I can tell that they look at me like, ‘Okay, this guy’s got courage.'”
At Fresco, Aubie serves “modern Canadian” cuisine, which draws inspiration from all over the world but also uses local sources of ingredients. By serving fresh home-made pasta, smoked salmon, seasonal soups and salads in the casual fine-dining restaurant, Aubie says he feels grateful he can do what he loves to do – cooking.
“I get the feeling of reward that I get from doing what I do for a living, that’s always what has driven me with cooking. It’s making people happy through food. And that’s what I get to do now every day, and for that I’m super stoked,” he says.
The 34-seat restaurant has been quite popular. On weekends, customers have to reserve a day ahead to get a table. Aubie thinks this is because of the anticipation from people who are familiar with his food truck and catering services, as well as his “honest” cooking and the need for more intimate dining experiences in Bathurst.
“We’re seeing people coming in wanting to sit and relax and have a good wine and a nice relaxing atmosphere. There’s no TVs at the restaurant, there’s no loud sports bar music or anything like that. It’s a different concept than what exists, especially in the downtown,” he says.
We cook everything from scratch. We don’t have a freezer in the restaurant. We make the beef stock and the chicken stock. We make hand-rolled pasta with a brass extruder, a machine from 1987, which is pretty old and cool.”
Aubie developed a passion for food since a very young age. Growing up, he helped his father harvest produce from their garden. After working at a restaurant in high school, he decided to pursue his passion full-time. He went to culinary school, worked as a chef at Shelter Restaurant in Tofino, B.C., and competed in Season 2 of Top Chef Canada. Five years ago, he returned to his hometown of Bathurst and started the food truck.
“My passion is renewed with this restaurant because we have a new kitchen and I designed it myself. I designed it to be efficient. It’s not cooking in a food truck, which can be hot and cramped and limited. So right now I’m super stoked just to be cooking,” he says. “I’ve always felt fortunate to find something that I enjoy doing for a living at a young age. I spent my 20s getting good enough at something that I was confident enough to start my own business.”
Even as he speaks to Huddle, his mind was on the food he planned to cook.
“I have this beautiful batch of milky dough which I’m gonna roll out once we finish this conversation, and do it for a feature tonight with some braised pork belly and some scallops that I sourced out the other day,” he says.