SAINT JOHN – Michelle Hooton was hanging out with her cooking crew shortly before the restaurant opened one night, and it occurred to her that she had assembled a team of top-notch chefs from all over the world.
“We had 20 minutes to kill before service started and I started to look at who I had,” says Hooton, who owns Italian by Night along with Elizabeth Rowe and Gord Hewitt. “My head chef [Stephen Wade] is from England. Axel Begner is German. [Hagay Erez] is from Tel Aviv. [Yannick Perryman] is from Dominica…And we do have a Canadian,” she adds, laughing.
“It brings a richness to that kitchen that’s unbelievable. When they’re standing around chatting they’re talking about world politics, literature, and all of their experiences are so vastly different. There’s no gossiping going on. They’re talking about such interesting things.”
It’s also a remarkably calm group, she says, one that has helped establish one of the top Italian restaurants in the country in just under a year in business.
They defy stereotypes about animated chefs banging pots and pans, wielding knives, and yelling back and forth at each other. As executive chef, Hooton set that respectful tone from the outset but credits Wade with helping her maintain that kind of atmosphere in the kitchen on a day-to-day basis.
Wade followed a girl here from Newcastle, England, in 2013, and though they’ve since broken up he stuck around, working at a number of restaurants until he landed at Italian by Night before it opened last December.
The restaurant has an open kitchen so diners can see how their food is being prepared and by whom. Wade says Hooton shares his vision of a calm, respectful kitchen, but he says she wanted them to ham it up a bit.
“She was hoping that it would be super loud and we’d all be yelling at one another,” he says. “When we opened she was really disappointed because it was just silent. It’s just nice and quiet. Everyone is just doing their job. We know what each other is doing. This is good.”
Wade says you get the best out of people if you’re fair and kind, something Hooton whole-heartedly agrees with.
“A lot of people that come into the trade think that’s how it’s supposed to be,” says Wade. “The last position I had in England the owner always said, ‘You’re too nice. You’ve got to be more horrible.’ I don’t think that’s the way to encourage people.
“I think we handle everyone differently in our kitchen. We’ve worked nearly a year together now and we know which buttons to press – how to get the best out of people. Yelling and criticizing is not a good way to do things.”
Besides, he says, it’s safer too.
In kitchens, you have heavy objects, there are knives,” he says. “You don’t always know what sort of personality you’re dealing with.”
Nonetheless, Wade sometimes likes to play to the stereotypes.
“We’ll kick up a fuss and put on a bit of a show when we have people sitting here,” he says. “But that’s just theatre, it’s not real.”
Yannick Perryman is from the island of Dominica and welcomes the supportive, even-keel environment established by Hooton and Wade.
“I’ve worked in a lot of different places,” says Perryman. “Normally cooks who have been in it a long time are pretty rough around the edges. The people here are really friendly and really nice. It’s a kitchen that’s not really in the kitchen culture.”
By his own admission, Perryman might not even be there if it were more like some of the other kitchens he’s worked in.
He was born and raised in Dominica, a small island in the Caribbean north of St. Lucia and Barbados. At 16, he left the island of 70,000 because his parents wanted him to see more of the world. He first went to Florida and then joined his sister who was living in London, Ontario.
Perryman attended Western University there and then Fanshawe College, which is how he ended up in Saint John. He was enrolled in a hotel management and food and beverage management programs, but he could only get a bachelor’s degree if he came to the University of New Brunswick which had a partnership with Fanshawe.
He worked at many restaurants in Saint John but had a difficult time settling in here before landing a job at Italian by Night.
Perryman missed home terribly, especially when he would get back to Saint John from an extended visit to Dominica. It was just after his last visit four months ago that he learned about a potential job with Hooton.
I was literally sitting in my room missing home, grief-stricken,” says Perryman. “[Then] I saw this ad online. I sent an e-mail and Michelle replied the same day…I ended up here and it feels like home. If I didn’t come to an environment exactly like this, I’d have probably gone right back home.”
And it’s a good thing he didn’t go home, he says, because in late September Hurricane Maria struck Dominica, destroying his family’s home and two businesses – a vacation lodge and scuba diving business for tourists.
It’s much better for his family, he says, to have him living and working in Canada right now.
“Everything worked out for the best,” he says. “I’m the only one in my family who is earning money because the economy has shut down. If I was back home, I would just be another person the family had to take care of. Now I get to help out.”
Like Perryman, Hagay Erez came to Canada to start a new life. He was in Tel Aviv before he moved here nearly a year ago with his wife and infant daughter.
“Canada seems to be a really good place to start again,” says Erez. “The economy is good. The people are nice. We came to Saint John because of the Jewish community.”
He marvelled at the methodical preparedness of opening a restaurant like Italian by Night, which was unlike anything he’d experienced back home.
“Life here is slow and proper,” says Erez. “In Tel Aviv, for instance, if you open a restaurant, first you open and then you submit everything. Here you have a year of submitting orders and everything and then you open when everything is ready. That’s the biggest difference. We tend to jump the gun in Tel Aviv. Israel is the wild, wild west.”
The diversity of the Hooton’s kitchen was nothing new to him though because of his work experience in Israel. “I was working for a very small company called Apple. They sell computers,” he jokes. The company operates what it calls Mac Cafés, restaurants for employees in its offices, and Erez was a sous chef and kitchen manager in Tel Aviv.
[Israel is] very multicultural,” he says. “I’ve been used to running my kitchens in English, Hebrew, Thai, Japanese, Chinese and Arabic. I speak a little of those languages because you have to. And of course, you’ve also got people coming from Eritrea and Congo. Israel is a big cauldron of people.”
At Apple, Erez served hundreds of people a day, lunch and supper, in a very fast-paced environment. He’s embracing the switch to a kitchen that is intense and hard-working, but one that has a more measured, laid-back atmosphere.
“It’s really nice, it’s calming,” he says. “I come from a very aggressive kitchen life.”
Last but not least, there is Axel Begner, a beloved chef in the city who once owned and operated the popular Opera Bistro on Prince William Street, now home to East Coast Bistro.
Begner had retired and one day saw a Facebook post by Hooton. She was in the midst of hiring and needed one more chef. On a whim, she put out a call on social media.
I put out a little notice on Facebook, ‘Do you love to cook?’ I’m sitting in my office…and then I get a ‘ping’ and I look over and it’s Axel,” says Hooton. “And he says, ‘I love to cook.’ And I said, ‘Do you want to have coffee?’ And he said, ‘Yup.’ And that was it. I felt like I hit the motherlode. It was the best day. It was fantastic.”
At first, she was intimidated by the idea of having him in her kitchen because of his stature.
“Axel was a celebrated chef. Now he was going to come into my kitchen,” she says. “How is that going to work? Are we going to butt heads?
But those concerns soon faded when she saw him at work.
“He’s the most humble chef on the planet. It’s a job, you do your job. Everybody in there looks up to him, and the standard is set. If you have the most celebrated chef in your kitchen and he’s a workhorse … then everyone is going to step up to that bar, and they do.”
Begner welcomed the opportunity to work with Hooton. “You’re never too old to learn,” he says. “I enjoy coming here, rather than sitting at home or doing something different.”
And like everyone else, he also embraces the calm atmosphere.
“Nobody is flipping out, everybody is calm, even in situations that are very stressful,” he says. “You see shows on TV, and there’s yelling in the kitchen…that’s not normal.”
Ultimately, Hooton says they work well together because of their rich and varied experiences.
“There’s no question in my mind it’s because of their different backgrounds, and where they’ve lived and where they’ve cooked,” she says. “It has really done nothing but make that kitchen fantastic.”