At one time, Chef James Stewart was learning how to draft blue prints and design buildings. Then one day, he decided he would rather cook instead.
Stewart's parents owned several coffee shops where he first got a taste of the chef's life. Stewart wanted more so he left the architecture program he was enrolled in and started on his way to becoming the executive chef he is today.
"I met a really good chef and he saw some potential in me so he set up an apprenticeship for me at the Regal Constellation," recalls Stewart.
Like all apprentices at that time, Stewart went to George Brown College for the in-class portion of the program. "The culinary knowledge that we learned was always very interesting and we could take that back to the kitchen,"Stewart says. "They also taught us about food costing which was very good because as apprentices we didn't have much to do with that aspect." Upon graduation in 1987, Stewart did something that young chefs just starting out don't usually do — he landed an executive chef position at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville.
"I guess I was at the right place at the right time, "says Stewart of his good fortune. Luck may have gotten him the job in the first place but his talent and dedication is what sustained him for nearly a decade at Glen Abbey.
Stewart went on to work for the Royal Connaught Hotel in Hamilton and for ClubLink at various golf courses before owning a successful fish and chip restaurant in Oakville.
He is now the executive chef at the National Club, a posh private club in downtown Toronto.
After putting in his time, he now has what would be considered a dream job by industry standards — he works Monday to Friday and the odd weekend which leaves him plenty of time to spend with his family and his garden.
"I find it a challenge to motivate the kids into this industry because it is hard to make a living and it's not very forgiving,"he says about the young cook apprentices who work with him at the National Club. He tries to keep them inspired and motivated by showing them what kind of an impact their talent and hard work can have on people.
"When you bang out a banquet for 200 people and you get letters thanking you the next day, that's what makes it worth it,"Stewart says. Above all else, he tries to be honest with them about what being a chef is really like. I just tell them to make sure they look at all avenues, talk to people, get a job in a kitchen and find out for themselves." Stewart recommends the apprenticeship route as he found it was the best way to learn.
"I had a really great chef when I was apprenticing and the in-class part at George Brown was good too,"he says. "Everything played a small part in [my career]." In the 20 years since Stewart finished his apprenticeship, he has accomplished much of what he set out to do.
"Teaching would be the next level for me,"he says. "I've reached all my goals as an executive chef and I've had my own restaurant. Teaching the craft of cooking would be really cool."