[This article reproduced with the kind permission of University of Toronto Food Services]
Chef James Piggott
Executive Chef Residential Dining, New College
Chef James completed his Culinary apprenticeship and earned his Red Seal in 1994. He has been the Executive Chef at various Toronto hotels and clubs for the past 15 years. Chef James also teaches a variety of culinary courses at George Brown College and has represented Canada three times in the World Culinary Olympics, held in Germany ,and has won several gold and silver medals in various local and regional culinary competitions. In June 2016, Chef James joined the Food Services’ team as the Executive Chef, Residential Dining for New College.
How did you initially become interested in cooking, and why did you become a chef?
Throughout high school, I worked as a short order cook and really enjoyed the fast paced environment and soon realize that I was pretty good at it. After high school, I attended Trent University and graduated with the intent of going to law school in Dalhousie. The summer before starting, I ended up getting a summer job at the Oshawa Golf and Country Club, under the tutelage of Chef Shawn Whalen. The moment I walked into my first professional kitchen, I fell in love with it. Chef Whalen identified some natural talent in me and offered me an apprenticeship. The rest is history.
Who has been your biggest influence?
My friend and mentor Chef Shawn Whalen has been my biggest influence. I started as an apprentice under him and worked my way through the ranks to his Executive Sous Chef. He also helped me secure my first Executive Chef job, so a lot of what I am today is directly a result of working with him and learning from him. As a well know chef in the industry, Chef Whalen also helped me network to meet other great Chefs like Chef Jaco, whom I had the pleasure of joining in the Culinary Olympics several times.
What are your standards as a chef, such as sustainability?
First and foremost, my overall guiding principle is that happy chefs make happy food. I believe that the quality of food is a direct result of a high functioning kitchen team that enjoy what they do and are passionate about cooking. With regards to sustainability, I like to be as seasonal and local as possible which can sometimes be a challenge in our physical environment. There are some very clever ways to savour the spring, summer and fall harvests by preserving and canning for use during the winter months. My neighbour and I grow hot peppers in the summer—really hot peppers; jigsaws, scorpion and ghost – and then we make our own hot sauces that can be enjoyed year round. It’s also important to get to know the local farmers, and visit the local farmers markets. We all have to be very aware of our carbon footprint and understand our impact on the environment. We must model good sustainability practices and teach future generations the importance of this. I would like to be an innovator and leader of sustainable practices within a large institutional environment and would love to see us create our own garden on campus.
How does this impact your menu development?
As mentioned, using locally produced food, and designing your menus around the seasons or processing food when harvested by preserving it or cleaning, cooking and vacuum-sealing it and freezing it. This allows you to have a fresh Ontario product in winter, which not only tastes better, it is also more cost effective. I think when it comes to menu development, you have to be seasonal, but you also have to think months in advance, that if I process this now, what am I doing to do with it down the road? You have to be ahead of the game.
What is your personal cooking style?
My personal cooking style has developed over the years. I have always liked to explore ethnic foods by trying to replicate recipes or flavor combinations that I’ve tried with my own spin on things – my own personal fusion.
What do you expect to enjoy about working at the University?
I’m really looking forward to the team camaraderie amongst the management team that I already saw on my very first day. I’m looking forward to serving 800 people a day and trying to make 800 people happy. I hold myself to a very high standard. I’m also looking forward to interaction with the students, because I think that’s going to be a lot of fun finding out what they want to see on the menu and what they see as the next big food frenzy. I’m looking forward to being a member of Canada’s premiere university and being a member of this team. I think it’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be challenging, but it’s going to be probably the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.
Bonus: What is your favourite dish to make?
Right now, I’m doing a lot of exploration with food from the Indian subcontinent. I am a huge fan of Indian food. The different levels of flavours with every bite captivate your taste buds and tempt all the senses. It’s so much fun to experiment with Indian spices; the aroma alone is simply intoxicating!