It was his first day in the kitchen at historic Manaki Lodge, and Jonathan Gushue was up to his neck in fried eggs, realizing he’d made a huge mistake.
Between all the spitting grills, sizzling bacon and piles of omelets he realized something. He didn’t want to run hotels. He wanted to cook for them.
Gushue was in his third year of the hotel management program at Georgian College, and used the school’s co-op placements to wrangle his way to the northern Ontario wilderness resort as an assistant breakfast cook – his first job in a kitchen. He was so desperate to get into the Four Seasons chain he would have taken anything, he said.
But from the moment he walked into the kitchen, he fell in love. It was an awakening for the young Newfoundlander, sending him on a new course that would take him into some of the most prestigious kitchens around the world.
“The second I went into the kitchen, there was this energy, this feeling,” he said. “A whole new world opened up. I could see that’s what I wanted to do.”
Gushue was hooked. He changed career paths, and at age 23 got a job at a hot spring resort outside of Tokyo, where he wasn’t allowed to do anything but cut melon for months until he perfected his knife skills. He spent the next decade in restaurants in London, St. John’s, Vancouver and Toronto, before finally coming to Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont. in 2005.
It’s at Langdon that Gushue has finally found his culinary home. The Georgian College grad has taken inspiration from the surrounding grounds and farmers’ fields and built a reputation for passion and creativity in fine French food. In the process, he’s earned some of the highest accolades in the food world.
Gushue has put Langdon Hall’s menu on the map – he’s been designated a rare Grand Chef by the Relais & Châteaux association of independent luxury hotels, and his dining room has been named among the top 100 restaurants in the world by the S. Pellegrino ranking, in large part due to Gushue’s food.
The dining room also proudly boasts the AAA’s Five Diamond Award, the highest rating the association hands out, a distinction one only about 160 hotels in restaurants in North America and the Caribbean can claim.
Langdon Hall has given Gushue free reign as the kitchen’s executive chef, allowed to create whatever he thinks will impress guests. He’s made food one of the top draws at Langdon, a sprawling estate built in 1898 as a summer home for Eugene Langdon Wilks, the great grandson of John Jacob Astor, the fur and real estate magnate who was once America’s wealthiest man.
Langdon Hall, long since converted into a luxury hotel and spa, still has its old money charms. It’s the kind of place where they serve afternoon tea and scones in the sunroom overlooking the gardens and guests can rent ornate private dining rooms that look like they haven’t aged a moment since 1898.
The kitchen staff maintains a garden, where they grow a buffet of vegetables and herbs that include 12 types of tomatoes, five different kinds of carrots, four varieties of cucumbers and countless berries, flowers and spices that make their way onto diner’s plates. They also make their own butter, cream and yogurt, collect their own maple syrup and harvest mushrooms, fiddleheads and wild ginger.
Gushue likes to pull from local farms as much as he can, using fresh produce when available and the region’s Mennonite-inspired staples like double-smoked bacon, ham and sausage.
For someone who initially wanted to manage hotels, Gushue says his calling was always really in the kitchen, even if he didn’t know it. Growing up in Newfoundland and in Rome (his father James worked for the United Nations), Gushue had a family that loved to cook and made dishes like leek and potato soup and linguini with clam sauce dinnertime staples.
Though his self-taught father may have a different style in the kitchen – Gushue hates following recipes and rarely cooks the same meal twice – he says his dad influenced him immensely.
“He taught me how to fry omelets, how to flip eggs,” he said. “My whole family cooked. My grandfather, he was a great cook, too. Well, at least he thought he was a great cook.”
Newfoundland cuisine has a lot of French and Portuguese influences, he said, like cooking with animal fat and using the whole animal, styles he sometimes incorporates into the food at Langdon.
Yes, cod tongues do sometimes make it on the menu here. And he occasionally serves up an Ontario take in the Newfoundland staple, Jiggs dinner, replacing salt beef with pigeon, braised sturgeon and double-smoke bacon.
“I’m not letting go of the East Coast just yet,” he said.
Attention to detail is a priority at Langdon Hall, with a wine list that has over 10,000 bottles, paired with delicately-constructed meals that look like an artist pained over them for hours. It’s a perfect fit for Gushue, whose training at Georgian in hotel management means he understands Langdon’s “front-of-house” needs.
Gushue is also a mentor for the kitchen staff under his watchful eye, teaching them to rely on the land around them to produce much of what they serve. Not surprisingly, his young children grow their own chilies and herbs in the family garden, too.
“There’s such abundance here. You just take from the lakes and the land… You can take anything and make it with local food,” he said. “That’s how we can change our menu daily, or every second day, depending on what’s coming out.”
Gushue has also brought crowds back to the hotel’s charming bar, with offerings such as open-faced lobster sandwiches with smoked cow tongue and plates of lightly smoked black cod.
“His energy level and curiosity around food is just incredible,” says Langdon Hall manager Jill McGoey. “He’s added a lot in terms of making use of the sense of place. He’s almost a pioneer of the slow food movement.”
Gushue insists he’s not trying to be at the front of any kind of food movement. Instead, he just wants to create local food that tastes great.
“I wouldn’t call us cutting edge. Our focus is flavour, we’re not trying to blow anyone away or re-invent the wheel,” he said. “We’re just trying to connect the food with the land.”