Chef Alexandra Feswick’s lifelong fascination with food and cooking started when she was a child. Her family had a strong focus around eating together and preparing good food. Her parents encouraged her and her brother to try a wide variety of foods from other cultures. One of her first part-time jobs was working in the kitchen of a nursing home. That job taught her about the kitchen as a workplace. She found that the “control and creativity” of cooking had an allure that she couldn’t ignore. Warnings about how challenging the culinary industry could be only activated her stubborn streak and made her want to succeed even more.
Canada's Chefs: Alexandra Feswick, Drake Hotel, Toronto ON
Letting seasonal, sustainable ingredients shine is Chef Alexandra Feswick's focus as she creates flavorful food at the Drake Hotel in Toronto.
Chef Alexandra Feswick
After finishing university, Feswick studied culinary management at George Brown College. She found herself short of funds after her studies so she moved back home. She got a job at the Ancaster Old Mill restaurant because she was interested in what they were doing with their food and it was close to where she was living. Feswick worked with Chef Jeff Crump there while he was writing a cookbook entitled Earth to Table. The book focused on learning how to farm and understanding where food comes from. She found it inspirational to go work on the farms and put plants into the ground. She says, “It taught me about another world of food. It has definitely been one of the most influential forces in my cooking career.”
Feswick’s approach to food and cooking has adapted to working in The Drake’s large kitchen. At her previous restaurant, she could “pretty much tell you the name of the chicken that you were eating” and the day that the produce was picked, but her current restaurant is simply too large for that approach. Feswick’s focus has shifted to a broader model of sustainability. She now wants to be part of a food system that can support a broader network of producers.
Seasonality also plays into Feswick’s approach to cooking. She feels that the body demands certain foods at certain times of year when you live in a particular area. She’s also focused more on her personal health lately and that focus has influenced the food that she’s creating.
Exploring the innate qualities of each ingredient has a role to play in Feswick’s cooking too. For example, she doesn’t peel the beets that she uses in her beet salad because it isn’t necessary. She says, “We’re getting them from a good source, they’re delicious and you can eat the entire thing.”
Beets & Blue Cheese Salad: Ontario Stilton, roasted beets, raspberries, sunflower seeds, watercress
There are three different hotel restaurants under the Drake Group’s umbrella so Feswick collaborates with all of the chefs from those properties. While there is an overarching theme for the Drake restaurants, they each have very different clientele, so they can keep their individual characters intact. The process of menu planning takes place at the beginning of every season as the chefs discuss what they’ll be cooking in the coming months. Feswick says, “We do lots of tastings and experimentation. When we get stuck, we’ll share dishes.”
It can be hard for a chef to articulate the precise ways in which a dish is created, but Feswick finds that she responds to her own positive energy. She tries to teach her cooks about the importance of transferring that energy to the plate. Classic techniques are a good starting point for her recipes but there’s room for breaking the rules too. For example, she created a dish using pickerel and generous amounts of black pepper. Traditionally a chef would avoid this because it looks like there are burnt bits from the pan but “it was so delicious that we had to break that rule.”
Although the Drake properties have a central purchasing unit, Feswick is in regular communication with the various reps who deal with ingredient sourcing and they ensure that she can get what she needs. If she wants to source strawberries from Ontario, for example, she works with the reps to find a good source or an alternative if that source isn’t available.
Cumin & ginger rubbed lamb ribs, salad of roasted peppers, zucchini, toasted almonds & fresh basil.
The chef also focuses on buying local products as much as possible but adds, “Canada is such a big country that it’s crazy to say that domestic products are more local than non-domestic products. If I get something from New York, it’s a lot closer than getting it from British Columbia.”
Making a connection with people through her food is something that matters to Feswick. She hopes to give her guests an experience that touches them. Cooking with love is something that Feswick focuses on. For her, positive energy is transferred to the plate when she cooks. She says, “If you’re having a bad day, things just don’t come out of your hands as well.”
Feswick hires cooks who are passionate about food. She looks for people who want to learn and who think differently about food. Her cooks also need to understand the “size, volume and gravity” of The Drake’s restaurant. A cook who wants to work in a twenty-seat restaurant might not be comfortable in their four-hundred seat environment. Every cook that Feswick hires works at least a day in the kitchen. She explains, “They can see what we’re like and we can see what they’re like.
Teaching people and talking about food with people inside and outside of the restaurant industry is something that keeps Feswick inspired. When she can make a connection with somebody over how food has influenced their lives, “it’s a really beautiful thing. Food is such an important part of our beings that I can’t imagine it not being in my life.”
Strawberry Baklava: Phyllo pastry, Ontario strawberries, sunflower seeds, honey + aged balsamic vinegar