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Veteran chef shares his knowledge

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A good cook doesn’t keep secrets, says Tony James, one of Sarnia’s most experienced and respected chefs.

“I think every chef has a duty to pass on their knowledge,” he said. “It’s important that young chefs are taught to do things the right way, the traditional way, and then they can put their own spin on it.

“That’s why a chef’s resume is really the places he or she has worked, and the people they’ve worked under,” said James.

“Some people, depending on their circumstances, go to school. But you can become a good chef doing an apprenticeship, moving from place to place and working with the best people you can.”

James, 63, has been running the kitchen at Ups N’ Downs Pub for the past 10 years.  He’s cooked for some of the best local dining rooms since 1971.

He was also a founding member of the Sarnia Chefs Association, which operated for about 20 years before it folded in 2006.

James has taught part-time at Lambton College for 26 years, mentoring new chefs in the apprenticeship and culinary management programs.

“I’ve taught many of the up-and-coming chefs in Sarnia,” he said.  Several of his students are now culinary teachers themselves at the college.

He got his start in the profession after graduating from a community college similar to Lambton in his native Liverpool England.  He finished school when he was only 17 and came to Canada three years later with a City and Guilds certification, comparable to Canada’s Red Seal designation.  Later, he became a Certified Chef de Cuisine, considered the highest rung in the career ladder for Canadian cooks.

For 12 years, James worked for various Holiday Inns, first in Sarnia, then London, Cambridge and other cities.  He returned to Sarnia in 1985 and worked for 18 years at Desmond’s, a high-end restaurant that has since closed at the Drawbridge Inn.

What drew him back to Sarnia?

“The water,” he said.  “And it’s a good place to raise a family.”

James grew up in Liverpool, which is dominated by the Mersey River much like Sarnia is dominated by the St. Clair.

“I love being close to water, so I like it here,” he said.  “And Sarnia is a good-sized city, not too big and you don’t have to worry about traffic.”

With 49 years in the profession, James doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody. He’s worked for big hotels and knows that kind of pressure.

Now, he said, he prefers to work in the popular Front Street pub where his kitchen has been known to produce 300 meals an hour on a busy First Friday. Just about everything is made from scratch, and many of the menu items were his favourites growing up.

“I love pub food like steak and kidney pie or shepherd’s pie.”

He also makes a lot of curries at Ups N’ Downs, particularly a British style pub curry that has more sauce than some.  “The British like their gravies,” he explained.

An Ups N’ Downs staple is chicken tikka masala, which is among the most popular curry dishes in the UK.

“I enjoy it here,” said James, looking around the familiar digs of the 36-year-old pub.

“It doesn’t feel like hard work when the staff know what they are doing and there are so many regular customers to talk to.”

 – Cathy Dobson

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