How Brett Hunt became a rising star amongst Toronto’s culinary professionals
By: Lauren Charley
Brett Hunt is a 24 year old chef who grew up in Niagara and moved to Toronto directly after high school to pursue his culinary career. The unfortunate circumstances which happened during his teen years including abandonment by his mother and the passing of his father, resulted in him having to support himself through dishwashing. His first job during high school was at Grill on the Hill in Thorold, where he discovered his love for cooking and worked his way up to become a prep cook. The aspiring chef grew to adopt the service industry as a second family, ultimately saving him from a life on the streets.
Following his high school graduation, Brett moved to Toronto to attend George Brown College where he took culinary arts. After finishing school, Brett was mentored by Daniel Boulud, a French chef who is also the proprietor of seven restaurants in New York City and six other establishments located in national and international cities. Brett worked for Daniel at Café Boulud in Toronto, where he completed his externship for school and had the privilege of meeting and chatting with the chef on several occasions, not only learning his cooking tips, but also his philosophies on what it takes to make a great chef. After five years in the city, Brett now works as a chef de cuisine at Colette’s Grand Café for the Chase Hospitality Group, as well as a creative chef for McClelland Premium Imports, a Toronto-based craft brewery.
Brett has worked in restaurants and demonstrated his abilities with all types of international cuisine from high-end French, to Italian, to Asian Fusion, and gastropub fare, and loves each one for unique reasons. Following his educational training in the culinary arts and after gaining some real life experience, Brett decided to get creative and experiment with his own recipes, as he felt more confident with his food and also himself. Brett sees his cooking as very eccentric, and embraces not one particular type of cuisine, but rather his own signature fine dining style through ingredients that inspire a new dish. “I think I’m one of the few chefs that has embraced the idea of just cooking whatever it is I think will make the ingredients shine. I feel like putting yourself in a box and simply sticking to one cuisine type restricts your ability to do some amazing things with food,” explains Brett. Based on these ideals, if he were to open his own restaurant, Brett would open what he calls a “maverick cuisine” restaurant, where patrons do not even receive a menu. He would love to be able to produce a different meal each day created from whatever meats and produce are available to him.
The role of a chef de cuisine comes with a great deal of responsibility, as his job is a combination of everything. He often opens the restaurant hours before his staff arrive in the mornings, and stays until the last dishwasher leaves at night. He is the final set of eyes to inspect all dishes for both presentation and taste before they go out to a customer, and must check ingredients before they go into the pot and make sure food is not wasted if it could have had another use. Every day he creates new prep lists specific for each cook, giving them each their own responsibilities and an opportunity to show they can handle it. “Everyone is an individual and responds to different types of management styles, so you really need to know your team,” explains Brett. In addition to food preparation duties, the chef de cuisine is also responsible for the kitchen inventory and monitoring trends in order to make sure the business is consistently making a profit.
Becoming a good chef is derived from passion, a strong work ethic, and desire to succeed, yet Brett found culinary school at George Brown very worthwhile because of the irreplaceable education he received. He learned different aspects of cooking which he hadn’t really considered before, such as butchery, which he now applies to his occupation as a chef de cuisine. He now knows the different cuts of meat and can save money by not wasting any part of the animal. Chefs play a crucial role in our ecosystem and supporting local farmers. Most chefs follow consumer demands and stick to serving foods customers are familiar with, rather than preparing meals based on the ingredients readily available to them. Because of this, factory farming and abundant waste becomes a major issue, which is why Brett has taken an interest in “whole animal breakdown”, utilizing every part of the animal to create unique and original dishes.
For Brett, there are certain characteristics commonly shared amongst restaurants of the same star rating. Three-stars are the places you love because the food is consistent and you enjoy the ambiance, whereas four star restaurants are where you can expect to pay big bucks to eat at a place named after the famous chef who created it; you will receive an exceptional meal for your money, but it’s always predictable. “For me, a five star restaurant is somewhere that really pushes the culinary boundaries. They do things whether you like it or not, and give you no choice but to participate in the experience,” shares the young chef, who enjoys the performance which comes with creative culinary expertise. Although he agrees that ambiance, décor and environment can play a role in the overall experience received by a customer at a restaurant, Brett believes that the two most important factors while dining are the food and the service, as they are two qualities you cannot disguise.
Brett believes that meeting with customers and listening to their feedback is an essential part of being a culinary professional. “I know that for me, when I’m dining at certain restaurants, I’m always eager to meet the chef, to put a face to the artistry. Even if we receive criticism, that is how we grow, and our guests will remember that about us. Many of us seem to forget that we are in hospitality,” explains Brett. However, when asked his thoughts regarding picky requests and substitutions, Brett says customers should trust culinary professionals much like they do a doctor or those in careers which have required specific training. It’s okay not to love everything, but trying new things creates diversity and keeps the experience of dining alive, which is often inhibited when given a variety of options on a menu. Of course, allergies are an exception and he makes sure to accommodate certain dietary restrictions while striving to create a unique flavour with every meal he serves.
Despite his rough beginnings when he started working in a kitchen and the struggles he endured to make it as a chef, Brett is now at a very content place with himself, his career, and now even his family. He and his mother reunited after being estranged for several years, and he is very proud to say their relationship is stronger than ever. At the age of 24, Brett quickly continues to advance in his culinary career, and his success is owed to nothing more than hard work. He desires to advance further in the culinary arts, as he knows he has the drive and ambition to make it as a successful chef. “It takes a specific type of cook to become a chef, and there’s a lot more to it than cooking. You run a brigade and manage the books. You have to have a natural ability to lead, which is something you can’t be taught,” shares the young chef de cuisine.