To see why Colette Grand Café in downtown Toronto’s Thompson Hotel is such a hot destination, step inside. Cream-colored Louis-style chairs, powder blue velvet banquettes, toile-upholstered armchairs, and pale marble tabletops throughout the space are anchored by the restaurant’s navy-and-white stripe motif; upon entering, diners are transported to a bright and airy seaside bistro in Southern France.
This elegant, breezy atmosphere is part of what drew Jennifer Dewasha to the executive chef position at the restaurant. “For most of my career, restaurants have always been very dark,” Dewasha says. “Not Colette. It’s feminine; everything is softer. When the sun is shining here, it makes you feel good.”
Colette is a far cry from Dewasha’s first restaurant job. As a teenager, she was a hostess at Frankie Tomatto’s, an Italian buffet restaurant in suburban Toronto known for its Leaning Tower of Pisa replica. Though the camaraderie there pushed her toward a career in cooking, hospitality has always been in Dewasha’s blood.
Her father grew up in the Wahta Mohawk Nation community north of Toronto, where she spent many childhood weekends and summers. There, families would often host large gatherings with hundreds of people to feast on sweet summer corn.
“Everybody would come up and we would sit by the river and eat,” Dewasha says. “That sense of community was carried on later in my life when I first started cooking.”
Dewasha trained at Toronto’s George Brown College and graduated from its Aboriginal Cuisine program, but a life-altering meal at New York City’s Gramercy Tavern showed her the potential of fine dining. “The service at Gramercy was so amazing that, 20 years later, I can still tell you my server’s name: Terry,” she says. “He knew we didn’t have a lot of fine-dining experience, but he guided us through the cheese course and port pairings. It turned on a light bulb in my head—I wanted to learn more (about fine dining and hospitality).”
In 2005, Dewasha headed to Las Vegas to work for legendary French chefs and restaurateurs Daniel Boulud and Joël Robuchon. At their respective restaurants, she expanded her repertoire of cooking techniques and deepened her knowledge of French cuisine, including fine cheeses, about which she knew little previously.
Iceberg wedge salad with pickled onions and blue cheese dressing. Get the recipe here
Seven years after leaving Canada, Dewasha returned home to Toronto. While interviewing for a sous chef position at Café Boulud, she met Tyler Shedden, the restaurant’s executive chef. Shedden says he was impressed by Dewasha’s calm temperament. He hired her immediately. “I jokingly call her the Silent Assassin,” Shedden says. “She’s not super vocal, but when the time is right, she will tell you what she thinks.”
It was Shedden’s mentorship that lured Dewasha away from Boulud to take the executive chef post at Colette earlier this year. When he moved from Café Boulud to his current position as culinary director of Chase Hospitality Group—which owns six Toronto restaurants, including Colette—Shedden wanted to arm the staff there with a mature, experienced leader. He saw Dewasha as the perfect fit.
Colette’s menu is grounded in French technique, but while other bistros turn to rich duck confit or meaty terrines, Dewasha and her staff focus on vegetables. “The (perception) is that French food is heavy and rich, fatty and filled with cream, but it doesn’t always have to be like that,” she explains. “What I learned from Daniel is that it’s the things you take from the garden (that are most tasty).”
Dewasha cites Shedden as one of her most influential advisors. Now she’s eager to play that role for other budding chefs, especially women. Many successful female cooks have passed through Boulud’s restaurants and in her own kitchen—Dewasha’s current staff includes a female sous chef, pastry chef, and cooks from diverse backgrounds. Colette also stands out from other eateries by hosting female-focused events, including a special gathering for International Women’s Day.
“If you’re willing to learn, no matter what gender you are, I’m going to treat you the same and try to help you,” Dewasha says. “There’s a mix of personalities and nationalities here…people who are experienced and people who are not. The most important thing is that people get along.” For diners at Colette, the proof is in the food.