Jérôme Ferrer smiles as he stares out at the immaculate lawn at the Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, the renowned country house and restaurant just outside Oxford that boasts two Michelin stars.
Ferrer is a rising star among Canadian chefs but he has never been here before, something surprising given that he has been to London several times and that visiting the Manoir is akin to a pilgrimage for many chefs. Even more surprising, the 37-year-old confides that he passed up a chance to train under the Manoir's founder and master chef, Raymond Blanc.
"When I was in kitchen school [in France], I asked Raymond to train me and he said, 'Yes,'" Ferrer recalled as he sipped gin and tonic on the Manoir's small patio and enjoyed a glimpse of April sunshine. So what happened? "There was a change of plans," he said with a chuckle and then added something vague about a girlfriend who wanted to go somewhere else.
The misstep hasn't hurt Ferrer's career. Since immigrating to Canada from France 12 years ago with a couple of friends and next to nothing in his pockets, he has opened seven restaurants in Montreal, two in Brazil and written nine cookbooks. He also does about 30 television shows a year, travels to culinary trade fairs around the world, teaches and is about to launch his own line of food products in grocery stores across Quebec and later Canada. By his own admission, he is a workaholic, driven in part by a personal tragedy – the loss of his 35-year-old wife, Virginie, to breast cancer a few years ago.
"For me, this is a special day," he said. He has been brought to the Manoir for a charity event along with 44 other chefs from around the world, each hailing from a restaurant that is part of the exclusive Relais & Châteaux, a Paris-based association of elite inns and restaurants. There are about 500 members, including 13 in Canada. Ferrer's Europea, his first restaurant, is among them.
On Monday, the chefs prepared a lavish five-course meal at London's Old Billingsgate Market for a few hundred patrons, each paying about $1,000. Money from the event went toward Action Against Hunger.
As other chefs walk by him at the Manoir, Ferrer launches into a discussion about the difficulty of the restaurant business and the frustration he has with celebrity culture. "For me it's very dangerous but also necessary," he said of chefs who constantly go on TV and have their own programs. "Now with all the TV and reality shows, it's very dangerous because there are a few young boys and young girls, they want to start not for work but to be a celebrity."
While he makes regular appearances on cooking programs, Ferrer has no interest in launching his own TV show. Chefs, he said, should focus on the food and have a deep understanding of where it comes from and how it's made. But he also understands that in the highly competitive restaurant business, publicity is more important than ever.
At Europea, for example, he employs 31 cooks and six chefs, including a top pastry chef. The restaurant sits 75 people and Ferrer said he needs to have 100 people come in every night just to break even. That's in part why he and his partners started the other restaurants, which are not as high-end. They need fewer guests to turn a profit and can cover the tougher finances at Europea. "In Canada it's sad, especially in Montreal, because each day one restaurant opens, one restaurant closes," he said. "There are a lot of people who think opening a restaurant is easy, or fun. But it's not fun."
He rarely takes a day off and this trip to London is one of his few breaks. After his wife died, his workload only increased. "Before, I balanced my life perfectly. I worked very hard five days a week but my wife told me, you can work but your day off, it's with me, not your job," he said. After she died, he threw himself into his work partly as a way of coping.
Although he has only been in Canada 12 years, the country is home. He arrived in Montreal virtually penniless after a corrupt accountant in France absconded with money he and his partners had earned from selling a restaurant they owned in the South of France. But they were determined to make it work in Montreal and opened Europea in 2002, getting some help from a local chef who said nice things about the restaurant on TV.
And he has no intention of going back or even opening a restaurant in France. "I can't imagine a day when I go back to France," he said. "It's finished for me. I have chosen Canada to have a new experience. All my life is in Canada."