Question: What do you get when you combine an entrepreneurial spirit, fresh local ingredients, and a swipe of red lipstick?
Answer: Jessi Gillis, owner and head chef at Highland Drive, and the best new thing on the Halifax catering scene.
Offering culinary lessons, catered meals, or even the opportunity to have a private chef for the evening, Jessi is living proof that food can be fresh, fun, and exciting. After attending one of Jessi’s events, we had to know more about who she was, where she came from, and what makes her tick (apart from whipping up some of the tastiest dishes you ever did eat – mini chocolate-chip cherry-ice cream sandwiches anyone?).
ThisNeedsToStop: How did you get started in the culinary business?
Jessi Gillis: Not sure if this counts but I started working at MacDonalds when I was 14 (and loved it). I gave out far too many free ice creams and had a great time. A few months later as soon when I turned 15, I started as a hostess at a busy high-end restaurant in Vancouver called Settebello’s. They had an open concept kitchen and I found myself spending much more time talking to the cooks and asking to make my own staff meal than paying attention to my front of house duties. We then moved to Halifax where I started dishwashing and food prepping at Deco. I then went on to attend culinary school at George Brown in Toronto and also did a Post Graduate Diploma in Italian Culinary Arts. I’ve never been happier than when I am in the kitchen creating dishes and playing with flavours. I also love to see people smile after they have eaten something I’ve cooked them, I like the thought of spreading joy through food!
TNTS: What made you come back to Halifax?
JG: I love Halifax. Halifax has amazing community support, great farmers (selection for local seasonal ingredients), local wineries, beer producers and the most important people in my life – my family and friends. I couldn’t imagine trying to start a business somewhere else. There is so much support here. People want to see small business thrive.
TNTS: What is the scariest thing about starting your own business?
JG: I would say being in full control, and understanding that it’s a constant learning process. It’s scary to think that I’m the one controlling the gears… That’s also exciting though because it’s a constant push. I also worry about people enjoying my food and my customer service. I am my biggest critic and it is incredibly important to me that all my clients feel as though they were given 150%, walk away happy and full!
TNTS: Where does the name ‘Highland Drive’ come from?
JG: I am in love with the 1940’s 1950’s era and I was looking at names from around that time to call my business. My good friend suggested I look at old street names from the 1950’s for inspiration. My grandparents lived on the street Highland Drive in Antigonish N.S. and built their house in the 1950’s on that street. I loved the idea of having them be a part of the name because all my great first kitchen memories come from eating with cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles at 63 Highland Drive. I want my food to reflect on that idea. When you eat it should be comfortable, happy and a memorable experience.
TNTS: What are some of your career aspirations?
JG: I would love to own a small restaurant called Highland Drive (around 35 seats with a small seasonal patio) and have a sister butcher shop. I think that butcher shops and restaurants pair very nicely, and this way I would be able to utilize and showcase locally the meat producers of Nova Scotia.
TNTS: Who is your favourite celebrity chef?
JG: Living? I would say Anthony Bourdain. I love that he eats everything and never turns down an adventure. He is also a great writer not just cookbook wise but writes fiction and non-fiction. I respect him because even as a celebrity chef it doesn’t seem like he craves the spotlight. Deceased? Julia Child.
TNTS: What is your favourite thing to eat?
JG: This might sound cliché but I really love food from all origins. It really depends on the day and how I am feeling. I eat arugula on almost everything but I don’t think that counts as a favorite food because I couldn’t just eat arugula.
TNTS: What is your favourite drink?
JG: Negroni Sbagliato, an Italian aperitif. 1 ounce Campari, 1 ounce dry Martini & Rossi Dry Vermouth, 1 ounce Dry Spumante (Prosseco) Orange Slice for garnish and a cerignola olive (Large green light tasting olive, pit in) serve in tumbler with ice. This is an amazing drink. It is bitter, fresh and incredibly addictive. Most people will have trouble with their first, but after will crave the taste again. Beautiful on a hot summer day paired with cured meats and cheeses.
TNTS: Where do you go in Halifax when you’re in the mood for a delicious treat?
JG: For restaurant, that has yet to be decided. I have too many restaurants to eat through first before I decide. But I do love Deedee’s Ice Cream. It’s amazing! (http:/deedees.ca)
TNTS: Who would you love to cook for?
JG: My grandparents. Since the age of 14 I have dreamed of becoming a chef, and from the moment I began talking about it and playing around in the kitchen my grandparents were incredibly supportive. I would be love to have them back just for a day so that I could thank them for their belief, support and inspiration with a nice family meal.
TNTS: If you could be anything other than a chef what would you be?
JG: A farmer/hair dresser. I know that’s an odd mix but I would love to have an old farm with a few livestock and rotating crop fields. I have worked on farms, and really enjoy the solitude and hard work. It is also so rewarding to actually harvest something you’ve planted and see what you can make from it. Hair dresser because I love creating with my hands and I think that is a great avenue for creative expression.
TNTS: Last but not least, what do you think is the bees knees?
JG: Pearls, lady-like dresses, and red lipstick!
Follow Jessi on twitter: @jessigillis
Check out her blog: http://freshflavoursmadefromtheheart.blogspot.com/