Photography by Mitch Kern

A global pandemic is hardly an optimal scenario for opening a new restaurant venture. But many Calgary chefs did exactly that – proving that where passion and ingenuity ignite, there’s no putting out the flame.

What does it take to be a chef-entrepreneur during times of adversity? We turned to these three culinary leaders to find out.

Chef Jenny Kang

Chef JennyBy the time Chef Jenny Kang and her partners opened the doors to Orchard Restaurant’s glorious room and Mediterranean-inspired menu in October 2020, plans had been two years in the making. “Nick (Suche, of Shelter) had the plan,” explains Kang, “And said ‘would you like to be the chef?’” A lease was signed and a May launch date set — only to be stymied by the first lockdown when Covid-19 rolled into town. Orchard’s eventual launch brought two months of near sell-out reservations — before doors were closed again (except for takeout) by the second-wave lockdown.

“It was kind of like a roller-coaster,” says Kang. “And (when) there was suddenly no one in the restaurant for the first time, it was very emotional,
very sad. …But when IS the right time? Before Covid existed, Calgary was already going through difficult economic times… and we will be battling these tough economic times for years to come.

“What we CAN count on,” she says, “is Calgary’s love for dining and food.” It’s a confidence gleaned from her years of experience through previous economic recessions as executive chef at Bow Valley Ranche, and later at Shokunin, with whom she won the Calgary leg of the Canadian Culinary Championships in 2019.

What keeps her going through all the uncertainty? “My passion for food and cooking gets me out of bed every day, despite how hard the previous day was… Orchard allows me to cook the food that I am passionate about, as well as surrounds me with the things I love most: my family (including her husband, Food and Beverage Director, Andrew Denhamer, and her kitchen team) — and lots of plants!”

She has a perspective on hard work that she tries to pass on to her cooks. “Maybe because I had a late start in my career… my thinking is the more work I do, the more experience I gain. …You’re not working too much; you’re improving your skills.”

But she cautions it’s important to not lose sight of the joy in creating something new. “I love creating happiness with food. It brings me so much pleasure to surprise friends, family and other diners with flavours that I have created.”

Her advice to would-be chef-entrepreneurs? Every day is a new surprise… Never give up, and always be learning.


Chef Connie DeSousa

Chef connieJust weeks after Charcut Roast House celebrated its 10th anniversary, the first lockdown of the pandemic closed its doors for months – as well as Char Restaurant Group’s other venues and its events and catering arm. But in the kind of on-your-feet thinking that has marked her performance at so many culinary competitions (including two appearances on Top Chef Canada), Chef Connie DeSousa and her partners made a quick pivot.

She and co-Chef John Jackson launched Charshop Butcher and provisions store online in the spring, featuring a selection of their choice cuts and house-made charcuterie. Connie & John’s Pizza takeout followed, as well as regular pasta pop-ups called Connie & John’s Italian, as restrictions lifted. None of these ideas sprang out of thin air.

“Butcher Shop …is something that we had always wanted to do… but we were always running around so busy,” says DeSousa. And they’d been testing the pizza and pasta concepts already, in anticipation of opening a restaurant in the forthcoming ALT Hotel University District.

“Calgary is — and always has been — very loyal and very supportive of local entrepreneurs,” says DeSousa. But what do chef-entrepreneurs need to bring to the table? “You need to have a passion — and the work ethic, the drive, the dedication, the determination. And now, more than ever…resiliency.”

Partnership is huge. “We all wear different hats in our business. We created that structure going in and… we lean on each other′s strengths. I would say that’s probably the most beneficial part of having partners and I can’t imagine going into business on my own.”

The chefs pride themselves on their mentorship program that has kept staff long-term, and has seen Chefs Jessica Pelland, Brody Ashton, and Chad Rittenhouse work their way up to be leaders of charbar, Charcut, and Char Events respectively. “That’s something that’s really, really important to us and is one of the core values of our company.”

“We’ve worked really hard to create work-life balance in our company, as well” — which includes making room for parenthood and encouraging physical activity. Both co-chefs have young children and both incorporate fitness into their daily routines. “I feel like it starts from the top down…If you can’t commit to it as a leader, then it’s not going to happen in the company.”

Her advice to potential chef-entrepreneurs? “Take your time with it. I worked in the industry for 10 years before we started our company. And not everyone needs to own their own restaurant. What’s cool about the industry is there are so many different avenues and outlets to be able to use your skills.” Calgary is and always has been very loyal and very supportive of local entrepreneurs


Chef Jinhee Lee

Chef JinheeWhen the pandemic struck, Chef Jinhee Lee was in Korea with no thoughts of opening a new restaurant anywhere. Her rise into the spotlight had brought multiple appearances at the Canadian Culinary Championships (which she won in 2017), a finalist’s berth on Top Chef Canada, and a judge’s slot on Food Network’s Wall of Chefs. But the pace had taken its toll. Years of pushing through painful sciatica with Red Bull and adrenalin had left her body broken, her spirit exhausted. It was time to step away from her role as Foreign Concept’s executive chef; to re-evaluate and to heal; to savour her mother’s cooking and fetch takeout with her dad.

But her Calgary home tugged hard. “In Calgary, the people are so warm-hearted, so supportive,” says Lee. “And Calgary chefs are really bonded.”
So, when flights re-opened in summer, she returned.

An invitation to launch a new restaurant came within weeks of touching the tarmac. She resisted at first, loathe to give up her new-found balance and health. But when she sat down to put her thoughts to paper, a new concept fell full-formed onto the page.

“I wanted something exciting, but humble and comfortable… sharing Korean flavours and my memories of family and fun.” In November 2020, she launched Jin Bar, a cozy local spot with a takeout-friendly menu featuring punchy Korean-style fried chicken and pizza.

Shifting from chef to entrepreneur required a new mindset, says Lee: parking a chef’s desire for the finest ingredients to make a dish shine, to focus on hitting the sweet spot of affordability and customer satisfaction, particularly for the economic long-haul. She’s trying a new business model, too. “We pick the numbers and prepare a certain amount – when we sell out, we sell out. We know exactly how many staff we’ll need. All staff are trained for every position, so when it’s busy, anyone can step in…When I hire someone, I want to be sure I can give them enough [hours] to make a living.”

What kind of leadership does it take to run a successful kitchen? “I grew up with the old-fashioned style. But … I realized yelling was not going to work. Being an Asian girl and a female chef – no one would listen to me.” She’s adopted instead a “big sister” approach: making meals for her staff before each service; learning to listen first and to clarify expectations; working side-by-side, sharing her knowledge and experience.

And her advice to others making the leap from chef to entrepreneur? “Be positive when things go wrong. Work together to find a solution.” And keep your own passion alive. For her, that means taking time for herself with regular journaling and yoga. In Calgary, the are so warm- hearted, so supportive. And Calgary chefs are really bonded.