Jonathan Collins hums as he butchers a beef tenderloin. With one hand on a strip of fat and the other on his knife, the 36-year-old chef shakes his head, grins and recalls a fond memory: “At the Prime Minister’s residence, the maître d’ plays the violin like an angel. I’ll be cooking and he’ll just be playing. If that’s not paradise . . .” The 42 people here for his cooking class at Lakeview Gardens in Eagle, Ont., a hamlet about 45 minutes southwest of London, smile back. They know that on occasion Collins cooks for Stephen Harper, his family, and anybody else who gets invited for a meal, including President Barack Obama.
When he’s not in Ottawa, Collins is busy as executive chef at Lakeview Gardens, a labyrinth-like complex of greenhouses, gift shops and dining rooms owned and operated by his parents. The father of four is also co-owner and executive chef of Shutters on the Beach in Port Bruce, Ont., at work on a food-related TV show, and an aspiring MP. On most Saturdays, at Top Chef Culinary School, he leads the cooking class we’re here for. It costs $25. And that includes a tasting menu.
Today’s class is ratatouille confit Bayaldi with a balsamic reduction, and herbes de Provence-encrusted beef tenderloin with a Cabernet Sauvignon jus. Most of those who’ve signed up for the two-hour lesson are from neighbouring small towns and have read about Collins in the local papers. They treat him as though they’ve known him their whole lives, and in some cases, it’s true. But they’re not here just to learn from an old friend how to remove a garlic clove’s germ; they want to hear about Ottawa. Does Harper raid the fridge late at night and then curl up on the couch watching Sopranos reruns? Will he eat only Alberta-raised beef?
But Collins stays focused on food. He passes around tiny dishes of oregano, lavender, and just-toasted fennel seeds that he’s bashed in a mortar and pestle so everyone can smell them. And then somewhere between the dicing of onions and the deglazing of a pan, Collins gives his audience a taste of what they really want: the tenderloin he’s about to slather with olive oil and herbs, he says, is “the dish we did for Obama, but we used bison.” Jackpot.
After the lunch, and after he’s said goodbye to each student individually, Collins explains how he got to 24 Sussex. Three years ago he and his wife, Cynthia, sold their successful printing and publishing business and enrolled at the Cordon Bleu culinary school in Ottawa. They hauled their three kids along for the gruelling 11-month adventure. “We had opposite schedules,” says Cynthia, which was great because one of them was always with the kids, but not-so-great because they never saw each other. Their fourth child is offered up as proof. “If you plan back nine months from little Grace’s birth,” says Cynthia, “it’s the day we graduated.”
“As a student I happened to go [to 24 Sussex] as a volunteer,” says Collins. “That was it—just the one time.” He must have done something to impress Oliver Bartsch, who has been the executive chef for the PM since 2006, because after graduating Collins was invited back to assist him with special events and to fill in as executive chef for the Harpers whenever Bartsch was away. On Feb. 19, 2009, Collins returned to Ottawa once again, this time to help prepare Bartsch’s lunch menu for Obama. And yes, Collins was one of the lucky ones who got to shake the President’s hand. “He looked into everybody’s eyes and thanked us. And that was Mr. Harper who made sure we all got to meet him.”
After their numerous stints cooking at both 24 Sussex and the prime ministerial Harrington Lake retreat, Jonathan and Cynthia, who frequently joins her husband as chef de pâtisserie for the Harpers, are privy to a side of the PM the public never sees. But they’re both guarded: “We have a personal relationship with these people. We don’t want to break their trust,” says Cynthia. Then their enthusiasm for the Harpers gets the better of them: Laureen is “a wonderful lady” who’ll “come in the kitchen while you’re cooking and talk your ear off.” The Prime Minister “is the funniest guy” and an “amazing piano player.” Nothing’s revealed that will threaten national security, although Collins does let on that “Mr. Harper likes his food hot, as in spicy.”
Collins loves to talk about cooking for the President but is quick to point out who the real star is: “I mean, I just smoked some bison. This guy, he’s changing the face of the planet.”