WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
Remember that scene from Ratatouille – the animated film about little Chef Remy who (despite all odds) pursues his passion for cooking in a fine dining restaurant in Paris – when villain food critic Anton Ego takes his first bite of Remy’s rendition of the classic French Provençal dish? How, after just one bite, the flavours of Remy’s rustic creation transport Ego back to the critic’s earliest childhood memories, of his mom making the young Anton a simple dish of ratatouille as an ultimate act of love? It’s a climactic moment in the movie, for sure – a tear-jerking scene. And it’s a reminder that food can be so much more than choreographed ingredients. Food can be love. Bliss. Nostalgia.
One sweltering morning in late June, I experienced my own ‘Ego moment.’ Not in some Parisian restaurant, mind you. And not even with ratatouille – although the dish that consumed me (while I consumed it) was, likethe French staple, rustic and timeless. Instead, my experience occurred in an air-conditioned, windowless office deep in the recesses of a plaza on the outskirts of Uptown Waterloo. There I was offered an extraordinary serving of quiche – by a member of regional culinary royalty. A real-life Chef Remy. Dana Shortt.
‘Sooo – how do you like it?’, Dana asks after I take my first bite. The signature dish I’m tasting – ‘Ham, Broccoli + 3 Cheese Croissant Quiche’ – is a conclusive example of what Uptown’s Dana Shortt Gourmet and Gifts is all about. The quiche is made with sliced croissants for a base, Stemmler’s local ham, a good helping of broccoli, fresh eggs, thirty-five percent cream, and a combination of swiss, parmesan, and asiago cheeses: a perfect amalgamation of ingenuity, collaboration, and quality. And a taste that leaves me speechless.
Filled with love, bliss, and nostalgia.
In fact, the quiche’s delicious aroma and taste evoke childhood summertime lunches at home with my family – simpler times when days were free and possibilities endless, from after- lunch games of ‘cops and robbers’ with best friends to sessions of ‘one-on-one’ with big bro. ‘Well…?’, nudges Dana, snapping me out of my reverie. ‘It’s amazing,’ I reply. ‘Like nostalgia on a plate.’ Dana looks pleased. I’m undeniably smitten.
As soon as I finish, Dana whisks me out of her office for a tour of the business. First stop: the retail space, where we travel past neatly-organized shelves and rows of freezer units filled with prepared foods. ‘When I first opened at this location almost two decades ago,’ Dana remarks, ‘our retail space was a lot smaller. Just over one hundred square feet. Now we’ve got over two thousand.’ The congenial space reminds me of Vincenzo’s – Uptown’s definitive Italian (and international) grocer. ‘Vincenzo’s is actually an inspiration,’ Dana tells me, ‘as is Dean & DeLuca [in NYC], Summerhill Market [Toronto], Le Rose [Milton], Wild Hog [Stratford], Zingerman’s [Ann Arbor], and Caviar & Bananas [Charleston].’ Good company.
I scan one of the freezer units and read some labels. Beef Bourguignon. Bacon Cheddar Beef Burgers. Butter Chicken Curry. Beef Cottage Pie. All cooked and ready to be reheated in a home oven. Other dishes – including Dana’s signature Almond Crème Scones, for instance – are sold as raw dough: the perfect ‘BYOB’ (‘Be Your Own Baker’) dish. And while many of the available items are from Dana’s signature line, made from scratch in her commercial kitchen, others are from outside producers. I spot a ‘Return of the Mac’ frozen pizza from St Jacobs’ Those Pizza Guys, for instance, and ask Dana about it.
‘While my signature line will always be a crucial element of the business,’ Dana remarks, ‘it’s become an important part of my job to curate food items from [mostly] regional businesses who also make terrific food.’ Like Those Pizza Guys, of course – whose pies have become famous through craft beer scene pop-ups. And Les Fougeres (from the Gatineau Hills). Feast (Toronto). The Pie Commission (also Toronto). The Pierogi House (Kitchener). And, for those with a sweet tooth, Dana Shortt Gourmet and Gifts is the exclusive reseller of Rheo Thompson Candies (Stratford) and Reids Chocolate (Cambridge). When I ask Dana how she decides which brands to carry, she’s quick to reply: ‘By doing a lot of tasting.’
But curating what’s on the shelves is certainly not the only thing that fills Dana’s days. ‘I also do a lot of recipe development, write our weekly newsletter and article for regional publications, and manage the bulk ordering throughout the year,’ she tells me. ‘Our Christmas ordering alone, for instance, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars of product, is due at the end of June.’ Oh, and Dana’s also busy raising two sons. And participating with organizations like the WPO (Women’s Professional Organization) and Revolution Her (formerly Mompreneurs – who awarded Dana with Mompreneur of the Year a few years back). It’s clear why she doesn’t spend much time in the kitchen these days.
It wasn’t always this way.
‘I knew from a young age that I wanted to work in kitchens,’ Dana tells me while we head towards her commercial kitchen. ‘Already in grade ten I applied at the St Jacobs Farmers Market to sell cookies,’ she adds, then chuckles: ‘They said I was too young.’ A few years later, after completing a BComm in Hotel & Food Admin at Guelph, she found herself at George Brown’s Chef School. And the same entrepreneurial streak that had her applying to sell cookies at the market drove her next business idea: to become a personal chef for clients across Toronto – no matter the cost.
‘Those were crazy times,’ she recalls. ‘I would go to cooking classes during the day, and then after class I’d take transit – subways, buses, taxis, you nameit – to a grocery store where I would fill large blue Ikea bags with ingredients for client meals. I’d then take transit to my clients’ homes – scattered all across Toronto – where I would prepare meals for them before returning to my apartment to sleep.’ She looks at me and shakes her head: ‘It wasn’t the most practical business endeavour.’ Maybe not, but it taught her a lot. And convinced her that, no matter the challenges, she wanted to build a career as a personal chef. The way she did it was ingenious.
‘When I was at George Brown, students neededto apprentice at a business in order to graduate,’ Dana says. ‘Instead of working for someone in Toronto, I proposed apprenticing for myself as a personal chef back home in Kitchener-Waterloo.’It was a unique approach to apprenticeship, to be sure, but one that Dana’s supervisor, surprisingly, allowed. ‘Before long, I had moved back in withmy parents, developed a business plan, and was cooking for an expanding local client base right here at home.’ These clients, after a while, began asking for more than personal meals, and Dana soon outgrew her parents’ – and clients’ – kitchens and began catering much larger events, using the Breithaupt Community Centre kitchen. ‘Eventually I began looking around for a commercial kitchen of my own,’ she recalls, ‘a place where I could have a storefront and suppliers could drop off their orders.’
In November 2004, Dana opened her first spot Uptown – in this kitchen space right here. Divided into a prep kitchen (which, at the beginning of things, functioned as the aforementioned retail space) and main kitchen (where most of the action has always taken place), the space is an exercise in streamlined design and efficient output. While we wander through it, several cooks are chopping vegetables, filling quiches, rolling dough, dropping coated eggplants into hot oil, and baking a variety of items. While Dana points out various pieces of equipment, the staff work around us – chatting, joking, convivial. Like family.
After a few minutes we exit the rear of the kitchen, but, to my surprise, the tour is not over. After Dana’s office, the retail space, the kitchen, what else could there be? A lot, actually. Five thousand square feet more. Dana leads me through a maze of corridors, down a staircase, past a large Peter Etril Snyder mural mounted to a wall (could there be anything more Waterloo County-themed than this?), and into a large room with rows of half-filled shelving and a range of walk-in freezers. ‘From thanksgiving through the holidays,’ Dana tells me, ‘this room is filled with product for gift baskets. In fact, I hire five extra full-time staff during these months just to pack them.’ Wow. ‘There was a time,’ she continues, ‘when I would consider seven baskets a large order. Nowadays we have single orders for seven hundred.’
I’m beginning to realize just how expansive this operation is. When Dana and I arrive back at the retail space, where I shoot a few last frames for this story, Dana begins to pack a couple insulated bags with prepared meals. ‘So that you can try some more dishes,’ she tells me. I’m more than a bit excited to see what she selects. Chicken pot pie. Quesadillas. Asparagus, leek and sour cream soup. Shortbread cookies. And, of course, a quiche.
When Dana hands me the bags and walks me to the door, I have one more question for her. ‘Why Uptown Waterloo?’ After all, Dana would have been a success anywhere. She’s quick to answer: ‘Because this is where I grew up. My family’s here – my kids go to
the same school as my nephews.’ She pauses, then continues: ‘Uptown has always shown me so much love and support. We live in a region with a vibrant cultural scene, fantastic farmers’ markets, amazing restaurants. There’s Red House. Champa Kitchen. Public. Thai Sun. Beertown for their beef brisket poutine.’
I imagine Dana could go on. As could I. I’m sure our lists would be quite similar, actually. Except I’d have one more place on mine: Dana Shortt Gourmet and Gifts.
DANA SHORTT GOURMET AND GIFTS
55 ERB ST E #101, WATERLOO