“I didn’t know this part of my life was missing”: Chef Albert Ponzo on how a move to P.E.C. and an unexpected hiatus from the kitchen reordered his priorities
Albert Ponzo spent over a decade as the chef at the long-standing, now-shuttered Le Sélect Bistro, where he was regarded as a stalwart of consistency in an ever-changing industry. Five years ago, drawn increasingly by the desire to embrace a farm-to-table ethos, he decided to move his family to Prince Edward County for a taste of the good life. Picked to helm the restaurant at the recently opened Royal Hotel, his plans were first impacted by delays in construction and, later, the pandemic. Here’s how he’s kept busy since 2017—and why he’s elated The Royal is finally open.
—As told to Jacob Rutka
“I’ve been working in restaurants for over 20 years now—but it’s actually something I fell into by accident. Growing up in an Italian family, food was always a huge part of my life. But music was my primary passion when I was younger.
“In the early 2000s, I graduated from Humber College with a degree in jazz performance. The electric bass was my instrument. Professionally, it was hard to make ends meet and at one point, I was living in a house at Bloor and Lansdowne with 11 other musicians. I needed to make money, so I started serving tables and actually fell in love with the work. I began thinking about opening my own place, but the manager I was working for at the time recommended I actually learn to work in a kitchen. In his words: ‘So that the chef you eventually hire doesn’t screw you over.’
“My first cooking gig was a stage at Crush Wine Bar—and I never looked back. To me, it was like music: there was camaraderie and every day you were perfecting your skills and technique. I worked my way through the ranks there and did a few stints elsewhere in the city until I ended up at Le Sélect at the end of 2005. JP Challet was leaving. He had hired me as a sous chef and had a new executive chef to replace him. He was training us both, but things didn’t work out for the new executive chef they’d hired, so I got the job at the age of 29. And that’s where I stayed for 11 years.
“During that time, I learned so much: different styles of cooking, nose-to-tail eating, butchery. And increasingly, I was getting more and more taken by farm-to-table cuisine. I would start visiting different farms like Cookstown and Vicki’s Veggies, and was inspired to develop a closer relationship with the ingredients I was using. I began to wonder what it would be like to grow some of the food for the dishes I was making.
“Around 2015, my wife, Marlise, and I started looking at properties in Prince Edward County. We wanted more space and a different lifestyle. And potentially, the ability to have enough land to have our own livestock and grow our own vegetables. We have three kids—ages seven, five and two at the time—and we couldn’t find anything that matched our budget. I started getting discouraged. One day, I was at work and the architect Pina Petricone, who designed Le Sélect, was having lunch. We were friends at that point and I was telling her how much I loved Prince Edward County. She mentioned she was working on a project for Greg Sorbara—the former minister of finance, who’s been a huge advocate for P.E.C.—designing a hotel called The Royal. She talked about the Sorbara’s family farm outside of Picton with cattle and market gardens—it sounded amazing. I started to walk away, but promptly stopped myself and went back to ask her if she could introduce me.
“Not long after, I started meeting with Greg and the project lead and general manager of The Royal, Sol Korngold, who’s also part of the Sorbara family. A few months later, I cooked for Greg and his big extended family—he has six children, some with kids of their own. My wife came as well, as they wanted to get to know her. I was nervous, but figured if it was meant to be, it would be. I served a smoked whitefish mousse, some cured trout, a sweet potato gnocchi and seared swordfish. The dinner was a success. They liked what I served and we were a good fit from a personality standpoint. After a lot of thought and deliberation, I gave my notice at Le Sélect—it was a tough decision as they were like family to me. My last shift was on February 14, 2017.
“The Royal was scheduled to open 15 months after that. Marlise and I couldn’t find the right property for us—something with a lot of acreage and a house that could accommodate us all—so we decided to buy a 63-acre piece of land and build a home on it while renting in Belleville. It’s one of the reasons my beard has turned grey.
“Just a few months after I left Le Sélect, construction stopped at The Royal. A structural wall had shifted during construction and it had to be rebuilt. And since it was a heritage building, the restoration work was more delicate. It was the first delay I encountered and, of course, I was a bit worried. I had sold my house in Toronto, I had a new mortgage and I wanted to support my family. But the Sorbara’s were so supportive and, even though I like consistency in my life, I started to learn how to go with the flow a bit better. The good thing was, there was no shortage of things to keep me busy.
“The vision for the restaurant at The Royal was that it was going to be farm-to-table and seasonally-driven, but with an Italian backbone—a background that both myself and Greg share. We wanted it to be special but also accessible. In September 2017, I went on a trip to Stone Barns in New York—chef Dan Barber had been a huge inspiration for me, just growing really unique produce on his farm and showcasing it in inventive ways at Blue Hill Restaurant, which is on the same property. A couple months later, I lined up stages at Blackbird and Sud Forno in Toronto to refine my baking as we were planning to open a bakery at The Royal, too.
“Ultimately, I took on a lot of different gigs after I left Le Sélect: cooking at an event at Silver Oak Cellars in Napa Valley, an extended chef’s residency on Fogo Island, a series of stages in Denmark, as well as being part of Terroirs in Hungary, Tuscany and, of course, Toronto.
“Throughout 2018, I started getting more involved in what everyday life in P.E.C. would look like. I worked on a project called the County Food Hub, where I helped transform half a local school into a commercial kitchen that cooks could rent out. It helped subsidize the Sophiasburgh Central School, which was going to close due to low enrolment. I also started working at the Sorbara’s Edwin County Farms, helping to set up the market gardens with Lucas and Nick Sorbara. I taught at Loyalist College’s culinary program. And, of course, built a series of ever-changing, seasonal menus for the restaurant.
“Our house was move-in ready in April 2018, so since then, I’ve been working on our own family farm. We’ve got horses, chickens, pastured meat birds, market gardens and even bees—we’ve started making and selling honey. I bought a 1969 Ford tractor and learned how to fix up the old diesel engine. I’ve even taken up hunting. I’m not very good, but I’ve gotten a few geese and managed to get a deer while bow-hunting last season.
“The delays due to the structural wall at The Royal took construction into early 2020 and, once COVID hit, we were shut down another three times. Initially, our work was deemed non-essential. It eventually started back up, but the supply chain was broken in so many ways. Everything that we’d normally take for granted was delayed or required multiple phone calls and negotiations. Pots and pans were among the most difficult items to get—we couldn’t get all the models we wanted in a certain line, so we had to start mixing and matching. We’d order cutting boards and only half would show up as the rest weren’t yet manufactured.
“When we were finally able to start seated service, I was elated. The first night, I remember our food-and-beverage manager came to the kitchen pass and we just smiled at each other, because it finally felt like a real restaurant. After so many delays, it was amazing to see the dishes going out, with food we’d spent so much time growing and thinking about. Plus, it was great to see so many people in our dining room that I’d gotten to know over the past few years. Everyone has been incredibly supportive.
“It’s obviously been challenging, but there have been so many delights of moving to the county. Instead of spending long hours and days in the kitchen right away, I was able to help in the community, meet people I might not have met and dive into so many activities and learning experiences to get outside of my comfort zone. I’ve just loved helping out on the farm and figuring out what we’re going to grow. It’s made me realize that I really didn’t know as much about farm-to-table as I thought I did. The access to ingredients here in the summer is amazing and we’ve been able to find so many great staff members to help us at the restaurant, despite the fact that tons of cooks left the industry during the pandemic.
“And on the personal side, I’ve actually been able to enjoy watching my kids grow up. I’ve been able to spend more time with them and forge an incredible bond, going on nature walks or working on our farm together. Ultimately, I didn’t know this part of my life was missing.”