“I never wanted to work at any other restaurant”: How working in a certain Toronto kitchen helped this perennial wanderer decide what to do with his life

“I never wanted to work at any other restaurant”: How working in a certain Toronto kitchen helped this perennial wanderer decide what to do with his life

Photo courtesy of Roland Campbell

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Roland Campbell has always had a taste for exploring. He took time off to travel after graduating from high school, and then chose a career with an outdoorsy bent over the journalism degree he earned. Then, life took him back to Toronto where he found a home in the hospitality industry—which has long been a lifeline for people in between one thing and the next. Here, he talks about how working at a specific Queen West restaurant helped him decide what to do next.

“I love a lot of the elements of journalism, but I think at the time I sort of struggled with where the industry was headed—with the 24-hour news cycle and the cult of on-air personality. Between my third and fourth year at university, I started a job with Pine Project, a Toronto-based organization that provides day programming for youth, doing different activities and games outdoors, connecting them to nature. I’m also a musician and by that time I was already more interested in making music than being a journalist. Right after I graduated in 2012, my friend and I undertook a three-month journey from Toronto to St. John’s, where we walked and hitchhiked–the intention was to walk the whole way, but it really wasn’t possible. I anticipated needing a bit of time to decompress after university and I just wanted to go on a trip that was intentionally slow to see Canada from that perspective. The trip was incredible—I filled seven journals along the way.

Back in Toronto in 2013, I started back up at the Pine Project, this time doing an apprenticeship focused on mentoring and survival skills like friction fire, shelter building, making traps and tracking wildlife. I moved around a lot for the next few years, from Quebec to British Columbia, working various jobs along the way. Then, in June of 2018—over the span of just three days—I decided to leave my job, I broke up with my girlfriend and my grandma had a heart attack. It was a lot of change in not a lot of time, and it made me reflect on and reorient my life.

I moved back to Toronto to be closer to my parents and focus on my music. And that’s where the hospitality industry comes in. My dad and stepmom have both worked in hospitality my whole life, so I saw it as familiar, gainful and a job that I could do while still pursuing art. As a teen and into my twenties I worked various jobs in the industry—busboy, barback, caterer—always in and out of the kitchen. Coming back to it, I tried to get a job with an event staffing company. I had a tryout shift at a café in the west end that didn’t go well: they put two new servers on a busy brunch service that was understaffed, and everything went wrong, from customers walking out to a man yelling in my face. It clearly wasn’t a good fit, so I moved on.

Then, a friend of mine introduced me to Guy and Kim, the owners of Montgomery’s on Queen West, and they hired me for a service support position, doing things like bussing and food running. I was the person doing all the tasks that the servers didn’t have time to do. I loved the ethos of Montgomery’s: Guy cooked using food only grown in Canada, and explored what Canadian food can be. I also loved how they constructed their dining room to be dark and candlelit to promote intimacy and connection and dissuade people from posting on social media. We had shared values.

I worked at Montgomery’s for two years, right up until March 2020. I had a sense of pride working there and I felt a moral alignment with them. The food was delicious and the restaurant had a great vibe and ambiance. Guy and Kim were able to cultivate a sense of team. Our staff was very small—on a busy Saturday we would have three people in the kitchen, a dishwasher, two servers, me and maybe a host. It was very much a family run business and we were very much a family. I was honoured when Guy and Kim wanted me to be a server. They put the time and effort into training me. Guy gave me a crash course in wine and tasting. They were both excellent at showing me the ropes; telling me what their expectations were and what I needed to do to succeed.

More on Montgomery's

I never wanted to work at any restaurant other than Montgomery’s. Perhaps it was a lack of imagination and knowledge of what else was out there, but Montgomery’s hit the mark for me and I didn’t feel like I would be able to find the same sense of belonging and ethical alignment elsewhere. And even though the restaurant industry is full of people like me, who dabble in multiple areas, I never really felt like a part of the community—my heart was always in the outdoors.

For the first few months of the pandemic, after restaurants were ordered to shut down, I was collecting CERB. I took that time as an opportunity to work on my music; to practice my guitar skills and spend more time working on the craft of songwriting. I went for lots of walks, did some bird watching, meditated and spent time with my roommates and my mom, who was undergoing cancer treatment. I didn’t waste any of my free time. In July 2020, I went back to the Pine Project. I was ready to work, and because it’s mostly outdoors, I felt like I could do so safely. And I knew I could offer something to young kids that could help them—I wanted to give them some time to be kids again.

I ended up leaving the Pine Project after the season ended this past June, and now I’m on a mission to have multiple and different sources of income. I’m doing some outdoor ed, some curriculum development and some renovations, all while working on my music. I’m cobbling together an income doing what I love, on my own terms. I’ve recognized that for me, doing more than one thing works for my personality.

I’ll always miss working at Montgomery’s—the people, the delicious food and the wine. I also miss the post-rush feeling, the post-intense-service feeling, and having a beer on the stoop after a long night. That was cathartic. But the restaurant closed for good this past April, and I don’t miss the industry enough to go back to it. The pandemic, which was an immense awakening and reckoning on all levels, allowed me to realize I could support myself differently.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from Guy and Kim was seeing the degree of commitment, energy and ultimately sacrifice it takes to achieve excellence and fulfill a vision. I was taking mental notes throughout my time working with them and I’ve already applied some of the knowledge I gained at Montgomery’s to my work in outdoor education. In one program, I was teaching parents and their children how to make forest tea—one with white cedar leaves and another with wild rose hips. I approached it like I would wine, inviting them to observe the colour, nose, and asking them to describe the different notes that came to mind. It resonated with them, and like with wine tasting, they each came up with their own answers. Returning to the outdoors and mentoring kids has allowed me to fulfill my values and reconnect an old flame with some newfound knowledge.

Have you recently left the hospitality industry for something entirely different? Let us know at [email protected].