“I was crazy enough to think I could do this:” This chef returned from Bali to open a bistro, and then Omicron hit

“I was crazy enough to think I could do this:” This chef returned from Bali to open a bistro, and then Omicron hit

More Industry Memoirs

Chef, restaurateur and TV personality David Adjey was living in Bali—surfing, hanging out and working as a private chef—when he decided to move back to Toronto, where his kids live. He fell in love with the Junction, and thought it would be the perfect place to dive back into the restaurant industry. In November, he opened La Nectarine—just in time for Omicron. Here, he tells Toronto Life how it feels to step back behind the stove at this particular moment. 

—As told to Kate Dingwall

“I had spent years cooking in kitchens from Toronto to Florence to New York before I made the changeover to the world of food television, where I had a very fruitful career: Restaurant Makeover, Iron Chef America, and my own show, The Opener.

“As a chef, you’re always thinking of new concepts and new ideas for projects, and a client of mine thought an idea from one of the shows, for a fried chicken place, was great. So the Chickery was born in 2012. It was successful, and as it started growing more and more, we got connected with a U.S.-based franchise group. That’s where I soured on the whole thing.

“Selling franchises is different. What made the Chickery great is all my sauces were made from scratch and it was me standing over the fryer. Having restaurants in Dubai and Washington, well, I couldn’t control it anymore.

“I made the decision to tap out in 2017. I was considering what to do next, and I ended up resurfacing an offer in my inbox I had been dodging for a few years. It was from a member of the Saudi royal family—they were offering me a job as a private chef.

“So I flew out to Bali in 2018. I hung out, got tattoos, cooked and learned how to surf.

“When I was in TV, producers told me I had to be a rock-and-roll-chef—I had a decade of debauchery, going out a little too late—and my friends said, ‘Well you didn’t have to take that so literally.’ As flighty as it sounds, being removed from it all in Bali just helped me cleanse my soul. It was grounding.

“After several years, I snapped out of it and realized how much I missed home. I didn’t really know what I was going to do in Toronto, but my kids are here. So I moved back in 2021, kicked around the city, and ended up falling in love with the Junction. I decided this would be the perfect time and place to get back in the kitchen. The Junction doesn’t have a cozy little French restaurant; that could be me, I thought. I wanted people to be able to walk to the restaurant, drink and eat a little too much, and then walk a few blocks home. I wanted to know my guests by name.

“I opened La Nectarine in November with nickels: a coat of paint, hand-me-down tables and chairs from some friends. I got some great French wine and started cooking my ass off in the tiny, 30-seat restaurant. I was so happy to be back behind the stove and in the restaurant groove: go to market, shop, cook the food, punch that last chit on the spike and write the orders for the next day.

“In Bali, I was a free spirit. But with Covid-19, I’m a compliance officer. I was checking vaccine passports and QR codes and enforcing mask-wearing. Plus, with the QR codes, I’m asking my staff to use their personal phones to scan other people’s phones—it feels invasive.

“These restrictions are sucking the fun out of why we do what we do. You go to a restaurant to escape. You escape eating something in your pyjamas on the couch, you escape doing dishes. People go to restaurants to be social and eat something different. Now I’m the fun police—making sure people are vaccinated and wearing their masks.

“All you want to do as a restaurant owner is open a bottle of wine for someone, and for them to go ‘Oh my God that’s delicious.’ I want to clear a plate of food and for someone to say, ‘That was AMAZING.’ It’s a bit shallow, but that’s why I cook—it’s so fulfilling to leave your guests so satisfied.

“Despite the public health measures, we were just starting to get our heads above water when Omicron hit—suddenly, we’re desperately trying to hang on.

“When we got word of the latest shutdown, I headed straight to Tap Phong, the legendary restaurant supply store on Spadina, and went up and down the aisles grabbing takeout containers. I even found a roll of stickers with my name on it from food events I had worked 15 years ago—I paid a few grand to get that logo designed, and boy, I’m glad it’s finally paying off. Then I found some orange masking tape online, and that’s our branding now. One of my customers said, ‘Oh my gosh, your packaging is so cool!’ But it’s a $1 roll of masking tape. We’re trying to be as creative as we can with whatever money we have left.

“When I was opening the Chickery, I was talking to my old roommate at the Culinary Institute of America, Michael Symon. He said, ‘Chicken? You’re part of the triangle!’ I asked him what the triangle was, and he said: ‘pizza, chicken, burgers. Takeout food.’ Those foods just make sense to get delivered to your house. French bistro food? It’s more difficult. It doesn’t travel well.

“The other day, the first order of the night was for $400 worth of food. The courier showed up in the middle of all the snow on a bicycle, with a backpack. The guys out there delivering are true warriors. I love them. Without them, we—restaurants—couldn’t survive. But I can practically hear every dish rattling around as they go over snowbank after snowbank. I have a hard enough time watching a server put their thumb too far over the edge of the bowl, let alone a $23 steak tartare sloshing around in transit. You’re a chef and an artist. You never want to see your food go in a backpack.

“All of this is hard for me to wrap my head around. I was crazy enough to think I could do this, get back into the restaurant industry, but the strikes keep coming.

“It feels like the restaurant community is getting tighter and tighter; there’s becoming less and less of us. We’re all trying to be as optimistic as we can and we’re trying to support each other as much as we can. We’re waiting with bated breath. Will we stay safe? Will restrictions ever get lifted?

“We don’t want a government handout. We just want to make a living. It’s almost degrading—the government saying we’re so downtrodden that they’re going to give us $10,000. Ten grand? I can pay my meat supplier and my wine supplier, but I can’t make payroll with that. Landlords want to get paid. My suppliers want to get paid—the pressure is on. Our whole industry is trying to con ourselves into believing we can make it on this dismal amount of takeout.

“Just let me cook. That’s all I want to do.

“I want to be optimistic, but it’s hard to forecast. It’s hard to look at 2022’s first quarter, second quarter and third quarter. I just have to keep the blinders on and focus on the week ahead. We’re coming out of lockdown soon, but I saw on social media recently a quote that really sums it up: 50 per cent of occupancy is still 100 per cent of the bills.

“My daughter, Jamie, works in finance, and she’s pitching in at the restaurant. She calls me on a lot of my bullshit—I love having her around. But there are no utopian thoughts. I can’t say, ‘This is what I will do next year, when life is back to normal.’ I can’t dream about opening the second floor of the restaurant. I can’t think of expansion. There’s no big three-year plan. We’re trying to think daily—let’s just pay our bills this week and make sure we have enough money for next week.”