“We’re thriving in a way we weren’t prepared to”: Why this Toronto chef packed up his family and moved to P.E.C. to make cheese
Chef Jesse Fader spent six very busy years opening eight restaurants in Toronto’s west end. Last October, he decided to give it all up and move to Prince Edward County with his family to make cheese. We paid him a visit to check out his new business—and crash his goodbye party.
—As told to Jacob Rutka
Being a cook is the only job I’ve ever had. Six years ago, I opened my first restaurant, Bar Fancy. After that, things moved fast. I helped open another seven spots: Superpoint, Paris Paris, Extra Burger, Robinson Bread, Woodhouse Brewery and Favorites Thai BBQ. I’ve been lucky to work with some incredible chefs at all of these places, but I’ve always been around to build them up and inspire the cooking, while maintaining those relationships.
I can’t say that the pandemic was any more devastating to me than anyone else in the industry. I was fortunate that the restaurants I had were all lined up to survive by offering takeaway—I’m talking about pizza and Thai food, beer and wine. Switching to takeout was natural for our restaurants and I’m thankful we didn’t have to make pivots like so many other places.
What the pandemic did do was force me to reflect on the life I’d chosen and what would be best for my family. I’ve got two kids. My second was only a month old when I opened Bar Fancy. I’ve spent years working too much, not spending enough time with them. There’s a pressure to earn in Toronto, to be successful and comfortable. And restaurants are a very selfish undertaking. You need people around you who accept that it’s going to be hard, and who can live with the reality of what it’s like to be married to a chef—or to have one as a father.
I go all in on everything I do. I say yes to everything. I open as much as I can and I keep pushing to be as successful as possible. But doing that is detrimental. Opening eight restaurants in five years wasn’t easy. I burned myself out. It took a global pandemic for me to hit pause and have some very important conversations with my family.
I was born and raised in Toronto, but I grew up spending summers at a family cottage in eastern Ontario. I have a relationship with that part of the world; it means something to me. I’d also been going to Prince Edward County as a tourist for ages and always had it in my head that it would be a nice place to live and grow my family. And I knew that if I was going to leave Toronto for anything, it would have to be for a community that still had a cultural hub. A community that would be able to provide me with a good cup of coffee and a bookstore and a place to buy records.
Maybe the pandemic accelerated my five-year plan, but I don’t know. I don’t really think these things through—when I feel uncomfortable, that’s when I move. Overthinking just impedes your path forward. Ready, shoot, aim is more my philosophy. And it was with that thinking that I moved my family to Prince Edward County late last year.
It wasn’t something we were looking for in particular—I was more focused on trying not to lose everything I already had. But one night in late July, I came home and my wife told me she’d found a beautiful house in P.E.C. and asked if I wanted to go look at it. The listing didn’t make it look like much, but at the very least it was an excuse for a nice day trip. But when we got there, it was better than we thought. We drove home that day, promptly put in an offer and it was accepted that night. I divested myself of most of my restaurants—I wanted a clean break and the idea of opening them all back up when Covid was done was pretty daunting. Last October, we moved into our new house. It’s on an acre of land next to a conservation area, with a pond that’s teeming with life—no motorized vehicles or waterfront development are allowed.
So far, it’s been paradise. All of us are thriving in a way we weren’t prepared to. I’m happy and calm, my wife’s business is doing well, my kids get to grow up with grass under their feet and the great outdoors at their disposal. I know it’s borderline cliché at this point, but I wanted more for them than just screens and social media—that mattered to me. They’re six and eight years old and they can play outside all day. I just tell them not to leave the property, but I don’t have to watch them either. It’s the dignity of risk, and I often think about what that will do for them as they grow into young adults.
For me, it’s also spurred on a new entrepreneurial spirit. I still own Superpoint, so I’m used to buying an awful lot of cheese—and it’s great cheese! When I was talking to a friend about my move to P.E.C., we were just riffing on some of the things I could do. He threw out the idea of a pizzeria in Picton. I didn’t want to do that and even wondered where I’d get the cheese to support a project like that—and that was the seed of the idea that kind of snowballed.
So I became interested in making cheese; I enjoy the science of it and it’s something I’m putting a lot of time and effort into. I’m using 100 per cent Ontario water buffalo milk, which is not actually that common in Canadian cheesemaking, so that’s an added challenge. There’s actually a lot of bureaucracy in the Ontario dairy industry, but water buffalo milk isn’t regulated in the same way. I’m essentially operating on a restaurant or catering licence, so it gives me the freedom to do what I want.
Everyone told me water buffalo milk wasn’t going to behave the way cows’ milk did, and they were right—but… challenge accepted. I’ve spent a good amount of time using Google translate to learn how the Italians do it. I get the milk from a place that’s a 40-minute drive from my home and I’ve been perfecting my recipe for Ontario water buffalo milk mozzarella. There’s such a subtle difference between it and fresh cows’ milk cheese—it comes down to texture and salt, ultimately. I’ve played around with different temperatures to find out the best way to stretch it. They’ve gone from these little squashed balls to spheres with more of a custardy texture. I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m using old practices to execute at as high a level as I can. In Italy, they use water buffalo milk to make fresh cheese that gets eaten in a day—that might be idealistic, but it’s what I’m going for. I’ve also got a burrata and a stracciatella. There’s still lots of room to improve, but that’s what I enjoy. I was always the guy who loved building with Legos more than having a complete structure at the end.
Right now, I’m working out of an old schoolhouse that’s been taken over by County Food Hub, a not-for-profit focused on food insecurity in the region. My goal is to start providing cheese to them. I’ve also got my name in at the Wellington and Picton farmers’ markets and I’ve got a few friends in the area who own restaurants, so I’d like to be able to supply them with cheese. And of course, people can come to the school to get it from me directly if they want.
I’m lucky that this cheese doesn’t have to pay my mortgage, so I can grow it at a comfortable pace. I sold my place in Leslieville to afford the house here, and my mortgage is now a lot smaller. Rent at the school house is nothing compared to rent in Toronto and I still have a few businesses in the city that are being run by people significantly more talented than myself.
There are a number of scenarios I’d be happy with: if this venture makes enough to buy groceries and clothes for my kids, and I only have to work two days a week, that’s fine by me. If I have to buy a factory because I get some huge contracts, I’m not opposed to that either.
Ultimately, being a cheesemaker isn’t that much different than being a cook. And that’s what I like. It’s the same excitement of creating something. It’s never been important to me to be the face of a restaurant. I enjoy the work of building—the journey is exciting, and I feel as excited about this as I have for any restaurant opening.