Juniper Cafe: A Food Love Story

By Lindy Mechefske

Restaurateur Amber Thom lives, eats, and breathes food. She’s the kind of person that people call on late at night with wild produce. One night this spring, her doorbell rang unexpectedly at 10pm. She answered to find a forager with ten pounds of freshly picked fiddlehead ferns. She took the lot and spent the entire night sorting, cleaning, preparing, and preserving fiddleheads before leaving for work first thing the following morning.

Amber and her partner, Chef Jamie Hodges, a New Zealander, co-own both the gorgeous, ultra-stylish Juniper Café at the Tett Centre and Epicurious Catering. The pair met while working in Vancouver in 2010, before returning to Kingston with their daughter. They’ve spent their lives working in the food industry and amongst other things, they once ran the Red Brick Supper Club, a small dinner-party style private restaurant where reservations were hotly sought after.  

Amber Thom cares deeply about food and all that care is amply evident in the gorgeous food she and Jamie create.

Lindy Mechefske: Where did you find your love of food?
Amber Thom: I come from a family who takes food seriously and understands the importance of eating well. My grandmother and mother are both wonderful cooks. I learned to love food when I was very young, kind of like our own six-year old daughter who is already a foodie. I sometimes say that I can’t do anything else – food is all I’ve ever known. Yet at the same time, it’s such a conscious choice because food is at the heart of everything.

LM: How did you get into the restaurant business?
AT: I grew up in Kingston and my first job was in a restaurant. After I left high school I did a Bachelor of Commerce in Food and Hotel Administration and interned at the Banff Springs Hotel where I met my partner, Jamie, who did his chef training in London, England and has worked in New Zealand, Australia, Whistler, and Vancouver. We spent some time working in high-end Vancouver restaurants and we started a catering business there, before returning to Kingston.

Jamie and I have endless visions for new restaurants and new food-related ventures. We’re passionate about what we do. And we’re in it together. But being in this industry is a labour of love – with the same margins as farming and the same long hours. You have to love it or you wouldn’t survive the long days and nights, the weekends on, the relentlessness of starting again every day. For Jamie and me – food is our passion and our life.

LM: How would you describe your food style? Who or what do you consider important influences?
AT: I like classic pairings. Things like great charcuterie and cheese and the highest quality produce along with beautiful wines and craft beer. We’re conscientious about using only local, seasonal produce and ethically sourced meat and fish. For example, we serve tomatoes for the three months of the year when we can source fresh, local tomatoes. The rest of the year – we won’t serve them because they aren’t worth eating. And we don’t serve shrimp ever, even when asked, because of the many ethical issues connected to shrimp fishing.  There’s a strong New Zealand influence in our kitchen, thanks to Jamie. We make everything on site at the Juniper Café. All the bread is baked fresh daily, as are the buttermilk biscuits for the breakfast sandwiches. The pastries are all made on site and Jamie cures our own bacon using Hanover View Farms pork. We have vegetarian and homemade gluten-free options too.

LM: What misconceptions are there about Canadian food?
AT: I think we struggle with culinary identity in Canada. We’re a melting pot of cultures old and new, and our food reflects that. But I do think Canadian food culture is evolving. We’re starting to get the hang of using what’s in season, regional, and good.

LM: When are you happiest at work?
AT: When everything is running smoothly, when there is flow, a synergy between staff and customers, the environment, there’s a buzz, a barista steaming milk, customers chatting, kids laughing, a timer going off in the kitchen, good energy. Sitting back after a busy service, going over the day’s events with a glass of Tawse chardonnay, feeling tired but happy.

LM: What’s your favourite off duty, go-to-meal at home?
AT: Jamie and I live in an old house in downtown Kingston, North of Princess, and our neighbours feel like family. They routinely feed us. It’s not uncommon for there to be ten of us, kids and adults, all jammed in someone’s small place, eating together. Last night for example, our neighbours fed us spaghetti Bolognese. It was awesome!

LM: What do you value most in life?
AT: Family. Simple pleasures. Taking time to slow down and see all the blessing in our life. Feeding family. Feeding others.  

LM: If you could eat with anyone at all, who would you choose?
AT: Anthony Bourdain. I’d serve him grilled heart. Or heart tartare. Or maybe roasted marrow bones, crusty bread, and an acidic parsley salad.

LM: Who are some of your favourite local suppliers?

The Juniper Café is located on level 1 of the Tett Centre. Hours:  Monday to Saturday 8am – 6pm and Sunday 9am – 5pm for coffee, breakfast, lunch, a wide variety of baked goods, and drinks (fully licenced). Beginning in June the café and waterfront patio will be open for evening service including charcuterie platters. Local on-street parking or paid parking behind the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. For more information including the full menu please visit their website.

For information on Epicurious Catering, please visit their website.