Q & A with chef/owner John Taylor, on closing Domus Cafe after 18 years

Q & A with chef/owner John Taylor, on closing Domus Cafe after 18 years

A pioneer of local, seasonal cuisine, chef John Taylor confides he feels a bit bitter and jaded. But the ByWard Market business just isn’t there for him any more …

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MAY 27 14 – 4:10 PM — Barely 24 hours after he announced yesterday on Twitter that 55-seat Domus Café is closing, chef/owner John Taylor has already got plain paper blanketing his floor-to-ceiling sidewalk windows, most of the chairs are now upside-down and resting on tables, refrigeration units are turned off, while an imposing blue box recycling bin sits outside the front door to collect refuse. Wine vintages have yet to come out of the display case …

IMG_3268Taylor, 47, a self-taught chef, expects he’ll spend the rest of this week cleaning up, leaving what was once an iconic restaurant known for Canadian local and seasonal cuisine empty and ready for another operator — but certainly not him. He’s had quite enough of it.

Taylor confides he has lost his passion for the restaurant business, and the experience has left him a bit jaded, a bit bitter. Closing was his best option.

After 18 years of fine-dining on Murray Street in Ottawa’s ByWard Market, Taylor says the economy in general and the Market in particular has changed — and not for the better. Certainly not for a restaurateur with ever-increasing bills, impressive rent, and competitors offering lunch and dinner fare at considerably lower prices.

Bottom line: He can no longer afford to hemorrhage his family savings.

Taylor concedes he owes money, but doesn’t want to go into detail.

The good news is, he will continue to own and operate a second restaurant, Taylor’s Genuine Food & Wine Bar (30 seats inside, plus 14 patio) opened to acclaim in 2010 on Bank Street in Old Ottawa South — for at least a couple of years, anyway.

Domus is the second much-beloved, and certainly celebrated Ottawa restaurant to close in less than a week.

On Friday, owner David Loan announced he was forced to suddenly shutter his high-end vegan restaurant, ZenKitchen on Somerset Street in Ottawa’s Chinatown neighbourhood, owing many thousands of dollars in unpaid Harmonized Sales Tax to the Canada Revenue Agency, which seized his bank account on Thursday. Dining fans are trying to raise money online to bail out Zen, while two chefs are exploring the possibility of taking over — likely a long shot.

The nagging elephant in the background: Who may be next to close in this tough economic environment? Rumours are rife.

I caught up with Taylor this afternoon, when he was disarmingly candid about circumstances that led to his unfortunate decision to close.

What follows is a slightly edited transcript of the interview:

Ron Eade: When last I saw you last in March, at an Ottawa chefs night dinner at the Niagara Culinary Institute, your idea was to take over some of the space vacated next door by the closing of Domus Housewares. What happened?

John Taylor: Broke.

Eade: What’s broke?

Taylor: Me.

Eade: But you’re keeping Taylor’s Genuine Food & Wine, which you opened in 2010 in Old Ottawa South …

Taylor: Yes. The situation here is, we started lease negotiations for Domus almost a year ago, but my resources ran out.

Eade: I was under the impression Domus Café was a busy high-end restaurant.

Taylor: No it’s not. This last winter was brutal, man. I literally worked three months by myself in this kitchen because there was no business. Nobody comes to the Market anymore.

 

Eade: How’s business at Taylor’s Genuine in Old Ottawa South?

Taylor: Fine. But it’s been a hard couple of years for Domus in the Market. Last winter was even more difficult and everybody was hurting. If you go three weeks here with no cash flow, that’s it.

I had to dump some of my own personal savings into this place for a couple of months and I just don’t want to do it anymore. I had to stop the bleeding.

Things have changed, man. The only population in the Market right now is tourism. All the boroughs have their own funky restaurants now.

IMG_3253Eade: What are the factors involved?

Taylor: There’s a number of them. The economy was bad, and the Market isn’t a market anymore. The Market is an entertainment district with bars, kids. Yeah, sure, all our regular customers were still coming in and it was wonderful to see them. But when the landlord gave me the opportunity to walk away after 18 years, that’s what I did.

I’m literally walking away and leaving this restaurant completely intact for somebody else.

Eade: So are you breaking the lease?

Taylor: He’s letting me out. I would have had to sign a new lease, but I don’t want to sign a new one.

Eade: I suppose this is an expensive rent area.

Taylor: It was just a number of factors that came about, where I had the opportunity to walk away with minimal damage, so that’s what I chose to do. I’m tired of living hand-to-mouth. Everything costs more — from sugar, milk, dairy, gas. There’s no profit in this business anymore. If I had 75 or 100 seats, which is what I would have gone to with the renovations, that’s one thing. But I don’t have the money to shut down two months for renovations, I don’t have the money to put forward.

Eade: Would you not have realized this when we last spoke about expansion plans in March in Niagara?

Taylor: It’s been a good run and I decided to walk out with a bit of dignity. Quite frankly, the public is a bit of a problem too, now. The public holds a lot of power with social media, and to stay on top of social media I find it a total pain in the ass.

Eade: How does social media affect you?

Taylor: Everybody’s a critic now. If you put yourself in a restaurateur’s shoes for a couple days, it’s a tough, tough market, a tough business and I just don’t want to do that anymore. I’ve lost my passion, I’ve lost a bit of the drive; I haven’t lost my passion for food and cooking, but I have for the business. And that’s not fair to anybody – not the customers, not staff, and it’s not fair to my family to continue on with this struggle.

Eade: But to be clear, Taylor’s Genuine Food & Wine in Old Ottawa South is fine …

Taylor: Yes, that’s where I’m going to be full-time. I’m going to eek out a living there for awhile … But I don’t know what the future will hold up there.

Eade: What do you mean by that?

Taylor: Things change, people move on.

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Eade: But as of now, you’re not planning to close Taylor’s Genuine …

Taylor: No, not at all. I have a mortgage to pay still. This has nothing to do with Taylor’s, this is about Domus Café. It’s over.

Eade: We go back a long time, and you were among the first chef pioneers in Ottawa to focus on local, seasonal, organic where possible.

Taylor: I think Kurt Waldele (late former and long-time executive chef at the National Arts Centre) was probably the first.

I just cooked with passion and heart, you know. I didn’t do it alone, either. We had a lot of talented people come through the Domus kitchen – chefs Matt Carmichael, Simon and Ross Fraser, Mike Farb, Jamie Stunt, the list goes on and on. I let them be creative. While I was captain of the ship, I gave them our mandate and philosophy for Canadian, regional and seasonal cuisine. I was just fortunate enough to have those talented people come through the kitchen. It’s a team effort.

You see people come in and you see they have talent and creativity, and that’s something that’s lacking now with staff and people. The talent pool isn’t what it used to be, you know. It’s not too bad, but you can see it slowly eroding where people come out of chef’s school thinking they’re chefs (who expect) $45,000 or $50,000 a year. But you’ve got to be 10 years minimum before anyone will even take a look at you.

I’m 47 years old and I’m still learning every day, that’s just the way it is. The business changes constantly – the trends, the fads, you’ve seen them all. They come, they go; I came and now I’m going.

Eade: What contribution do you see you’ve made here over the years?

Taylor: I would hope so – contributing and working with our local agricultural producers.

IMG_3263Eade: You had no formal chef’s training?

Taylor: When I first came to Ottawa in 1987 I went to Algonquin, after being in kitchens a couple of years, but after six months I found school a bit slow. I could learn more quickly in the industry.

Eade: Do you feel bitter about this turn of events?

Taylor: I’m bitter and jaded, for sure, a little bit. But I feel good about finally making the decision. It was a hard three months. I could have found the money with investors or whatever, no problem. But I’ve gone this long by myself with no partners, except my wife (Sylvia). I could have gone out and got infusions of money, but I want to do something different. I don’t know if I’m going to stay in Ottawa, I may go out in the county or go out West where my oldest son is. My sister’s out there …

Eade: So you don’t know how long you’ll remain at Taylor’s Genuine in Old Ottawa South?

Taylor: No. We’ll be out there for a couple of years for sure, but this is all part of a process of doing something new. I’m still going to be involved with food but I don’t see myself running restaurants.

Eade: The bleeding money has gone on how long?

Taylor: It started a couple of years ago but last year was really rough. It was just a ton of stuff that happened. People weren’t spending, there were layoffs, the winter was brutally cold and that didn’t help.

Eade: You must not be the only restaurant feeling the pinch these days …

Taylor: I’m sure I’m not.

Eade: I wonder, may we expect more high-profile closings?

Taylor: This was not necessarily a closing, it was my choice. I could have continued on, like I said, but why continue hemorrhaging money?

Eade: Do you owe money?

Taylor: Absolutely.

Eade: Do you owe the Harmonized Sales Tax, which as you know forced David Loan to close ZenKitchen restaurant last Friday when the Canadian Revenue Agency seized his accounts?

Taylor: I’m not going to discuss that.

I’ve been on cash-on-delivery with a lot of my small producers for the past two or three months. For me, it was leave now and minimize the damage. I’ve spoken to my people and told them the situation … Everyone was given lots of notice. My maximum employee got eight weeks, or one week notice per year. I was going to continue this week, but for a few thousand dollars more, no, let’s just stop.

It was a hard decision, to ask myself do I still have it in me to sign another lease and continue another 10 years? Quality of life was a factor, the kids are grown and gone, we’re not getting any younger.

The stress level is insane, always making sure the payroll is there, making sure the rent’s going to get paid, source deductions, the HST, the collections, making sure suppliers will be paid and all of that. Like I said, we had to put in our own personal savings, and if I’d kept going, I’d have had nothing left.

I know I’m not unemployable, I can still work.

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Eade: What was your biggest satisfaction here over 18 years?

Taylor: It was having customers tell me they had a great meal. Best comment ever. If you had a bad week and the plumbing went, the bathroom overflowed or whatever, yet someone says they had a great meal then that’s the Number One gratification.

So we’re moving on to Plan B, as they say, in Old Ottawa South. We just signed a five-year lease there …

Unfortunately, bringing an awareness of local suppliers and local agriculture has sort of cannibalized the Market. When we started here the ByWard Market was packed, full, it was the only one other than the Parkdale.

Now we’ve got one in Kanata, one in Orleans, Brewer’s Park, Main Street, Westboro – so nobody has to come down here any more.

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Eade: Is that the reason?

Taylor: No, I’m saying it’s one factor. But while tourists are here, we’re about fine dining. If we were going to do the renovation then we were going to rebrand.

Eade: Because tourists want inexpensive burgers and frites?

Taylor: Yeah. Right now on Murray Street we’ve got a pho place, a burger place, a pizza place opening across the street, Pad Thai – that’s all cheap food I can’t compete with, so my lunches are gone with the rent I have to pay. I don’t know how they do it with $13 or $14 burgers, where my lunch was $18 and up and dinners were $28 and up for a main.

You can sit here all day and pick things apart, but also losing your passion a bit and your focus is a factor.

Eade: You still have passion to continue at Old Ottawa South?

Taylor: Yes, but not here.

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