Chef Harriet Clunie improves the lives of the people who make our food
It is an accepted axiom in the business world that the best leaders are often those who have held all positions in a company. They know the issues inside and out. If the same can be said for the restaurant industry, then Harriet Clunie is indeed an exceptional leader. From cafes to gourmet restaurants to clubs, she has held all the positions, sometimes several of them on the same evening.
Clunie was born in Pembroke and began working in the Ottawa food industry when options for dining out started to shift from restaurant chains and steakhouses to places that focus on local food prepared from nothing by caring people. For someone whose passion is food, she was born at the right time. And now, as its industry moves away from COVID lockdowns, Clunie has positioned itself as a catalyst for change in a business long plagued by inequality.
A quick glance at her resume reveals that she worked at Planet Coffee, Beckta, Oz Kafe, Restaurant Eighteen, The Wellington Gastropub, Murray Street, Sweetgrass, Sutherland, Navarra, Back Lane CafÃ©, Elmdale Oyster House & Tavern , Thirst, Beechwood Gastropub (a place she eventually owned) and Das Lokal, where she was opening chef and, after a hiatus, is now back as executive chef.
It’s an impressive list that speaks to its influence on the city’s food scene. But she’s taking it all in hand, notes chef Warren Sutherland, formerly of Sweetgrass and Sutherland, who now co-owns The Piggy Market. âHarriet has exceptional creativity. She always thinks outside the box. It’s innovative in that it uses ingredients in unexpected ways, âhe says. “She’s also humble, in the sense that she’s strong-willed, curious, and willing to learn.”
After spending her early adulthood working in coffee shops, no one was surprised when she enrolled in Algonquin College’s two-year Culinary Program and graduated with Honors in 2006. From there she used contacts from her stay at the Mercury Lounge and Planet. Coffee to develop his career. Highlights include attending the Das Lokal launch in 2013 and participating in the Murray Street opening team with chef Steve Mitton. âBoth were really exciting,â she recalls. âAt Murray Street we were doing some really cool stuff with snout to tail, whole animal, and I learned the butchery and deli skills. And Das Lokal is something I’m very proud of. I had full control of the menu and hiring, and I was very ambitious. I’ve slept here a few times and often stayed until 3am because our techniques were labor intensive, but I’m still proud of the menu. She left Das Lokal in 2014.
However, with the high points of life also come the lean ones. Clunie, now 36, has had her fair share, including poor work environments and burnout. In September 2014, the unexpected death of his mother, followed just four days later by the death of his grandmother, rocked him. She took a year off to deal with inheritance issues. âI grew up really fast,â she says. “Suddenly I was dealing with accountants, lawyers, real estate agents, while in mourning.”
To get her feet back in the water, she started working a few days a week with Jamie Stunt, who was then the chef of Soif. Stunt is a former Gold Medal winner and now runs Arlo’s Kitchen. Their paths had crossed ten years earlier at Oz Kafe and more recently at Dish Catering.
Stunt is a huge fan. âHarriet is a very generous spirit. When she cooks, in addition to being technically very accomplished, she cooks with love, âhe says. He characterized her as warm and affectionate, talkative in the kitchen. âThe way she works is the way she is. She is one of the very good and an important part of the Ottawa food scene.
At the start of 2016, Clunie arrived at the Beechwood Gastropub. She developed a strong neighborhood clientele who liked her creative and fresh menus. So when the owner suggested that she buy the restaurant, she used her inheritance nest egg to do so. âIt has always been my dream to do this. I had done everything except being the owner, âshe recalls. âBut I’ve learned that you can be the chef or the owner, but you can’t be both. One or both will suffer.
The Beechwood Gastropub had been plagued by staff issues before it even started there. These shortages worsened and by Christmas she worked the whole month without a day off. In January, she slept for a week. Eventually, Clunie decided to close the restaurant and move away. âI wouldn’t trade it for anything,â she says, partly because it gave her the opportunity to get involved in community events. âIt was the first time that I was able to use my own kitchen, my own suppliers and the relationships with farmers that I had cultivated for years to help others. I like to organize events to use my talent to help give back to the community, âshe says. âIt gives me purpose and is really fulfilling. Indeed, on the day of our interview – her day off – Clunie does pranks for the Shepherds of Good Hope for Thanksgiving, as well as encounters with people who have come to repair Das’ oven, fridge and landscaping. Lokal.
After traveling to Vietnam and Mexico in 2019, she started her own catering business, The Wandering Chef. She returned to Das Lokal as executive chef just before COVID hit in January 2020. The restaurant was in shambles, with desperately disgruntled staff. The lockdown gave her time to get involved in another community effort – Cooking for a Cause – and to sort out the restaurant. During this period she also started Scrap cooking, a show on YouTube and Rogers 22 that helps people use food destined for compost.
The pandemic has also given him the opportunity to address the inequalities and issues plaguing the industry. First of all, she took care of salaries and tips. The tension between front desk and back office staff has been present throughout the industry for decades; typically those in the kitchen are paid a pitiful daily wage or a low hourly wage, while the waiters take advantage of tips, pocketing extra hundreds of dollars each week if things go well. While Das Lokal only made take-out meals, Clunie divided the tips equally among all employees. Everyone was happy. Then, after hours of thinking and questioning, how can we make it fairer? she raised the wages in the kitchen and developed a way to share tips (60 percent to front desk staff, 40 percent to kitchen staff.) âIt’s so complicated,â she says, âbut this that I want to make it customizable and give it to other restaurants.That’s the price of equity.
She’s also done a lot of planning for an organization she wants to set up: E3R2A, which stands for Ethical, Equitable, Environmentally Responsible Restaurant Association. âSmall restaurants have no voice, and yet we have a specialized set of needs, exacerbated by the pandemic,â she says.
âThis industry is three decades behind for an overhaul. There is no will from the waiters and owners as it has worked very well for them but a lot of will from the cooks and chefs. It’s time to pay people a living wage, it’s time to feel safe, it’s time to address equity, mental health and addiction issues, and it’s time to examine our environmental footprint. . We have to make it work financially for everyone. And recognize the quality of life, collectively.
At this time, Clunie would not encourage young people to enter the industry. She sees her position reflected in reality. Enrollment in culinary schools is at an all-time low, leading to a labor shortage.
âThings need to change more,â she said, âbut change is coming out of this pandemic, and we’re a few years away from a big change. “