LEAVING THE KITCHEN BEHIND - Well-known executive chef Benoit Tremblay retires after long and impressive restaurant career.
Benoit Tremblay began cooking as a summer job in 1962. His talent took him through many restaurants, as a manager, chef and owner, until he decided it was time to hang up his apron on Jan. 3.
Over that time, he created a legacy of delicious food, popular restaurants and customers who happily followed him wherever he went. Even if you don’t recognize the name, chances are you’ve eaten one of his meals. He was the man behind the Bar-B-Q Barn in downtown Fredericton, which was open from 1978 to 1998, as well as Benoit’s, from 1988 to 1991. Most recently, he’s been in charge of banquets among other things out at Kingswood Lodge.
Tremblay was born in Arvida, Que., in 1945. He wasn’t planning on being a chef when he took that first job at Manoir du Saguenay in 1962. “I started there for a summer and I never got out of there,” he says. If he hadn’t have been a chef, he says he would have gone to school “doing, I don’t know.” Tremblay apprenticed under French and Swiss-German chefs for six years at Manoir du Saguenay, then his career took a turn towards management.
“In the ’70s, the malls were growing like crazy. I started with Zellers managing the restaurants, plus training people to open other restaurants,” he says. Tremblay made the move to Fredericton in 1974, coming to work for The Coffee Mill. “Coffee Mill brought me as manager up the hill. The owner of The Coffee Mill used to be in charge of all the Zellers restaurants,” he says.
He worked as chef at the Martinique, then went on to open the Bar-B-Q Barn with the two owners of the Martinique. “I was the first chef there,” he says of the Martinique. “When we opened the Bar-B-Q Barn, I stayed at the Martinique for a year. Then I went to manage The Barn. Then they got in trouble, and I bought their shares.” The first year, he was out front at the Bar-B-Q Barn, he says. “Then the cooks weren’t doing what I wanted them to do, so I jumped to the kitchen.” Life got even busier for the years he was running both The Barn and Benoit’s. After The Barn closed, he became the chef at The Beaverbrook Hotel.
Tremblay came up the hill in 2005 when Ernie’s restaurant was opening in Kingswood Lodge. “When I came here, there was no kitchen. There was nothing,” he says. He started the restaurant, noting they went through 21 kitchen plans before they got final approval. Three years ago, the restaurant became part of the Sam Snead’s franchise. That’s when Patrick Lewis came on as chef. The two executive chefs worked side-by-side in the small kitchen, where Tremblay took care of banquets, weddings and other events for Kingswood. He was also instrumental in helping with food in the entertainment centre. The work kept Tremblay busy, but he enjoyed it because it was a chance to use all of his talents including a talent for woodworking. He made his own bowls, cutting boards and more, all high-quality items that contributed to the success of kitchen operations.
The best part of being a chef? “Owning my own place,” says Tremblay. Making the transition out to Kingswood was a lot like owning his own place again because the owners let him run that side of the business. “When we opened 11 years ago, Benoit gave us a really good start because of his experiences, his background,” says Brian Johnson, president and owner of Kingswood. “Owning your own business means a lot in the restaurant business because he already knows the numbers and how to make the numbers work, so he gave us a really, really good start with banquets, with weddings, with everything we did.” They didn’t have to worry about the food aspect and could put their energies into developing the rest of Kingswood, he says. “He’s a really kind gentleman, a really good person to work with. He’s always got a smile, and I think he really enjoys working,” says Johnson. “We’re all going to miss that personality.”
As for why Tremblay decided to retire now, the chef says,“I’m going on 70 years old.” He gave his notice in September 2014, and his last official day was Jan. 3. That gave him three months to ease the transition for Lewis, who took over his duties. It helped that the pair were already sharing a kitchen. “One thing about Benoit is when we started Sam Snead’s, to share a kitchen with a franchise restaurant would normally be a very difficult thing, but it was not a difficult thing with Benoit,” says Johnson. “He helped them right from the start, he helped with the setup of Sam Snead’s. They’re working in a tight quarters with their food lineups, and he made that transition very easy.”
That’s what Tremblay has done once again, as Lewis takes over all the duties of executive chef for Kingswood. Lewis began working at Kingswood in 2011 when Sam Snead’s was opening. Prior to that, he was working at Brew-bakers as a sous-chef. Having the chance to work with Tremblay was inspirational. “He wasn’t just walking around with a clipboard. He was a hands-on chef,” says Lewis. “He had a lot of experience, so a lot of people learned a lot from Ben over the years, whether it was something huge or just little things. And he always had good stories.”
While Sam Snead’s has always been Lewis’s, he’s now added banquets and other food service in Kingswood to his duties. He’s looking forward to putting his own stamp on things. “I’m loving it,” he says. “It is a little overwhelming some days, but I figure it out.” Having had three months to work with Tremblay on the transition made a difference, he says, noting, “Ben was a great help and taught me a lot.” No matter who’s in charge, Kingswood caters to its clients, says Lewis, and he appreciates any feedback. In the future, he says, “the food will be more a representation of myself, my style, my background, sort of my story.”
As for Tremblay, now that he has retired, he says he has no plans to cook at least not professionally. “It’s done now,” he says, smiling as he adds,“except for the wife.”
LORI GALLAGHER, THE DAILY GLEANER