In our series, ICONIC, we feature people in the restaurant industry whose contributions have made a mark. They have transformed how we think about food and restaurants.
Ivy Knight is a food writer, cookbook author and events organizer. She and her 86’d nights at The Drake Properties are part of the reason why pop-ups and chef battles are still so popular, and she is one of the most original, funny and truthful voices in food we’ve got.
Ivy shares how she started in the biz and all the amazing things that have happened along the way.
How did you get into the business? After high school on the island (Prince Edward Island) I moved to Vancouver and took a bunch of stupid, pointless jobs. Then I met Kerry Knight, now my husband, fellow writer and Swallow contributor. Back then he was a rowing coach and he got headhunted by a rowing club in Texas, so we moved to Austin.
I had no work visa, no job – I was a bored housewife. I watched the American Food Network all the time and was really interested in cooking. Since I couldn’t work in the States I flew back to Canada for a summer stint at Chez Piggy in Kingston to work garde manger. It was a great kitchen to have as my first kitchen. It was tiny, blisteringly hot and outrageously busy. If I could handle those conditions and keep coming back, it meant I could probably handle cooking for a living. I could handle it.
After Chez Piggy, we moved back to Canada and I worked at Mildred Pierce in Toronto. I suspect that the only reason I got the job was because the chef misread my resume, thinking that I’d worked at Chez Panisse. I was there for a year or so, then Biff’s, and a bunch of places that are no longer around. Then I went to the Drake. I started in the kitchen back in 2007, and worked there for 2 to 3 years.
My final shift came just after my ten year anniversary as a cook. At the five year mark, I realized I didn’t have the right temperament, or the desire, to be a head chef. That’s when I started writing and planning to leave the kitchen. It took a long time, another five years, before I could afford to stop cooking and write full time.
The Drake had already launched 86’d – an industry night on a Monday. Bill Simpson was the GM at the time and doing the programming. He saw that I’d been hosting informal cooking battles around town and let me do one at 86’d, it was a big hit and he asked me to permanently take over the night. I winged it and tried a lot of things, a lot of things didn’t work out, but the ones that did stuck and now the programming is much more streamlined and easy to schedule. I know what will work with the 86’d crowd.
One thing I’ll never underestimate with them again, because I did it once and shame on me, is how much they love fried chicken. That is the craziest night of the year. Although, this year’s recent Sustainable Ceviche Smackdown had a lineup out into the lobby that didn’t let up for two hours, so that’s a popular one too. I remember bringing in La Carnita, Rock Lobster and Fidel Gastro’s at different times, back when they were all pop ups and look where they are now – they’ve all got restaurant empires. It’s nice to think that 86’d helped to support them all when they were just starting out. This summer I’ll be doing two 86’d events with the talented, young Peruvian chef Elias Salazar. He just won Judge’s and People’s Choice in the ceviche battle (something that has never happened in the six years I’ve been running it) so I think he knows what he’s doing and that we can expect big things from him in the future.
While cooking at the Drake and hosting 86’d I was also writing. At first for free for websites like Gremolata and Good Food Revolution. James Chatto helped me get small pieces in Toronto Life and the first piece I wrote for The Toronto Star was about how much I hated Winterlicious, while working at a restaurant that participated in ‘Licious. My first story for The Globe & Mail was about how much I hated cooking brunch while actually cooking brunch. I’m lucky I didn’t get fired both times.
I was finally able to leave the kitchen life when I was hired as a researcher on Pitchin’ In with Lynn Crawford. I continued with writing gigs and spent the summer on location with the show travelling all over North America.
What people don’t know about what your job entails: There is no money in it. That’s why I do so many projects at once. There may be no money but there is definitely a lot of fun and incredible food and wine and travel experiences.
Writing takes a lot of my time, but I don’t write for the papers as much anymore. Most of my writing is for Munchies (Vice), Swallow and the books I’m working on, as well as the twice weekly blog for my favourite grocery store, Fiesta Farms, and a quarterly column Kerry and I do for Buffalo Spree. I do 86’d at all three Drake Properties – The Drake Hotel, Drake One Fifty and Drake Devonshire. I do programming for Field Trip and the Terroir Symposium. I’ve written two books (published by HarperCollins) and have a third in production, I’ll start a fourth this fall. I run a job group on facebook to help cooks find jobs and chefs find cooks, it has grown to over eight thousand members since I started it. Now, people use it for much more than just employment searches. If you need to find a source for ostrich meat, or a place to sell your restaurant’s old wall sconces you can do it on the Food and Wine Industry Career Navigator. I have Dyson Forbes helping me run that, which is a great help.
The hardest thing about the business: One of the hardest parts of the job is pitching. I have a hard time pitching. And with travel stories, I don’t know what I’m going to write about until I’ve had the trip.
The other is attempting to get stuff done outside of the house and away from the computer, or to get away from social media. There’s always one thing or another. But anything is better than having to cook brunch.
The best thing about it: Vice – it’s closer to my voice than other publications. I’m glad for the experiences I had at the Toronto Star (brunch column) and The Globe & Mail. I don’t come from journalism school and the work I did with editors at both papers, Kim Honey and Kathryn Hayward, definitely helped me grow as a writer. My editor at Vice, Helen Hollyman, is incredibly tough, writing for her has been a real education. Travel writing is more of a perk. People find us through Swallow and invite us on media trips, Kerry went to Israel last month and I’m going to San Francisco in July.
Where you work: The Drake Lounge is my favourite space for meetings. Otherwise, I have a desk in my bedroom. My husband’s desk is the dining room table.
One rule you will never break: I will never write copy for McDonald’s. I only say that because I was asked to and I could’ve really used the cash flow but I forced myself to think about pink slime and downer cows and then it wasn’t that hard to say no.
One rule that you have broken: That I would never eat at McDonald’s, but it happens. I don’t actually have a lot of rules. Because there are so many moving parts to what I do for a living I try to just be flexible.
What strengths do you bring to your work: Because of the time I spent in the kitchen, I have a prep list going for all of the projects I’m working on at any given time. The structured map helps keep me on track. Working in a kitchen gave me the ability to multitask like a motherf***r.
Photo credit: Rick O'Brien