Taylor Howarth is Apt613’s correspondent at Synapcity, an Ottawa non-profit for civic engagement, connecting people across diverse communities to share perspectives and create positive change.
Jason McLelland has worked in Michelin Star restaurants and recently opened up GRUNT, a restaurant with the motto “Honest and Wholesome Food”, right in the middle of Mechanicsville here in Ottawa.
What was the inspiration behind GRUNT?
I worked in fine dining for 10 years at the Michelin Star level, in London, Paris, and Australia. It sounds all good, but when you actually break it down, it’s a very sadistic place to work. You are selling excellence, but you are also working with a noose around your neck too. A hundred resumes are getting handed in per day by people who are wanting your job. People fuck with you to try and get that one step over to push themselves forward, and I just had enough.
So, I decided to do my own thing and decided to call it GRUNT. I grunted in restaurants for so long that I could do it better. And I am going to do it better where it actually matters.
What brought you to Ottawa?
I met my wife in Australia, we travelled a couple years together, to China, Thailand, places like that, and then we came here to visit her family. Then we decided to stay a little bit longer. I got offered a special visa from the government, which just automatically renews every year because I am in that top five percent of chefs in the world. Then she fell pregnant, and we had a beautiful baby daughter. Life just fell into place.
What does your business offer that is for the greater good of the community in Mechanicsville?
I am still blowing the cobwebs off a little bit here, but the last Sunday in every month I am going to have a cooking class for everyone in the community. There will be twenty spaces, there will obviously be no charge, maybe have an open house one day a month, twenty seating for dinner or lunch. And if there are families here that can’t take their kids out to eat in a restaurant, and I am sure there are, they can make a booking, eat and leave without paying for anything. They can just come and have a good night and treat their kids.
If there are families here that can’t take their kids out to eat in a restaurant… they can make a booking, eat and leave without paying for anything.
I just threw a party for a guy who is ninety years old, who is kind of a living legend here in this area, and like forty people showed up. Twenty were people he knew, and the other twenty were just people from the community. It was a fun night, forty people were in here singing Happy Birthday to him.
It is not just selling people food, there was a guy the other day that fell asleep standing in the middle of the road. And I went out there, and he was smashed or whatever. I kind of feel like a watchful eye. I am just trying to change a mindset, even change the industry. I want to be part of the community, whether that is scooping people up off the street, or throwing parties for the older members of the community.
So, you are more than just an entrepreneur?
I very rarely have anything over fifteen dollars on my menu and everything is tax in too. I am trying to bring good food to people in the least oppressive way possible, kind of shake that suit and tie from food.
I am just trying to change a mindset, even change the industry. I want to be part of the community.
People come from all over the city to eat here, so in a way, I feel like I am bringing people to this area and shining a little bit of light on it, to get them here and they can kind of see what’s happening, what’s going on, and it’s not all a bad place. It is actually quite a beautiful place. There is a real sense of community here.
Do you live in the neighbourhood?
No, I live in Gloucester. I actually live with my wife’s mum and dad just now, because you can’t open a half million dollar restaurant and buy a house at the same time.
Why did you choose to open a restaurant in Mechanicsville?
This is real life, a real community from the good points to the bad points, it still has a bit of character, still has a bit of edge. People are proud to be from here, very proud to live here, and I think it has always been a tougher place to live in the city.
It reminds me a lot of my hometown to be honest. I am from a very tough part of Scotland, from a town of about twelve thousand people, it is a fighting culture, a very dog-eat-dog world out there.
What is your ethos toward the food industry?
I have been lucky enough to work in different stages in this industry all over the world. Not that I have a fucking crystal ball, but I kind of know what is coming next for this industry. People don’t necessarily want to be checking their fucking bank balance before they go in for a meal. They don’t want to be checking their credit card, if they even have room, before eating. People just want to eat in a relaxed environment the way they want to eat.
You can make a change and solidify yourself in the community if you choose to.
And if my restaurant is taking off, hopefully, this will show that you can do it, you can make a change and solidify yourself in the community if you choose to, and actually be a part of the neighbourhood. And not just be another coffee chain that doesn’t give a fuck about you, where you are just another dollar bill walking.
Visit Grunt at 173 Hinchey Avenue, or follow them on Instagarm @gruntottawa. Synapcity is hosting a Mechanicsville Block Party at the Origin Arts and Community Centre (57 Lyndale Avenue) that Grunt will be catering. The event is July 16 from 6-8pm and all are welcome.