I know I am not the only one who was curious about Richard Nigro’s conspicuous absence from Juniper’s Duelling Chef’s dinners this year. Nigro is the founding chef of Juniper, and co-owner of the restaurant along with Norm Aitken and Peter Robblee. Recently, I noticed that Nigro’s photo and bio had disappeared from the Juniper website, which confirmed my suspicions: he is no longer working there.
So what’s the story? It depends who you ask.
According to Nigro, who appeared hurt and befuddled when the topic came up over tea at Nectar, his partners Aitken and Robblee “determined that they no longer want me to be in the business.” In other words, he was ousted. Without offering much detail, Nigro characterized the situation as “unfriendly” and “immoral.” He also mentioned there were legal issues yet to be resolved.
There were scarce details when I met with a stone-faced Aitken at Juniper a few days later for a brief chat. He conceded that Nigro is no longer working in the restaurant day-to-day, but said that it was Nigro’s decision to pursue other projects and that “for the most part,” the decision was mutual. According to Aitken, Nigro is “not necessarily being taken out as a partner” and that he will always be considered the founding father of Juniper. “We will all miss him,” he says.
And like anyone recovering from a break-up — mutual or otherwise — Nigro seems eager to move on. At the same time, he is coping with the pain of arthritis he developed in his knees after 27 years of cooking. He says it’s not enough to keep him out of the kitchen. “I love cooking,” he says, “I love to eat. I love to think about cooking.” These days, Nigro finds himself thinking a lot about food and the ways to reinvent himself and his career. He plans to combine the world of food with another personal passion: art.
Nigro says his interest in the relationship between food and art stretches back to his early career as a visual artist before becoming a chef. He recalls developing a piece of performance art in the 1970s in which he deboned a chicken while offering a meditation on the nature of work. The symbiotic relationship has informed his work in restaurants as well. “I think imagination is the most important thing for a chef,” he says.
In addition to cooking, he feeds his imagination by reading (he has upwards of 2,500 cookbooks in his personal collection) as well as writing. He writes short stories based on his reflections about particular ingredients (asparagus, morel mushrooms, pork…) and the ways in which food fits into our culture. He also photographs food in an artistic way. It’s all part of his so-called ”Portfolio Project.”
Meanwhile, Nigro is working to inspire the imaginations of others in the kitchen. He’s developing cooking classes for Algonquin College and the Urban Element as well as creating his own line of artisanal preserves, sauces, and spice rubs which will be sold at the Wellington Street Saslove’s.