The Future List: Chef Harriet Clunie is improving life for the people who make our food
People & Places

The Future List: Chef Harriet Clunie is improving life for the people who make our food

It’s an accepted axiom in the business world that the best leaders are often those who have worked every position in a company. They know the issues at hand from the ground up. If the same can be said for the restaurant industry, then Harriet Clunie is indeed an exceptional leader. From coffee shops to fine dining to clubs, she has worked every position, sometimes several of them on the same night.

Clunie was born in Pembroke and began working in the Ottawa food industry when options for dining out started to morph from chain restaurants and steak joints to places that focus on local food made from scratch by people who care. For a person whose passion is food, she was born at just the right time. And now, as her industry staggers out from COVID lockdowns, Clunie has positioned herself as a catalyst for change in a business long plagued by inequities.

A quick glance at her resumé reveals that she has worked at Planet Coffee, Beckta, Oz Kafe, Restaurant Eighteen, The Wellington Gastropub, Murray Street, Sweetgrass, Sutherland, Navarra, Back Lane Café, Elmdale Oyster House & Tavern, Soif, Beechwood Gastropub (a place she eventually owned), and Das Lokal, where she was opening chef and, after a hiatus, has now returned as executive chef.

That’s an impressive list that speaks to her influence on the city’s restaurant scene.  But she takes it all in stride, notes chef Warren Sutherland, formerly of Sweetgrass and Sutherland, who is now co-owner of The Piggy Market. “Harriet has exceptional creativity. She’s always thinking outside the box. She’s innovative in that she uses ingredients in unexpected ways,” he says. “She’s also humble, in the sense that she’s willing, curious, and wants to learn.”

The restaurant industry is in need of an overhaul, and chef Harriet Clunie is leading the way by finding ways to make life better for the people who prepare our food. Photo by Christian Lalonde

After spending her early adult years working in coffee shops, nobody was surprised when she signed up for the two-year Algonquin College culinary program and graduated with honours in 2006. From there, she used the contacts from her time at the Mercury Lounge and Planet Coffee to develop her career. Highlights have included helping to launch Das Lokal in 2013 and being on the opening team at Murray Street with chef Steve Mitton. “Both were really exciting,” she recalls. “At Murray Street, we were doing really cool things with snout to tail, the whole animal, and I learned butchery and charcuterie 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 slept here many times and would frequently stay until 3 a.m. because our techniques were labour-intensive, but I’m still proud of the menu.” She left Das Lokal in 2014.

However, with the highlights in life come the low periods too. Clunie, now 36, has had her fair share, including bad work environments and burnout. In September 2014, the unexpected death of her mother, followed just four days later by the death of her grandmother, tipped her over the edge. She took a year off to deal with estate issues. “I adulted real fast,” she says. “Suddenly I was dealing with accountants, lawyers, real estate agents, all while I was grieving.”

To get her feet wet again, she began working a couple of days a week with Jamie Stunt, who was then the chef at Soif. Stunt is a former Gold Medal Plates winner and is now leading the kitchen at Arlo. Their paths had crossed some 10 years previously at Oz Kafe and more recently at Dish Catering.

Stunt is a huge fan. “Harriet is a very generous spirit. When she cooks, on top of being technically very accomplished, she cooks with love,” he says. He characterizes her as warm and affectionate, chatty in the kitchen. “The way she works is the way she is. She’s one of the really good ones and an important part of the Ottawa culinary scene.”

In early 2016, Clunie landed at the Beechwood Gastropub. She developed a strong neighbourhood clientele who loved her creative, fresh menus. So when the owner suggested she buy the restaurant, she used her inheritance nest egg to do so. “It had always been my dream to do this. I had done it all except be the owner,” she recalls. “But I learned that you can be the chef or the owner, but you cannot be both. One or both will suffer.”

Chef Harriet Clunie at work in the kitchen of the Beechwood Gastropub. Photo by Errol McGihon/Postmedia

The Beechwood Gastropub had been plagued by staffing issues even before she started there. Those shortages worsened, and at Christmas, she worked the whole month without a day off. In January, she slept for a week. Ultimately, Clunie decided to close the restaurant and walk away. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she says, not least because it afforded her the opportunity to get involved with community events. “It was the first time I was able to use my own kitchen, my own suppliers, and the farmer relationships I had cultivated for years to help others. I love doing events to use my talent to help to give back to the community,” she says. “It gives me a sense of purpose and is really fulfilling.” Indeed, on the day of our interview — her day off — Clunie is making stuffing for the Shepherds of Good Hope for Thanksgiving, as well as meeting people who came to fix the oven, the fridge, and the landscaping at Das Lokal.

After travelling to Vietnam and Mexico in 2019, she set up her own catering company, The Wandering Chef. She returned to Das Lokal as executive chef just before COVID hit in January 2020. The restaurant was a shambles, with desperately unhappy staff. Lockdown afforded her the time to get involved with another community effort — Cooking for a Cause — and to get the restaurant sorted out. During this period she also started Scrap Cooking, a show on YouTube and Rogers 22 that helps people make use of food headed for the compost.

The pandemic has also given her the opportunity to turn her mind to the inequities and issues that plague the industry. First, she dealt with wages and tipping. Tension between front- and back-of-house staff have been industry-wide for decades; typically, those in the kitchen are paid a pitiful day rate or a low hourly wage, while servers reap the benefit of tips, pocketing hundreds of extra dollars weekly if things go well. While Das Lokal was doing only takeout, Clunie split the tips evenly among all employees. Everybody was happy. Then, after hours of thought and asking herself, How can we make this more equitable? she raised the wages in the kitchen and developed a way to split tips (60 per cent to frontof-house staff, 40 per cent to the kitchen staff.) “It’s so complicated,” she says, “but what I want to do is make it customizable and give it to other restaurants. It’s the price of fairness.”

She has also done lots of planning for an organization she wants to set up: E3R2A, which stands for the Ethical, Equitable, Environmentally Responsible Restaurant Association. “Small restaurants have no voice, and yet we have a specialized set of needs, exacerbated by the pandemic,” she says.

“This industry is three decades overdue for an overhaul. There’s no will from servers and owners, as it’s worked just fine for them, but lots of will from the cooks and chefs. It’s time to pay people a livable wage, it’s time they feel safe, it’s time we deal with equity issues, mental health and addiction issues, and it’s time to look at our environmental footprint. We have to make it work financially for everybody. And acknowledge quality of life, collectively.”

Right now Clunie would not encourage young people into the industry. She sees her position reflected in reality. Enrolment in culinary school is at an all-time low, which is going to result in a labour shortage.

“Things need to change more,” she says, “but change is coming out of this pandemic, and we are a couple of years away from a big shift.”