“The Watermelon Never Tasted So Sweet”: A Profile of Greg Willis

As published on Retirement News Weekly/Niagara on July 16, 2010.

I arrive on Chef Greg Willis’ street just in time for our 3:00 interview, but in a sudden fit of panic realize that the house number I remember him telling me over the phone doesn’t exist. I tentatively begin to walk down the street hoping to see the man. Instead I spot a brown 1969 Mercedes Benz in front of a large white house with pink awnings. I approach the front door and knock.

Chef Willis answers in a black apron. He peers over dark square-framed glasses suspiciously, before offering his hand wet from just finishing dishes. Chef Willis later tells me that he gets great pleasure from doing his own dishes. He points me to the back of his house and I sit down at his patio table. After a moment back in his kitchen, he returns with two cokes with lime and sets one in front of me. “I only have six cokes a year,” he tells me, “but today seems like the kind of day to have one.”

This non-coke drinker is the current owner of Kitchen Made, a home-based operation that sees Chef Willis prepare two weeks worth of meals and ingredients in a customer’s own kitchen. He also teaches cooking classes through the business, is Chef-in-Residence at the Real Canadian Super Store, and helps raise his two children, Alana and Spencer.

I ask him to tell me about his own parents. He was born to Geoffrey, an Englishman, and Carol, a Thorold-local, in 1958. He describes the two as neither being “food aficionados,” but fondly remembers them regularly bringing him to fancy restaurants in Toronto and Buffalo. He credits these family trips, as well as seeing the various foods of his culturally diverse friends’ families, with first peaking his interest in the culture of food and food preparation.

He frequently refers to his food as architecture and his father, who worked his whole life as a General Motors’ bricklayer, is likely the reason. Willis even worked with his father at GM for a couple of years, before leaving the family career path. He enrolled at George Brown for two years to be a chef and then Humber College for an additional year to be a sommelier. He remembers his first great wine fondly; a Piesporter Goldtrophen Riesling Auslese 1976.

After receiving the credentials to follow his passion into a profession, he sought out experiences that would prepare him for his dream job running his own restaurant and wine bar. He worked at the Parkway, Port Mansion, and the Holiday Inn. He traveled to Toronto and Fort Erie for different jobs. He recalls working under a couple of German and Swiss chefs whom he respects to this day.

“You get on the line at six o’clock at night to start cooking when all your preps done,” he describes after I ask about his experience working at the restaurants. “All of a sudden, it’s nine o’clock… you’ve done 150 covers, you don’t know how you did it because you’re on a second level of consciousness. It’s the closest thing to a war zone imaginable. Controlled chaos. Directed stress. And a lot of people feed on that. I know I do.”

With the right education and experience in hand, Chef Willis followed his dreams and opened the Cellar Bench in May 1991. It was one of the first of its kind in St. Catharines, catering to regional and seasonal cuisine. And it was a good time to get into the business. Niagara was just taking off as a wine destination. Later, when wineries wanted to open their own restaurants, they’d come to the Cellar Bench as market research.

“I wanted to incorporate all of the five fine arts into my restaurant,” he explains to me before taking a sip from his glass. “Good service as the dance. Music in the background. Poetry on the hand-written and hand-bound menus. Architecture on the plates. Paintings on the wall that changed all of the time. I wanted to bring the world to St. Catharines. Or at least, use it as a vehicle, as a conduit, a melting pot for culture. It seemed to work for a few years.”

While it took time to master his gasless kitchen, he was eventually producing everything that the restaurant served: from the breads that started the meals to the desserts that finished them and all of the oils, condiments, and foods in between. He loved the restaurant, but it paid a toll and after his children were born he sold it and took time off to raise them. But after six years at home, he’s glad to be back.

“When I closed the restaurant in 1999, watermelon never tasted so sweet. The yoke was taken off my neck. It was freedom like I’ve never tasted before. But after six years raising the kids, getting back into the restaurants gets me all jazzed up again.”

It was with this passion and excitement that Chef Willis started Kitchen Made in 2005. He didn’t want his own bricks and mortar commercial kitchen because it would require too much work and he’d already done it; however he longed for the chef life. He now prepares weeks worth of meals in his customers’ kitchens, removing their stress and offering a variety of top-notch meal choices that fit within their budget, diet, and taste. The elderly are his most common customer and he enjoys cooking for them.

“They’re really appreciative. They’ve got the years of understanding flavors and tastes and what a good kitchen does for them.”

As I wrap up the interview, I ask him if he has any last comments. He pauses for a moment to form just the right sentiment and then tells me that anyone remotely interested in food should take the time to do some of the things he’s already done; to work in a professional kitchen for a few years, to work hours peeling and dicing carrots, all to garner a true appreciation and passion for food and all that it can offer us.

He smiles, reflecting back on his own life as a professional chef, and then adds, “The watermelons never tasted so sweet.”

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