|Chef Matthew Kershaw|
I first met Chef Matthew Kershaw during the Hamilton Food and Drink Fest earlier this year. If you’ve been following this column, you may remember I mentioned Kershaw - who together with his girlfriend and partner, Erin Dunham, owns Burlington’s “The Alex” and Hamilton’s “Rapscallion” - was part of a “culinary nexus that bears watching.”
I finally had the opportunity to eat at the Alex recently. It was during the Burlington Sound of Music Festival. My wife and I joined another couple (let’s do it again soon, Chris and Anne) for dinner at the “small plates” restaurant on Brant Street before going to enjoy Matt Anderson. (The great Maritime blues man was singing in soaring counterpoint to the Hamilton Symphony.) More on the interesting food we enjoyed will await a future column, once we have a chance to get to Rapscallion too.
After dinner we were able to sit and chat at length with the Chef about how he had come to be running the two establishments and what distinguished them. Bespectacled and with a ginger beard, he’s a big guy who at first take appears a bit diffident. Once he gets going, however, the words tumble out and his passion becomes evident. Good thing I recorded the interview so I could catch the plethora of rapid-fire thoughts and opinions, one atop of another.
Though he grew up in Ancaster, his formative time was in Hamilton where he was Chef at the Hamilton Golf and Country Club. He always wanted to open up his own place, and once he had the time and money and felt comfortable doing it, he looked “for the longest time” for a place in Hamilton.
For three long years he searched and put in offers. He tried getting into Locke Street, but it didn’t pan out. He even considered James Street North before it developed into the place it is today. “Everyone had been talking about it, and I sat there in my car all afternoon and watched people go by. That would be five years ago: I asked myself – is this going to happen? I decided it wasn’t, unfortunately.” He ruefully admits he was wrong about that one.
He kept looking until someone suggested to him to go look in Burlington. He hadn’t been there in years and when he found the Brant Street location he said, “I can make this work.”
And work it does. In Burlington he’s specifically targeting people like our dinner companions, empty nesters who’ve downsized to be able to walk to the lake, the downtown and its many restaurants. It’s been so successful, he’s been able to expand. Four months ago he and his partner Erin opened Rapscallion on Young Street in Hamilton.
In truth, and even though he spends most of his time at the Burlington venue, it’s his new Hamilton restaurant he and Erin “probably have a little more love for,” though he quickly adds “I shouldn’t say that, as this (the Alex) is our first place, we love it and are making money…it’s awesome… we want the food here to be fun and tasty.”
His eyes sparkled: “We’re taking a lot more chances in Hamilton… Forgive me for saying this, but Hamilton’s never had a good higher end, interesting, restaurant. Yah, there’s been some good steak…Italian…ethnic, but it’s never had a cool...well, Escargot was the last great French restaurant.”
Chef Kershaw stressed he was talking “downtown Hamilton.” He wants to offer food at a price point and in a style that people under 40 won’t “find very intimidating (or shell shocking) for the first time they can afford to go out for a nice dinner.”
I throw out a few names of places at him and it’s clear he has his finger on the pulse of what’s going on, who’s having issues and who’s on the up. “Quatrefoil is awesome, but I don’t consider them as Hamilton.” (They’re in Dundas, and I’ve eaten there twice and can confirm the space is lovely and the food very well executed. Fodder for another column, certainly.)
What Mathew said resonated with me as he spoke. I’ve experienced, if not epitomized, that divide between the two sides of the Bay/Harbour. Before I started on “Food for Thought” I worked in Burlington and only ventured into Hamilton to occasionally visit the Market, or do Dim Sum with the family. More on that gulf as it relates to these two establishments next week.
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