I have to start with an apology…this post has been sitting in my inbox for a while. With summer holidays behind us and September already disappeared, I am just getting back into the rhythm of things.
In August I spent three days in Wakefield. It was lovely! Stand up paddle, trail walks, bike rides and food. The Village House was the best dining experience I had in those three days. The place is charming and the food is excellent. Real comfort food! I was really excited to get to know the people behind the restaurant Sarah Swan & her chef husband Michael Houle.
How did you get into food?
I started at a really young age in the service industry and pretty much grew up in it. I was probably twelve years old when I worked in the first restaurant job and carried on and on.
Are you parents in the restaurant business?
No, they are both teachers. I started my first job at the Earl House which was at the corner and they needed a bus girl. I worked there for the summer. Then I worked at bakery, at Mont Cascade the beer cart and then I finally migrated to Ottawa and worked in bars and then restaurants including Social, Black Cat and Navarra.
What is it about this industry that attracts you?
I am a really social person so I enjoy that connection. I would say this is probably the easiest serving job I have ever had. It’s my own business so I am basically a server that owns the place [laughs]. I love my customers. It’s fun, I get to have that connection. We hire people that we want to spend time with and that are talented. Most of them have been with us from the start and we have a really personal connection. When we throw family bbqs our staff is there. We spend not only our work time with them but also our off time with them as well.
Where were you before The Village House?
I was managing Navarra. Rene Rodriguez and I had worked at Social together and when he wanted to open his place he approached me to be the manager. At the same time my husband, whom I didn’t know at the time, was working as the sous chef at Bistro 51. That was eight years ago. After about three years at Navarra I was approached to manage the Wakefield Inn. I wanted wrap my head around the corporate side of restaurants so I took the job.
How was The Village House born?
A mutual friend of ours Luigi who owns the famous little pizza place in Wakefield knew we wanted to open up our own place told us this place was coming up for sale. He was like a restaurant pimp I would say [laughs] because every time a place would come up he would be like “what about that place…and that place”. We knew the place already and fell in love with it immediately and it’s was kind of ‘now or never’ so we jumped in. This was four and a half years ago.
And how is it going?
It’s really good. It’s a steady increase. We don’t advertise, we really like a lot of word of mouth, we love having a very strong local clientele, but we have great new clientele which is steadily growing. We have regulars who come from Barheaven three times a month so those are always really amazing things to hear. Our media levels have been going steady. We are going into gold medal plates this year which is a huge competition for us. We have both done it with other chefs we have supported so it’s pretty fun now that my husband is the one competing. We are featured in the Ottawa Cooks. http://figure1pub.com/project/ottawa-cooks/
Can you talk about the concept behind the restaurant?
We describe our food as upscale comfort food and the décor is country shabby chic. Which is kind of what Wakefield is – very eclectic. It speaks to our personality. The artwork is from a friend of ours – photos of trees from the area. I like things here to have personal stories. Most of the antiques are from my parents. I have my grandmothers cast iron pans. The barn board is from a one of the old Bed and Breakfast’s in the village, the woodwork is done by a friend of my mother’s who is the artist on tour in Wakefield. Our stools have been here since the previous restuaranteur and they still have names of the regurals that came to her restaurant that now come to our restaurant. We kept their names and they still sit in the same stools. The antique phone has been in my family for over a hundred years so I convinced my mom to lend it to us. Everything is very personal – we lke it so it’s here and thankfully it all works.
Can you talk about what it’s like living in Wakefield?
It’s amazing. I always knew that I would probably move back here. I lived out in BC interior and Vancouver for four years and worked at a prominent restaurant there, Lumiere, so I got a lot of my fine dining and wine expertise from that restaurant for sure. But I always knew I would come back to Wakefield because it’s a great place to raise kids. Its one of those special villages because you really feel like you are in the country but you are only twenty minutes from the city. It’s a local town that welcomes tourists. People are really friendly and welcoming. Each business is very unique so no one is competing. I love what I do but I don’t know if I would love what I do as much if I was in the city. I feel for them. It’s a lot of competition and hussble bustle.
It seems like you have found a good balance in your work and personal life?
We strike a good balance here. We don’t need to be open seven days a week twelve hours a day to make ends meet. Our family time is very important. My husband’s sanity is very important. This summer is our first time doing six nights a week but we did a casual night on Monday – it’s a wing and taco night so it’s really simple. We have great staff so we are ready to just let them run with it. Usually I am here at night time and my husband is here during the day and also sometimes at night. We finally hit that stride where we said ‘let’s not be here Monday nights and test the waters’. It has been a slow build but we are comfortable with our growth and see a bright future!