Thomas Waite talks about shuttering the Spruce on Wellington, returning
to his first love and the joy of a simple salad
Photo: Thomas Waite
A MONTH AGO, Thomas Waite served his final meal at the Spruce on Wellington, the innovative restaurant he opened in January, 2017. The restaurant seemed like the natural progression for a chef who began as a teen at Joe Kool’s, working as a bartender’s assistant. But after 15 months, he ended the adventure and has returned to his earlier food business, The In Home Chef.
Waite is 31 and loves movies, particularly those exploring the world of food and cooking. He attended Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School.
You wrapped up with a final dinner at the end of March. What was on the menu?
I wanted to do some clients’ favourites over the year. So, we did one of my favourite soups, potato and leek with herb oil, smoked sea salt and fried leeks. Second course was mushrooms on toast, third course was my classic carbonara and the entree was a choice of seared cod or ribeye. All the dishes were well received.
Was that evening bittersweet?
It was bittersweet to be honest. It was such an emotional time for me. The same day that I announced the closure of Spruce, my grandfather passed away, so it all came overflowing after the last seating. If you have never owned a business, especially a restaurant, you don’t understand what it takes and what it does to you personally. But with one ending, I have a fresh start.
When you opened, you weren’t shy about your goals: Number one restaurant in London in year one and Top 20 in Canada after that. Was that too ambitious?
I wouldn’t say that it was too ambitious. I set my goals high to push myself, and even though I didn’t hit my goals, I was proud of what we did at Spruce. I will always try my hardest to be the best in anything I do in life, because why would you want anything more than that?
You have referred to the toll the restaurant took on your health and relationships. Can you elaborate?
It took its toll in a lot of ways. I lost the closeness of friendships through the year. I have some amazing close friends and we drifted apart in that time. I want to get those relationships back. Also, it’s hard to have a partner in this industry. You work late, you wake up early and it’s hard for someone to stick around for that. If and when you find that person, hold them as tight as you can.
Health is number one. I have had nine surgeries in the last five years or so—from heart surgery to tailbone to colon. I truly understand the saying, “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything”, as I have lived through it. My last two surgeries were life-changing, but they gave me the chance to live a semi-normal life and I wouldn’t change it for a second.
Did you consider stepping back but continuing to operate the restaurant?
I never thought about that. I wanted to be part of both of my businesses, do everything I could for my staff and my clients. I saw the mistakes I made, which were from me learning as a new business owner to learning how to deal with people. I should’ve been at the restaurant more, but I wasn’t able to as I would be running caterings and so forth. It would have been very hard for me to let someone else run my restaurant and for me to be in the background as I worked so hard to get to where I am.
Is there a formula for long-term success without burning out?
I have no idea to be honest. I would say that you need to have a good team supporting you. It’s easy to burn out working 16-hour days, seven days a week, but if you have amazing staff, friends and especially family, you’ll get through it. I wouldn’t have been able to get this far if it wasn’t for my parents. My parents, Evelyn and Greg Waite, are my world and they have been there to support me in every way possible. I can’t thank them enough for my success up to this point.
Once Spruce was up and running, what surprised you, good and bad?
Oh man, a ton of things! The bad was learning how to deal with people and all of the little things that pop up when it comes to expenses. The good—my clients and staff. The feeling you get when a client says they have never had an experience like the one they had in your own space, just wow.
Was there a dish or preparation that was especially popular?
I wouldn’t say there was just one preparation or dish; people liked everything we did, from our service to food. We were bringing something different to London, and that’s what people liked.
You’re continuing with The In Home Chef. What else have you got planned for the space?
The In Home Chef has been my first love for years. We are working right now to change things over in our space. Yoda Olinyk of Yoda’s Kitchen is going to be sharing the space, and we will be offering cooking classes, pop-up dinners, retail, pre-made meals and, as always, our in-home catering. The bonus is, we are offering our space for rent. You can take over our building for any event you have, from birthdays to rehearsal dinners to bridal showers.
What’s your go-to comfort food recipe at home?
I would say a really good salad. In all honesty, I have a poor diet even though I’m a chef. I get busy doing things and forget to eat and then usually grab something on the way home. So, when I do get the chance, I love a really good salad. Interview by Christopher Clark