lexandra Feswick is a chef, mom and all around powerhouse. Previously the Executive Chef of the Drake Hotel, Drake Devonshire and Drake Motor Inn, Alex left the city in 2017 and moved to Carrying Place, the entryway into the county (about two hours north of Toronto) with her husband Chad and their son Reed. Having spent her childhood years in Dundas, Ontario and most of her adult life living in Toronto (where her son was born) the move to Carrying Place was a welcomed change of pace for the entire family.
Alex joins me over FaceTime in her backyard, which spans nearly three acres of lush green fields. While she fumbles around with a piece of wood to prop her phone up, I imagine what Carrying Place is like. As I watch the sun beam off her face and the melancholy sounds of birds chirping in the background, I know that whatever kind of place it is, she must like it there because for as long as I've known her, I've never seen her smile so bright.
It’s easy to assume that having a connection to nature wouldn’t apply to someone who grew up in a city, but this has never been the case for Feswick. She’s known for her farm-to-table approach to cuisine and creating menus that reflect the land around her.
“When you’re talking about seasonality, it's important to recognize the feeling people get from it. The best example is a strawberry. Handpicked and warm from the sun—most people [in Ontario] can recognize the feeling and flavour almost instantly. It means something to them.”
For Feswick, using hyper-seasonal and locally sourced ingredients has been a practice she’s carried out since her early years cooking at the Ancaster Mill. There, she worked as an apprentice and eventual sous-chef, and experienced first hand how important it is to understand where your food comes from and who grows it.
"As part of our scheduled shifts, we had to go to the farm at least once a week. It was one of my favourite parts of the job.”
This isn't the only concept she latched on to during her time at the Mill. She also learned that a critical component to the success of any restaurant is being able to create experiences and tell stories of place through the food.
These principles have carried with her throughout her entire career, all the way to her latest endeavour Fawn Over Market, a chef-led grocery store offering a variety of local and specialty products, prepared foods and (eventually) to-go catering menus.
When I ask her how this new project came to fruition, she takes me back to the beginning of the pandemic, when along with the rest of the world, she found herself spending all of her time at home. “When you’re working in the world of hospitality, it’s crazy. It feels like constant chaos around you. You’re always hearing cooks and servers say they don’t take regular breaks, but there is a moment in the day, you have to take a break—often that means sitting on a milk crate and eating something out of a 500 ml container. When you take the restaurant out of your life, that break or meal still exists.”
She goes on to explain that while out of the kitchen, she still craved the sense of structure that a restaurant provides, and so she looked for other ways to fill her days. “I like routine. And I love to be in control of my schedule; I don’t want to do the same thing every day, but I want to know that I have some kind of say in what I do. My schedule has always been erratic, and I’m okay with that but for the first time ever I didn’t like the way that picture looked with me being back in a kitchen.”
She tells me that for the first time in a very long time being at home allowed her to cook from the heart.
"I was at home, all the time, with my family, and I was cooking as much as I could. Just pouring love into food again and actually taking the time to enjoy it."
"When I had the chance to go back to work mid-pandemic, I did. I felt like it was my responsibility—not for The Drake, but for society [to go back to work if I could]. But I dreaded working 14 hours a day; I couldn’t carry the weight of everything on my shoulders. Maybe I was being a martyr at the time, but I didn’t want to feel how I did. It was an interesting perspective for me [at that time] because I had just finished being the chef of two properties and that was a lot. There was a point where I thought I just can’t do this anymore, I’ve changed."
Alex and I delve into a conversation about the world of hospitality and how far it's come. And while we both agree that things have gotten only slightly better since the time she started cooking to where she left off in March 2020, there is still so much more work to be done. "I started cooking knowing that it’s not a healthy environment for women in particular. I always felt like I could change that though. And when the world was pre-pandemic, I felt like I could make small changes that would eventually amount to something bigger. Small gestures count, but it’s the big ones that matter most; how we pay people, and how we treat them. And this isn't about The Drake specifically, this is about every restaurant I’ve ever worked in.”
The chef always knew she'd do something on her own, but tells me she couldn't have imagined it would happen so quickly and during a pandemic nonetheless. In her time living in the county she also came to realize that finding quality ingredients when you’re not working in a restaurant can be difficult, so instead of trying to make do with big-box grocery stores, she decided to create a solution of her own.
“The first thing that shocked me was the grocery stores out here, or lack thereof. I’m used to having some of the best produce at my fingertips, whether that be through farms or otherwise."
"I miss small, local shops like Fiesta Farms—which is, in my opinion, the best grocery store ever.”
When a vacant corner store came up in her neighbourhood, one that’s been an institution for nearly 25 years, she thought it might be a great fit. Previously a meat and convenience store called Sprenkle's Meat and Variety, the place required a bit of T.L.C. but came packed with character and decades worth of memories. It was the perfect space to create the kind of place she had in mind.
“Everyone in the neighbourhood has either worked there or been there at least once.” she tells me. “When I was conceptualizing the space, I learned that it was a place that made people feel good”. She explains that for situating Fawn Over, it felt like the right place to be and especially being so close to the highway and nearby cities. “It had good bones too so I thought it might be something we could work with.”
The store is a family affair. Named after her son Reed (which spells deer backwards and means “close to nature”), it personifies consideration of the earth and a self-awareness of the impact of one’s actions. She goes on to explain that she believes the decisions you make reflect your character and ultimately define who you are. Fawn Over is intended to exemplify those same values. Her husband Chad, who is a woodworker by trade, is responsible for the warm and inviting interior and most of the tables and countertops in the space, while long-time friend Rachel Yeager, who co-founded the store with Feswick, has taken care of the marketing and communication side of things.
“My husband loves to eat just as much as I do so this isn’t far off for us as a unit. We thought if we could renovate our house together and not kill each other, we could do this too”.
Feswick tells me that they decided to name the grocery store after Reed because they want it to be an example for him. "I don’t want him to necessarily own a grocery store or become a chef,” she laughs. She says that he will need to learn how to cook for himself one day, but that the grocery store isn’t about creating a future for him. She explains that it’s more about him knowing that he can try anything that he wants, and that nothing has to be a certain way "just because". “I want Reed to know that he can do anything he wants, and that no matter what he should always invest in himself. I never want him to be afraid of doing things that are just for him.”
Alex, Chad, and Rachel hope Fawn Over will be a place where community and food come together, acting as a staple in their own neighbourhood but also for the chef and hospitality community around them. “The actions that you take really do define who you are, what your output is, and what your ultimate story is. What you do is how people will remember you. I guess I just want to be remembered for actually being able to make a change.”