Kim Spence was always drawn to the restaurant industry. At thirteen years old, he had a job peeling 50 lbs bags of potatoes, for $4 a bag – and loved every minute of it.
A dishwasher job, and doing the prep work that no one else wanted to do, followed while he was still in school. He’d moved to Calgary in 1991, and on a visit back to Ontario, he remembers his restaurant chums chatting about ‘what are you going to do when you’re finished school?’ Most didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives. “I was terrified,” he says, “because I thought university was supposed to tell you that, and I didn’t realise that you should probably pick a vocation before you started”.
Coming back to Calgary, Spence was hired by Earls, where he started as a busboy and left a general manager, working through every position, including culinary positions, en route. His passion for food turned into a passion for wine on seeing how people drank wine in other parts of the world. “They didn’t separate food and wine, but saw it as part of the meal,” he explains, “whereas in Canada we sometimes see it as two very different things.” He left Earl’s with an appreciation of wine, having worked very hard on the wine program, and feeling a sense of ownership over it.
Joining Moxie’s, Spence eventually became Regional Manager for the Shark Club locations and co-authoring Chop Steakhouse, but putting himself through formal wine education, he most enjoyed creating the beverage program from scratch. “My role today as National Beverage Director didn’t exist,” he says, “I had no full-time predecessor and it was a brave new world of all the limitless possibilities of where this job could go. I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t walked a mile in the shoes of bar, service and general managers, because running restaurants is really hard. It’s tough work and you have to love it.”
And what bottle does Spence have hidden away?
“All the great wines that I’ve ever enjoyed are connected to a time and a place,” he says. “I was in Chile, and it was the coldest November, and everybody was wet and miserable. J. Bouchon made us a home-cooked rustic meal of rabbit that they’d caught in the vineyard that day and braised in the wine, and it was magical with their ‘Mingre’. This full-of-flavour food was so sublimely simple; it was perfect.”
Someone from B.C. had brought wine with them, so the Canadians and Chileans all shared their wines. ”It was one of my most memorable meals,” Spence remembers, “when I came back, I bought a case of the wine to keep that memory alive. I’ve only got one bottle left and I’m afraid when it’s gone that my memory of that experience is going to fade too.”
So when will Spence open the bottle?
“When we were there, we had the very first vintage that was over 10 years old and drinking beautifully, so I think I’ve got a few years to go,” he says. “Our executive chef lives close by, and we have amazing dinners where I do the wine and he does the food, so I’m quite sure its days are numbered.”
Photos by Ingrid Kuenzel