People try to enjoy good food every day. But when they get great food, prepared by a chef, it makes for a truly memorable experience.
Carol Ann Gervais owns and operates Avant Garde Catering and Chef Services in Timmins. Her business serves up great meals to customers, and their lucky guests, right in the comfort of their own homes.
Gervais became well-known in Timmins while she owned 1800 Restaurant, which had a stellar reputation for its fine dining experience. But her lifetime love of cooking started many years earlier.
“It started when I was a kid,” said Gervais, who was born and raised in Timmins. “I was always in the kitchen, skirting around my mom’s legs, just helping and always wanting to set the table to make sure everything was perfect.
“Learning from my mom, the old-fashioned cooking, sauces, and learning how to chop … that’s how it started.”
So, naturally, Gervais gravitated to the food industry as she grew up. From fast food to local restaurant franchises, she was at home in the kitchen at work in Timmins.
In 2003, she moved with her husband to Ottawa.
“That’s where I got a taste of non-franchised dining,” she said. “Timmins was very isolated when it comes to anything upper scale or fine dining.
“We lived in an apartment complex that was more of a retirement community. I thought we have a community right under my thumb, why don’t I do catering here. I did advertising in the mailbox area.
“Living in Ottawa, I had access to seafood, good cuts of beef and lamb. I was in my glory. I started experimenting and trusting my skills. Feeding my husband and I very, very well, and our friends.”
They moved back to Timmins in 2007 and that’s when they decided to open a restaurant.
“I wasn’t even considering opening a restaurant in Ottawa,” she said. “It was too scary, very expensive and a lot of competition.
“When we moved back here, it was always in the back of my mind. I was always collecting dishware, the fancier stuff. Always had nice, creative ways to present food. When I decided to open a restaurant, I pretty much had everything boxed up and in storage.
“I had the opportunity at the Timmins Inn and Suites (now the Ramada Inn). That was the beginning of 1800 Restaurant. I signed a one-year lease and had an amazing year. They were moving on to different things and didn’t renew our lease.”
For about nine months they searched for a new restaurant site, before opening 1800 Restaurant on Wilson Avenue.
“We were doing OK. We were right on our fifth year, including the Ramada,” Gervais said. “We were happy to be at the five-year mark, all our equipment was going to be paid off then COVID hit.”
The pandemic hit the restaurant hard.
“I tried my darnedest, I really did,” she explained. “After the government closed the doors, I ... really had to change my menu. I still offered rack of lamb and lobster tails, all that yummy stuff, scallops and crab cakes, I also offered good quality burgers, fresh-cut French fries, and good quality poutine.
“Everyone knew from eating there at a fine dining restaurant and I was the chef that they knew they would get, you could still say it was fast food, but they were going to get good quality. Even my flatbreads, I was using fresh mozzarella. I really tried to get that to work. I just wasn’t established as that kind entity (takeout). I was established as 1800 fine dining."
Losing the restaurant was devastating, she said.
She recently returned to the idea of bringing fine dining to people in their home environments with Avant Garde Catering and Chef Services.
“My main objective is catering in people’s homes as well as doing the fine-dining services,” Gervais said. “When I come into people’s homes and do a chef meal for them in their kitchen, an everyday kitchen. I’ve done them in apartments for a couple, just a husband and wife for an anniversary.
“I purchased a room separator, so they can have privacy or if they have some friends over then it doesn’t have to be all eyes on me.”
The size of the group depends largely on the host’s home.
“The biggest group was 14,” she said. “I’ve done a group of eight on a regular basis.”
Gervais strives to make a great meal and an evening to remember.
“Everyone’s always looking for that elevated experience. They want what they got at 1800,” she said. “I offer full service. I come in, go over the menu with you, discuss dietary restrictions, allergies, dos and don’ts.
“It’s a minimum of three courses, but they usually go four or five.”
The advantage for the hosts is they get to enjoy spending time with their guests rather than being in and out of the kitchen all evening.
“It’s a nice experience for, just sitting, relaxing and enjoying wine with their guests,” Gervais said. “I’m serving and clearing dishes.
“When I come in, the kitchen’s clean and when I leave, the kitchen’s clean. It’s full-service. It’s like going to a restaurant, you don’t even have to worry about the cleanup. I strive to give that sense of enjoyment and relief.”
Price-wise, she said an evening at home with Avant Garde is comparable to hosting a dinner in a local restaurant.
“Economically, some people say it’s very pricey,” she said. “But I’ve done my research. And eating in a restaurant here, even just East Side Mario’s. For a bottle of wine, each an entrée and dessert, you’re talking $150 and I’m not exaggerating.
“If you have kids and going to get a sitter. If you’re going out, only one of you can have more than one glass of wine, or you pay for a taxi. When you hire me, you are not paying for overpriced wine and you don’t have to get a sitter.
“It’s not even just the cooking, going shopping and doing the prep. Because I have the experience, every plate has that je nest se quoi.”
While every menu is selected by the hosts, Gervais discussed some sample dinner plans.
“Say you’re having six for dinner and it’s a four-course meal,” she said. “A fan favourite is scallops. I bring in fresh scallops from my supplier.
We decide what salad you’d like, maybe a nice gourmet baby beet salad with arugula and some pistachio, a nice balsamic and goat cheese. I do a Caprese salad fresh. I do a traditional Caesar salad, a nice garden salad.
“Then for entrées, I do red wine braised short ribs, which are a favourite. I do rack of lamb, or my filet mignon — I go to Pick of the Crop or Dabrowski’s to support local businesses. I can add a lobster tail and do surf and turf if you want.”
Customers can also plan a more basic meal if they want, like lasagna. But the majority opt for a fine-dining experience.
“Because they are having a chef come in, they want to wow their guests or their wife or husband. They want to go all out. Sometimes it’s birthdays, anniversaries, staff parties, celebrations, or even just because, but it’s always something special.”
And let’s not forget about dessert.
“One of my signature desserts is Grand Marnier crème brulee, which I had at the restaurant. There’s also carrot cake, pecan pie, pistachio cheesecake.
“People ask me for wine pairings as well. I can also offer hot and cold appetizers for when people are mingling and having cocktails.”
She is also looking for local voting support in an online Favourite Chef competition, where the winner takes home $25,000 and will be featured in Taste of Home Magazine. The link to the voting is here.
Gervais immensely enjoys her work and helping others create cherished memories.
“If I can create, in that person’s eye, their perfect evening, that is what I strive for,” she said. “Serving and creating the atmosphere.”