Dispatches from one of Canada’s best new restaurants
There’s a way to earn chef Adam Hynam-Smith’s respect.
It’s with couscous. But there’s a catch: the tiny balls of crushed durum semolina that are a staple in North Africa and the Middle East have to be cooked properly.
“I have no respect for anyone who can’t cook couscous,” Hynam-Smith said. “It takes a lot longer than people think.”
And it’s different than how the Australian-born culinarian, who co-owns Dispatch in downtown St. Catharines with his wife and local artist Tamara Jensen, was taught to prepare it in some of the finest kitchens that weaned him Down Under.
It wasn’t until a trip to Morocco as a young twenty-something that Hynam-Smith learned the right way to cook couscous. It starts with respect for the ingredient, with the finer preparation details gleaned during an a méchoui feast in the lower Atlas mountains. Outside, the men cooked a whole lamb in an underground pit of coals. Inside, women prepared vegetables, fresh breads and what would become Hynam-Smith’s benchmark, couscous.
“I’d go from outside to inside to watch the women inside preparing the couscous and vegetables,” Hynam-Smith recalled. “I was absolutely fascinated watching them prepare couscous.”
Those influences from his world travels can be tasted today on Dispatch’s lauded meze-inspired menu. It’s filled with the small plates that are a big part of the dining experience in Mediterranean and Arab countries.
And Hynam-Smith is as exacting in his preparation — be it of couscous or anything else on the menu at Dispatch — as what he saw in Morocco in 2006.
His education in professional kitchens started much earlier, however. Hynam-Smith was 13 when he landed a job washing dishes for chef Robert Griffiths, who helmed some of Australia’s best galleys. He landed the gig with the help of his parents who knew even then that a kitchen was where their son wanted to be.
“Going into restaurants, eating at restaurants, I wanted to do it,” Hynam-Smith said. “We’d go to (Griffiths’ restaurant) for dinner all the time and my parents told them of my interest. They offered me a job in the kitchen washing dishes.”
But Hynam-Smith, who was fascinated by food — the preparation, the bonding that happens over the table — wasn’t so good with steel wool and dish soap. He was too busy watching the chefs as they worked.
He’d fall behind or let the dishwater get soupy, and get barked at. One day, though, he got called over to the pass to help plate desserts. The end of his tenure in the dish pit was nigh.
“It was a thrill to go and plate desserts and watch and ask questions.”
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By the time he was 17, he traded his final year of high school to apprentice with Griffiths. Hynam-Smith handled entrées and desserts while Griffiths oversaw hot entrées and main courses. Together, they prepared “the nouveau cuisine” of the time, all the while Hynam-Smith absorbed the intricacies of it, including butchery.
“Really it was learning skills and techniques in cooking that a lot of people don’t get to learn at that age,” he said. “It was that one-on-one experience. Having all of my chef’s attention for learning was absolutely priceless.”
After his apprenticeship, Hynam-Smith cooked and staged at restaurants in an around Melbourne, including at Restaurant Jacques Reymond.
“I tried to get a job in there. (Reymond) didn’t have a job so I just worked for free.”
Hynam-Smith’s determination didn’t go unnoticed by the famed chef, who helped the young cook get into a restaurant specializing in Middle Eastern and North African cuisine. That’s where Hynam-Smith fell in love with the foods of the region and proved how serious he was about cooking professionally.
“Like any cook of that era, I burnt the candle at both ends. I’d be working 60 to 90 hours a week,” he recalled. “That was my decision because I’d go in before my shift started… I wanted to be there. (At the end of my shift) they’d say ‘You’ve got to leave.’ I’d go and sign out and go right back to the kitchen.”
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Eventually, though, Hynam-Smith started to long for one of the rights of passage he missed by not graduating high school: the gap year, a time meant for world travel before starting university or the job hunt. He worked and saved to hit the road, logging time with “incredibly gifted” chefs Sonia and Nick Anthony at a gastropub outside Melbourne. He also cut out the partying synonymous with kitchen life that he used to cope with the death of his grandfather.
In 2006, Hynam-Smith bought a one-way ticket for Canada, landing on the West Coast first, followed by pivotal stops in Morocco, France and England.
It was his visit to Barcelona, Spain, that would change his life forever, for the better. It’s where he met Jensen, and rather than return to Australia in 2008 after two years on the road, he moved to Ottawa where Jensen worked as an analyst for Corrections Canada.
They would stay in the Capital Region for another year and travel to Bangkok, Thailand, where Hynam-Smith learned Thai cooking from Chef Ajam Kobkaew, who’s taught Michelin-star chefs and liaised with the Culinary Institute of America.
They also visited Jensen’s friends in St. Catharines, Niagara, and saw something in the rustbelt city that compelled them to move here in 2009.
“We saw the potential in it.”
“At the time downtown was a ghost town. We maybe didn’t know the extent of the bureaucracy in the city and region, but nonetheless, we saw the potential in the city. It was also smack dab in the middle of two wine regions. We looked at it as a place that can be built on, that was going through a rebirth.”
St. Catharines Revitalization
Hynam-Smith and Jensen would become well-versed in that bureaucracy when they launched Ontario’s first gourmet food truck, El Gastronomo Vagabundo, in the Garden City in 2010. They would learn hot dog carts got an easier pass serving food on city streets than a refurbished courier truck helmed by a professional chef wanting to cook based on his world travels and a partner in Jensen who put on her career on hold to help make it happen.
It was a constant battle with city halls throughout the region and province, and with bricks and mortar establishments, who feared the competition from roving gourmets shelling out tostadas, fish tacos, and green papaya salad curbside.
The truck was supposed to be a gateway to a restaurant of their own one day, but being on the defence led to dark days for Hynam-Smith, who credits Jensen with helping him stay the course.
She’s had a lot to do with pushing me through tough times and sticking with me through tough times in the industry,” he said. “(Dispatch) is also her vision.”
Still, it would be nine years, one cookbook, one downtown revitalization, and Jensen selling a lot of art before the couple would open Dispatch in an old movie theatre on a stretch of St. Paul Street that hadn’t gotten the same TLC as other parts of St. Catharines’ core during its reimagining by private and public investors.
The couple opened Dispatch in 2019 with lofty goals: be a living wage employer — they are — and get on enRoute Magazine’s list of best new restaurants in Canada. Last fall, the magazine ranked Dispatch ninth in the country for its detail-oriented menu rooted in a closed-loop approach to cooking that emphasizes reducing waste.
Hynam-Smith leads the kitchen while Jensen handles marketing in addition to holding down a full-time job with a local digital creative agency.
Their efforts have turned heads at national and international media outlets, including Condé Nast Traveler, which sent a reporter to cover the rebirth of St. Catharines and the role of risk takers like Hynam-Smith and Jensen in the city’s makeover.
As a result, people from all over the world have taken a seat at a Dispatch table, bringing high expectations with them. Hynam-Smith and Jensen are keen to host them in this former industrial, mid-sized Ontario city sandwiched between bucolic vineyards and orchards.
“Our goal is to attract people and make people go ‘Holy shit, St. Catharines, who knew?’ We love when people come down here and look outside and say ‘We can’t believe this is St. Catharines.’ That’s huge,” Hynam-Smith said.
“All we want is for this city to succeed,” he added. “We want to be part of rebuilding a sense of pride. That’s all we want.”
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386 St Paul St, St. Catharines, ON L2R 3N2