Meet Our Team
I went to SAIT for the culinary program where I immersed myself in food. I worked at The Coup and The Hyatt in the evening and went to school during the day. When I finished studying at SAIT, I realized I had only scratched the surface. I began to dig deeper. I took a job as butcher at River Café, which pushed me to learn everyday. The more I learned the more I craved international experience. I began my international journey with a six-week culinary exchange in Austria, followed by a two-week stage at St. John in London. The following year, I spent three weeks in California at Chez Panisse. My itch to travel and learn became obsessive, which became the reason for my resignation from River Café. I promptly obtained a working visa to travel Europe. I was given the opportunity to work at a 2 Michelin Star restaurant (La Manoir aux Quat’Saisons) that focused on local and seasonal food. I spent nearly 4 months there before a one-month stage at The Fat Duck. At that time, The Fat Duck was ranked the ninth best restaurant in the world. I was obsessed with the books from the restaurant, everything I had read and watched on TV was suddenly my work! Although I was just free labour, I took in everything I could to better myself as a chef. I learned so much about discipline and passion. It was exciting to work at restaurants that were obsessive about the guest experience. I came back to River Café in the spring of 2010, where I pushed for more leadership. Thereafter, I became the Sous Chef at the only restaurant in which I wanted to work. It felt like the pinnacle for me. I had amazing mentors in Scott Pohorelic and Andrew Winfield. They taught me how to lead a kitchen that believed in guest experience, quality ingredients and social responsibility. This was where I my identity as a cook and a leader began to flourish.
In 2012, it was time for a new experience. I moved to Teatro as a Sous Chef. The culture and style was unique and different to that of what I’m used to. I took on this new challenge feeling re-energized and refreshed. John Michael MacNiel’s emphasis on tasting menus was definitely something different in Calgary. I did my best to help him push that to notoriety. Unfortunately, I broke my leg very badly on Labour Day of 2013 and was forced to step back from cooking for a while. During this time I got very close to a wonderful woman, Eliese Watson. We fell in love, and she helped me rebuild my leg. I learned a lot about bees. I became very introspective about food and what I wanted to do. I had an amazing opportunity to cook at a winter event in Winnipeg called Raw: Almond. It was probably a little too soon to get back in a kitchen, however, it did motivate me to get back.
In July 2014, Teatro Group approached me to be the Chef at Teatro. I was given an opportunity to lead one of the most prestigious and established restaurants in Calgary. Immediately, I knew that I wanted to make Teatro more Italian. We simplified the plates, and began focusing more on freshness and seasonality. We pushed the pasta program and explored the different shapes. We built a charcuterie program that was quickly expanding. As all this happened, Eliese and I gave birth to our first child, Rose.
Now, I have an opportunity to get back to my roots. Hayloft will be about exploring traditions and getting back to simplicity. We hope to source our ingredients from local families and farms with their own traditions. I hope that I can share my experiences with Airdrie and surrounding areas, and create a community of shared tradition.
James Hoan Nguyen
I am humbled and honored to be a part of a passionate and caring team who truly values the people and the community culture of Airdrie. Growing up in a small farming village in Vietnam, my connection with food began at a very early age. The rice we ate was grown steps from our home, the vegetables were harvested from our garden, the fruit was picked as we climbed our trees, and when we could afford it, meat was purchased at the village market. I lived in Vietnam for the first eight years of my life – being a child in a farming village and eating the freshest food everyday was how it was all the time, it was normal. On the 20th of August in 1990, my life was forever changed when I immigrated to Calgary. Our Air Canada flight touched down on the tarmac at Calgary International Airport. Tightly holding onto my mom’s hand on one side and my older sister on the other, I met my dad for the first time. It was a long awaited reunion for our family – eight years of living thousands of miles a part, communicating only through written letters and pictures sent periodically across the Pacific. We left the airport in my dad’s old Chevrolet Caprice and I got to sit in the front with him. Sunken deep down in the seat with a weird strap over my chest, I could barely see anything over the dashboard. I felt the car slow down. I looked out the window and saw a big glowing yellow ‘M’. Yes, my first meal in Canada was a Big Mac Meal purchased with a coupon. The ‘golden arches’ was my introduction to Canada’s developing and growing fast food culture. Our family grew as my little sister was born in 1991; we rented a government-funded townhouse in southwest Calgary. We were lucky to get a tiny yard that my mom and dad dug up to grow lettuce and herbs, trying resemble our lush garden back in Vietnam. Every house we moved to from then on, we continued the tradition of digging up the yard to grow lettuce and herbs. I always remember all of us saying, “This tastes so much better than the lettuce we buy at Superstore.”
As an adult, looking back at those defining moments of my life, I realized how impactful large food corporations could be on the everyday life of people. I was a teacher for ten years and watched my students devour processed and fast food daily with no understanding of what they were consuming. After many years of working at Calgary’s most respected restaurants (River Café, Pigeonhole and Il Sogno), I was often inspired and perpetually learning. My perception of food changed as I gained knowledge and became wiser in the choices that I made. I came to an understanding that food does not have to be fast. It does not have to come from a box out of the freezer; it does not have to be processed; it does not need to be microwaved. I learned to respect the ingredients, the processes and the people who invest significant time and effort to bring us the best tasting products. This is the reason why I wholeheartedly believe in Hayloft’s values and philosophies about food. It is important to understand and source local and fresh ingredients from responsibly operated farms to provide wholesome comfort food to our guests. I’m excited to be a part of Airdrie’s community to deliver an establishment that is transparent and accountable to our dining guests. We are committed to the integrity of our product – food and service. I hope to bring my experience, strong work ethic and deep passion for the restaurant industry to Airdrie and become part of a shared tradition in our community.