On Excellence: An Ode to Joe

I am not a food writer. All I know is that Chef Joe MacLellan makes food that completely blows my socks off.
And he will no longer be doing this (for now). And that makes me super sad.

photo of chef Joe MacLellan by Jessica Emin

Joe has been the chef of the tasting menus at Halifax’s The Kitchen Table for a number of years.  There, he combined his love for this province and the ‘ingredients’ it has to offer, with precise craftsmanship and an incredible knack for ‘cooking’ – its flavours, textures, colours.  He brings things to life.  I can’t figure out what it is, except that it moves me.

Lightly smoked salmon, charred pickled shallot, chanterelle yogurt, kale chips. photo from FB

What is cooking? Simply said, cooking might be understood to be merely a combination of ingredients and timing. What makes chefs like him different?

The example that comes to mind is the type of contemplative archery which I practice, called Kyudo: achieving perfect balance by connecting deeply to the ground and at the same time directly to the sky, the heavens,
while being completely in the present to release the arrow.
That’s how Joe’s cooking feels.

Perfect execution. Photo by Jessica Emin

He is an artist – a fellow creative.
Being creative requires a certain amount of courage. This courage is based either on self confidence, or on the fervent desire to go beyond. To work harder. To do it better.

Successful artists and artisans and sometimes entrepreneurs … have this.

Handcrafted food: Butter. Photo by Jessica Emin

Ideally, truly creating something extraordinary comes from applying thorough craftsmanship and tremendous exertion, while being completely open – unconstrained by convention.

This thing – it may move you to tears. It’ll most certainly make you sigh, and maybe look to heaven.

Chef Joe MacLellan has that.

I first see it in the plating, I feel it in the textures, and then I taste it in all its complexity: that passion for perfection. Its answer is right there: perfect balance. Every time.

Meticulously handcrafted, perfect balance. Every time. photo from FB

I am not sure what Joe’s plans are after he has served the last tasting menu at The Kitchen Table at the end of this week. Hopefully an angle investor will scoop him up.  Hopefully in Halifax.

All I know is that I will treasure every bite even more tomorrow night, my last meal there. 

Chef Joe MacLellan ready for service at The Kitchen Table dining room

Thank you for bringing world class cuisine to Halifax, chef Joe MacLellan, and for opening my  sense perceptions to a whole new realm. You totally rock.  I wish you all the very, very best: may your tremendous talent and deep commitment to excellence find most fertile ground!

Maritime Made

I had the great fortune to hear singer songwriter Lesley Feist in concert this weekend here in Halifax. What an incredible show!

Feist in Halifax on Friday

I have been a listening to her music for a couple of decades.  I am just so deeply impressed how this artist has not let anyone pigeonhole her. Her musical style keeps changing as she evolves as a person. Her latest record, Pleasure, has an unexpected rawness both in musical style and in recording ‘technique’.  Last night’s performance was so incredibly alive, so fresh – this artist was not simply rattling off songs she’s been playing over and over, but she seemed to very much inhabit the space, and truly BE with her audience in the most genuine way.

Come take a peak inside the studio

The fantastic performance made me think deeply about my own creative process.  I want to write further about this, but first, I thought you might enjoy seeing what the other side of that spectrum looks like: what do I do in my studio day in and day out?

Some of you may have seen my Nova Scotia Craft Council Instagram takeover last week in lead-up to our Halifax Summer Show July 20-22.  That Instagram take-over gave a look into my studio and what goes on there in the course of a day – the various tasks that get done, processes, tools, and so on.

If you’d like to have a further look into the studio, check out an episode which was filmed about me by Maritime Made. This Eastlink TV series is kind of like our very own ‘How It’s Made’.  It highlights a broad variety of products which are made here in the Maritimes, and shows how they are made. I have seen several crafters on this show, including Alissa Kloet of Keephouse.  I was delighted to be featured. How do I make a Onefooter ring? Well let me show you!  

A Onefooter starts by cutting a one-foot length of precious metal


The final part of the trip consisted of a wild and very wet motor-boat ride

I snuck away.

Very far away.

An almost silly 30 hours travel far away,
to the remote lake Atitlan in rural Guatemala.

This was our ridiculously gorgeous view of Lake Atitlan

A friend of a friend had moved there, among a fairly well represented expat US/Canadian community. Otherwise, I probably would have spent the rest of my life never knowing about this magical place.

The view from the outdoor ‘livingroom’ of our AirBnB casita

The area around lake Atitlan is a surprisingly well-adjusted mix of expats and locals: on one hand, the old and new-age hippies who came here maybe for a week or two, and didn’t leave, and on the other the amazing local people of Mayan decent. The latter being the kindest and most open-hearted people I have met in a long time.

The curious texture and pattern of hand-thatched roofs

This was to be a family trip, but for various reasons became a mother-daughter trip of myself and my eldest daughter, now 25. Surprisingly, we found each other’s company delightful almost all of the time. Some things that had needed to be said for a while came to the surface, and we learned a lot about each other.

We enjoyed eating the delicious Guatemalan snacks


“Eating local” takes on a different meaning in that climate

We flew on points and stayed at an AirBnB, mostly making our own meals, which made the whole thing very affordable – and quite rustic, with an outdoor kitchen/dining room, frequented by nightly visits of a variety of wildlife. Even cooking your own meals becomes challenging when food and water is generally contaminated – a humbling experience.

While this is still a developing country, one could spend surprising amounts of money staying on the lake’s shores, if you’d like to ‘cleanse yourself’ in one of the new-age high-end resort-type hotels complete with reiki, yoga, and other healing ‘solutions’. 

But we just hung out in the sun, read, talked, went for hikes through the jungle trails and along treacherous cliff-side paths on the steep volcano sides, and ate – which both my daughter, a chef, and I enjoy.

 I don’t think I will take the exhausting journey again, but it sure was gorgeous.
 I had a birthday while there, and going out on the lake with my adult daughter in kayaks before the sun rose, watching the sun rise behind volcanic mountain ranges and over the calm lake, was definitely a memorable way to celebrate my birthday.

Contemplating the year past, and the one to come

I sure am happy to be back at my bench now, though, and excited to work with gemstones I purchased from my trusted suppliers. If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you might get some glimpses of what I am working on!

Look closely to see the little tuft of steam spewing from one of the volcanos at sunrise. The rumbling could be felt often


I am a Goldsmith

Sometimes people are surprised that I call myself a goldsmith, since I also work with silver. I thought I’d demystify that discussion for you.

There are two main reasons for the decision to use this term. The first is actually rooted in the 18th century. I always thought that with the American war of independence was created not only a division of countries, but also of spelling. That the North, what was to become Canada, remained loyal not only to the British crown, but also the British spelling of English words. Turns out it’s not that simple, and Canadian spelling does not exclusively follow the British. But in any case, there are marked differences, such as ‘color’ south of that border, and ‘colour’ north of it. Or ’jewelry’ and ’jewellery’.

When I initially started my company, still finishing my degree in jewellery design and metalsmithing at Canada’s premier institution for that degree, NSCAD University, I did not yet think very big. I named my sprout of a company ‘jewellery designer, metalsmith’. A few years later, I realized that I was going to perhaps one day sell in the USA, and that this term would prove an obstacle. I did not want to box myself in by using the British/Canadian spelling.  Hence I had to find a different way to describe what I did by way of a new business name.

Fire melted old gold jewellery into this little gold nugget

As you may know, I was born and raised in Germany, and only came to Canada as an adult. In my own cultural heritage, a jeweller is someone who sells jewelled body adornments, not who makes them. It is a retail position. Whereas the person making those items is known as a “Goldschmied” – someone smithing gold. But they, and I, also work in silver. But as it turns out, that term, silversmithing, is applied to the fabrication of vessels – be it of silver, copper, brass etc. You might start with a sheet of metal, and apply hand tools such as mallets and hammers over stakes, in order to displace the metal and shape it into vessels. I am also trained in this craft;  in artschool these courses were referred to as ‘holloware’. Of all the terms, what I am is clearly a goldsmith.

Coloured stone like sapphires and spinel look great on 18k yellow gold

So this is how I arrived at the decision to use the word ‘goldsmith’, even though I also work in silver and copper, and I also set jewels. Particularly in a day and age where anyone can purchase beads and wire, and may call what they create ‘jewellery’, it is perhaps important to make the distinction. I added the word ‘designer’, because I have a university degree in jewellery design, a tough course of study, taught by this country’s highest award-winning professors – I feel I have earned the title.

This 18k custom Twofooter ring was a dream to make

I also like that the term gets to the heart of my passion: I truly loooooooove working gold. There is nothing like it. The weight of the material in your hand – this in itself is beauty to me. When you start working gold: forging it, cutting or filing it, it behaves completely differently from other metals. It even sounds differently. I love its qualities so much. I appreciate its durability, its refusal to be destroyed by time, yet be so malleable. I find it to be a metaphorical inspiration for how to live my life: have heft/meaning, shine with a warm glow, do not let external circumstances destroy you, and yet remain malleable, carrying warmth.

For the ‘Precious’ Series, I wrap luscious 22k gold around rough diamond cubes

Meet Aryam!

Ah, I am finally back in the studio. Luckily, I have a new sidekick, who held the fort during my absence. Meet Aryam Zubizarreta Perez!

Let me give you a little background:  I started my business in 2005, while still finishing my BFA in jewellery design and metalsmithing from NSCAD University in Halifax. I sold one ring at the school’s student store, then another. Soon, I approached my first gallery, Fireworks Gallery on Barrington street, where my work is sold to this day. Then Galerie Noel Guyomarc’H in Montreal. And so on, and so forth. My children were still little then, and being a mom was my priority. Things grew very organically for quite a while, and after finishing school I eventually started sharing a studio at the Arts Annex on the Halifax waterfront.

In my Arts Annex studio, over a decade ago!

However, a few years ago, I found myself at a juncture where I had to either give up making jewellery, or take it on 200%. I did the latter – jewellery making was going to be my full time – double time, actually! – job, with which I was to independently support myself financially. Yikes!

I worked hard and built the company, doing every single bit myself: the designing and making of jewellery, the graphic design and marketing materials, the travel to shows, lugging the wood, keeping track of inventory, and the bookkeeping.

At some point I started hiring help, just here and there for a few hours. Then I had Kris MacKenzie with me one day a week – we developed a deep friendship over the years that she helped me out in this way. Eventually, I had to face the fact: I needed full time help, and Kris meanwhile had a successful career in CAD/CAM. So I put a job call out on Canada’s job bank, looking for a goldsmith with minimum 5 years experience.

I received many many replies, most of them from outside the country. I followed a couple of leads for some time, but they were not the right fit. And one day, I received Aryam’s application. Aryam was already settled in Halifax, and he was very well trained – just in the wrong field!

This is what he wrote

“I am applying for the position of Jeweller at your Halifax studio. Over the last fifteen years I have worked as an artist, craftsman, and carpenter in both Nova Scotia and Cuba. In Cuba, I studied fine arts, developing skills and experience working in many mediums including jewellery making, ceramics, and glass work. My subsequent work as a luthier and woodworker has shaped my career as an artisan. All of my endeavours have been marked by high levels of responsibility, efficiency, and professionalism. 

There was definitely a learning curve. Some things got melted along the way

I am a motivated self-learner and self-starter and am able to learn and acquire new skills and trades very quickly. I am focused and determined, and am used to working long hours doing fine-tuned and delicate projects. I have exceptional spatial intelligence with the ability to visualize, draw, design, and fabricate high quality handcrafted products with efficiency. I feel confident that the combination of my fine arts training and technical skill-set would make me an excellent candidate for the position of Jeweller at your studio.”

I was baffled. And intrigued. Sometimes, you have to go with your gut, and I did just that when I asked Aryam in for an interview, regardless of the fact that he lacked the appropriate training. Perhaps a ‘blank slate’ was a good thing.

Long story short, this courageous young man started a trial month. And then I hired him.

Aryam did not misrepresent in his application letter – he really is motivated, and he really does work hard. I have been so impressed with his progress, and he has already become an invaluable member of my tiny team of two. I don’t even know how I did it all on my own, before.

We have a little project which he has been working on, which will be revealed soon. Stay tuned!

photo by Grace Laemmler