ArticlesFood & Wine

Tomas Crossley’s Kaleidoscope

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

County roots and global inspirations

The tasting went perfectly. Not just small bites, but a full Indian dinner for the prospective groom, whose extended family was coming from India for a spring wedding in Prince Edward County. The groom was impressed at the authenticity of the cuisine prepared by the young chef from the Prairies. There was one more test, though. Leftovers went home to Mom, who gave her enthusiastic stamp of approval.

“That was rewarding,” smiles Tomas Crossley, owner of Kaleidoscope: A Moveable Feast, a relative newcomer to the County food scene, with a highly successful first season in the rear-view mirror.

The wedding, full of ethnic traditions and celebrations, would kick off Kaleidoscope’s second season. It was to be the first of many weddings, celebrations, events, and festivals where Tomas Crossley, his wife Kimberly, and his brother Matthew could showcase their business.

Tomas, a classically trained chef, spent 2019 making his mark in the County. He brought his considerable talents to public events and private celebrations, showcasing his gourmet fare at weddings, and having fun sharing his food at festivals, all from the Kaleidoscope mobile kitchen. Word gets around quickly in these parts, and revellers knew they could count on Tomas for inspired cuisine, whether it was dinner on the deck of a sailboat for six, or a wedding feast for 250.

He found a bank of freelance chefs willing and able to step up to the stove and stations and another group of local ladies who specialized in serving at events. He remains in awe of the pockets of talent nearby, so willing to lend a professional hand.

He was ready. He had unique events planned throughout this new region he already loved. His second season was set to be spectacular.

And then it wasn’t. “In a couple of weeks, an entire season was swept away,” said Tomas.

Was it the end of this promising yet nascent business? No, it was the beginning of something unplanned, yet oh so necessary and delightful.

Kimberly called an audible at the goal line. Instead of catering events, they would cater very special events, those too rare in the past and now so vital – the family dinner. They would offer gourmet meals, all prepared in the Kaleidoscope kitchen, made with quality local products, delivered to the door. They would do it while self-isolating, maintaining physical distancing, and contactless commerce. They would take those insulating insular buzzwords of this new decade and offer families an in-home, safe, fine dining experience. Not once, not monthly, but five nights of the week.

Tomas is an experienced chef and caterer, a career he loves, although at one time, it wasn’t on his horizon. A high school guidance counsellor noted his excellent math and science marks and encouraged him to become a doctor. Two years of pre-med at the University of Calgary proved he had the aptitude, but not the passion. “My grades were excellent, and I was tutoring other students, but it didn’t feel right. I hated it.”

He always loved cooking and a summer job at Jasper Park Lodge drew him further into the pursuit. “It was my first foray into professional cooking and the hierarchy of a commercial kitchen. I loved the environment, learning the idiosyncrasies of others. There were probably 100 kitchen staff on two levels. We did room service, banquets, the golf course clubhouse, and five full-service restaurants with diverse menus.”

Most importantly, he had a chance to watch chefs from around the world work. “There were so many high-end chefs who came to the area, semi-retired, taught at culinary schools, and cooked at the lodge. To be able to watch them, to learn as they ran the kitchens and created dishes with ingredients so familiar to them but new to me, that was a gift.”

Tomas had a chance to work in The Bean, the colleague cafeteria. Kitchen staff would take surplus food from the main kitchen and reinvent it, building skills and feeding friends. Two weeks in, Tomas was instructed to make meatloaf. The executive chef stopped by and sampled it. Shortly after, a sous chef told Tomas he was promoted to the breakfast shift in the main kitchen. It was a step in the right direction, but there were sacrifices. “I had to start at 3 a.m. We were living in dorms and I’d be getting up for work when most others were still partying from the night before,” he smiles. “I was only late once, and I was reprimanded by the executive chef and five sous chefs. It never happened again.”

Two years of cooking school followed, and Tomas finished with strong fundamentals and foundational skills, but he knew there was a lot of learning ahead. “I was no means a chef, yet.”

He interned at Spruce Meadows with a catering company, working events throughout the city, and discovered he loved this sector of the food industry. “Every day is something new and challenging. There is no normal, no comfort zone. We could be prepping a new menu and serving in a different venue to a unique group every day. I didn’t realize it then, but that’s when I fell in love with catering.”

For this overachiever, there were tough days. “It was a lot of fun and I loved it, but I also hated being the new and inexperienced cook. The experts were dancing circles around me, even though they were extremely helpful. At the end, though, I was one of them. I graduated top of my class.”

He became a line cook in Calgary, but it wasn’t a good fit, and then he worked with a small catering company, which he loved, but he was anxious to travel, to see Canada. In July 2007, Tomas and his brother hit the road without a destination in mind. They crisscrossed the country and eventually landed in Toronto. “We found our vibe. We loved the energy, great concerts, and the food scene.”

He found a job at the Beer Bistro. “They brought in beers from all over the world; almost everything on the menu had beer in it. I learned a lot about pairing and how one ingredient can inspire an entire menu.”

One of his first Toronto jobs was at a breakfast restaurant in the Beaches. “The owner was Persian and back in Afghanistan he had a five-star restaurant. Now he had this busy breakfast place. I’d be making breakfast for diners and he’d be in the corner creating an aromatic rice dish. He asked if I was hungry and shared it. It was amazing. I learned so much from him.”

Tomas had a chance to return to his love of catering when he joined Rose Events, a division of Rose Reisman’s empire. “I was right back in it,” he smiles. “Most events were in the Toronto area, but we’d go as far as Muskoka and Kingston. One day we might catering a cocktail party for a law firm and the next was a wedding with hundreds of guests. I had a lot of freedom. We could play with recipes and ingredients. On slow days, we would do research and development. My partner and I fed off each other. It was a lot of fun and great experience.”

Already hooked on catering, Tomas found a new love a Rose Events. Kimberly also worked there, and soon they were planning a life together, including a three-month European vacation. They landed in Paris and spent a week there, then headed to the south of France, Luxemburg, Germany, Austria, Italy, and finally Spain. Kimberly’s father was from Sardinia, and that required a pilgrimage, and they fell in love with Barcelona. “The gastronomy scene is incredible,” he recalls. “There is something new different on every corner – new scents and flavours and presentations.”

They ended their vacation in the south of Spain, staying in Granada, and taking day trips in their rented car. One was to a small village by the sea, where they saw a man whittling on the beach. “He was carving skewers near his friend who had a fire going. He was grilling sardines, serving them with just some salt, and an ember-baked potato. It was the best meal of the entire trip; it was so simple and honest and delicious. Even the skewers were fresh and local.”

The impact of the trip remains with Tomas. “It opened my eyes. There is a global mosaic of unique local flavours, and so many ways to prepare and serve and honour these ingredients. A dish could vary from corner to corner and even house to house, depending on the influences and traditions. No one can ever know everything about cooking. It’s an art form, it’s a constant education, and there is so much delight in listening and watching and tasting.”

Tomas admits a preference for French cuisine because it was his formal training, but when asked about his favourite dish, he takes a moment. “Maybe a falafel, or authentic Vietnamese pho with tripe. And anything I haven’t made. People get intimidated cooking for a chef, but they shouldn’t. We love having people cook for us, and we will probably learn something.”

After returning to Toronto, Tomas proposed, Kimberly said yes. She returned to the family business and Tomas went back to cooking. “I worked in hospitality because of the regular hours. It was a great opportunity to work with a lot of people with different backgrounds, to learn from their experience, intuitiveness, and family traditions. I learned to make chimichurri from a Chilean chef. You can always learn something from someone who has a different experience, from the perfect way to cut meat for a specific dish to the feel of a pan. I worked with so many great people who wanted to teach me, to share their valuable knowledge and expertise. I try to be that chef for others.”

The call for change was tugging on Tomas. “I always wanted my own business and knew if I were going to stay in the food industry, I had to be my own boss.” He started by catering a wedding – his own, a German-Sardinian blend, applying his trademark approach, this time on a very personal level. “It’s wonderful to work weddings and draw out what’s important to the couple and their family and guests. Maybe it’s the meal they had when they met, or proposed, or something traditional in their family, or a blend of cultures. Ingredients change and I want to be inspired by them.”

With several cultures in his heritage, Tomas grew up with an open mind about food. His parents both attended art school. His mother is German, his father a mix of Irish, English, Belgian, and Cree. His father is a graphic designer – he designed the Kaleidoscope logo, and his mother stayed at home to raise the kids and then went to work as a health care administrator.

“Kaleidoscope, the name, is my mother’s idea. Food isn’t static, it’s constantly moving, and the same dish is different every time. The slightest shift changes the whole picture, like a kaleidoscope.”

Tomas and Kimberly wanted to live outside the city, have some land. One of their first dates was to Prince Edward County, and they returned. “It’s a special place, removed yet close to everything, an escape, yet vibrant. We had a food truck. We could go anywhere,” he smiles. The catalyst was Amber, now three. It was time to put down roots.

“It’s perfect for us,” Tomas continues. “The food and wine and cideries are unique. The food producers, the farmers, the way they work together. I source my ingredients as close to home as possible, and yet there are so many I haven’t met. It’s an adventure, visiting the farms, and building these relationships.”

Tomas met Tim and Angela of Jubilee Forest Farm and was inspired. “I love baking bread. It goes with so many other dishes, and meeting Tim and Angela was the push for that. We use their flours for the bread we serve, and we bake bread for their farmstand.”

As outgoing as Tomas, Kimberly, and Matthew are, they are following strict self-isolation rules. As a food service, their goods are delivered to them. They don’t have to go to a grocery store, and they follow an equally strict protocol when delivering to their customers.

“When we deliver food, it is contactless. We are very mindful about our isolation and physical distancing. Those advanced food handling courses are coming in handy right now. The menu is online, clients order and pre-pay, and we deliver to their door and leave it there with cooking or reheating instructions. We offer a different meal every day and we sell out. We’re prepping 15 to 30 meals a day. Not everyone wants to cook every day and we give families a chance to try something new. They can have gourmet meals delivered to their door. It’s good, simple food with quality ingredients, made with love from scratch. The bread is baked fresh every day, and we always have sweets available, with a special dessert every Friday. It usually works out to less than $20 per person, all in, delivered. We want to be fair and offer good food and a helpful experience. It’s a different kind of busy. Tuesday to Saturday, Sunday is a day off, Monday is a prep day.”

Of all the clients he serves, one is very special. The brother he toured Canada with now works in the surgical department at Toronto General Hospital. His wife is a nurse. Every Sunday, they take a drive to the County and pick up a week’s worth of gourmet meals, courtesy of a very appreciative brother. Tomas sets the food down, backs away, has a quick visit from a safe distance, and the brothers part company, heading into a new week of this new normal.

“I never thought we’d be living like this, but here we are. We just want to keep busy and feed people.

Kaleidoscope: A Moveable Feast