M CHEF: Old Town Jam

Marine Restaurant exec chef Jeff Keenliside takes Monday writer to taste Sean Bodie and Buddy Wolfe's food at Jam Cafe

For anyone yet to try Jam Cafe for breakfast or lunch since its launch in 2012, a step inside may conjure feelings of a warm southern carnival that once stopped through town and somehow coalesced with the kind of West Coast Canadiana expected in our little hipster city.

Time-worn curiosities adorn whitewashed walls: a pair of boxing gloves suspended by their laces and framed, a set of antlers, a classroom map of Canada. In red letters, the word EAT, painted over a blackboard of daily features is a reminder that we’re here to devour more than the décor.

It’s a few minutes after 8 a.m. and Marina Restaurant executive chef Jeff Keenliside already sits sipping coffee to some indie tunes. Jam is a favourite haunt for the former Vancouver Island Chef of the Year. “It’s fun, casual, creative, good portions and good value,” he says.

Fortunately for me and my admittedly tiresome no-meat-no-wheat restrictions, this is a list I can appreciate without ordering a matching plate. Keenliside asks for something that could have been born in the mind of Willy Wonka, if it weren’t from Jam chefs Sean Bodie and Buddy Wolfe, under the guidance of co-owner Jim Walmsley. (And yes, Walmsley is also the man behind the similarly-styled Union Pacific Coffee with wife, Candy.)

Keenliside orders The Three Pigs, a corndog-inspired take on breakfast, with three maple sausages dipped in pancake batter and deep fried, served with syrup. Relax, calorie-counters, it’s accompanied by fresh-cut fruit salad. Nothing unexpected in the salad, Keenliside says, but it plays a key role here. The acidity cuts the richness and the fattiness of the pork in the pancakes. “If they had decided to serve this with hash browns, it wouldn’t have worked,” he says. “It would have been way too heavy.”

Plus, food on a stick? It just looks like a good time.

Keenliside calls out another notable menu item under the sweet and savoury theme: pulled pork pancakes. Those dreamers back in the kitchen have also thrown a few curve balls in the opposite direction with the Cracker Jack (banana and Nutella between brioche French toast) and red velvet pancakes.

I opt for an altered version of the Huevos Rancheros, basted eggs and tomatillo salsa over a stack of corn tortillas layered between black beans and jalapeno sour cream. Standard options include a hefty portion of thick-cut corn bread and smoked chorizo sausage, but even without the full experience, there’s more than enough to satisfy a healthy appetite.

We finish our meals and Keenliside makes his way to an entirely different pocket of the city, Oak Bay, where he is amidst a fall menu change at the helm of a kitchen of 25, including four apprentices. And while the chef has spent much of his time at the Marina, he’s also been behind his own project as owner-operator of Fernwood’s (now-closed) Lucy’s in the Square.“It doesn’t have to be a five-star fancy place,” he says. “Chefs have a lot of respect for where the food is coming from (and that has) an effect on the final product.”

It’s that close connection to the food and casual style that makes this cafe his jam.

Jam Cafe, 542 Herald St., serves all-day breakfast, and lunch from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.

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