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The Chef Upstairs, Pancer’s Original Deli adapt to continue bringing love of food and cooking to fans worldwide

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Julian Pancer is the Executive Chef and co-owner of Pancer’s Original Delicatessen as well as The Chef Upstairs | Photo supplied

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During the pandemic, restaurants around the country are facing their greatest challenge yet. Many have already closed, and many more will never re-open.

In this new environment, Julian Pancer balances his time between running his cooking school/event venue The Chef Upstairs, and his role as Executive Chef of Pancer’s Original Deli (the current iteration of the family business). He started in the business of Jewish food at the age of 11, working at Moe Pancer’s Delicatessen, as the cashier and salad (or ‘counter guy’) part-time after school, weekends, and during his summers. 

Pancer reminisced about sitting in the front booth with his grandfather, “my first real influence in the restaurant industry,” who would be yelling at the staff and customers with his dark thick glasses in hand. In the years that followed, he took jobs in record stores, photography labs, and restaurants as a server – all while studying business at Seneca College.

After his first exposure to serving at Marche restaurant in Innisfil, Ontario, he felt closer to the cooks than servers, and was convinced to make the switch to the kitchen. After completing a business diploma at Seneca College, and an apprenticeship program at George Brown College, he earned his red seal certification as a chef. As a young cook, Pancer worked in several restaurants including Ciao (now Cibo) as Sous Chef in both Toronto and Miami, at the Trump Hotel Toronto restaurant as a cook, and as Head Chef at the Tavern on Spadina Avenue, in Toronto, to name a few.

Pancer recognized that working in the restaurant industry meant forfeiting parts of certain joys in life. Dating, marriage, kids, friends, family all come secondary to work. “At some point you need your one day off for yourself, after being surrounded by madness all week,” he ruefully noted. 

For a decade, Pancer spent every birthday, New Years, wedding, working.  For many chefs and aspiring cooks, they think this is the be-all, end-all of cooking for a living. “You are supposed to work your way up the ranks, and become a head chef in a respectable restaurant, and perhaps become an owner,” he said. But according to Pancer , there is essentially no way to become a head chef or owner without feeling like you are missing out on something in your personal life.  

“I only ever worked for one company with an HR department, and their response to a complaint of frequent abuse by a chef was ‘isn’t this normal in your industry?’ That was the now former Trump Hotel.”

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He blames the economic structure of the industry, asserting, “restaurants take advantage of any salaried employee.” As a sous chef in 2011, he says he was making $34,000 a year, which translated to roughly $9 an hour, at a time when minimum wage was $10.50. “As a chef, you have a slim chance of making a living wage. That’s starting to improve along with all aspects of the industry, but it’s not quite there yet.”

In 2014, he applied at several places to teach, and found The Chef Upstairs. Pancer started working under Greg Heller with no formal training as a culinary teacher, and learned on the go, realizing he could make his own schedule, work a reasonable eight hours a day, and could make a living wage. Very soon after, he and his wife Danielle became full partners in both the Vaughan, Ontario, and Midtown Toronto locations, and welcomed two children.

Although the Pancer family previously sold the restaurant in 2010, by 2014 the new owners conceded defeat and were closing for good. The Pancer family took the opportunity to buy it back. For his part, Pancer related they had always regretted the sale, and it seemed obvious that the family had to bring it back to the good Jewish deli food that everyone remembered.

Early on, Julian Pancer recognized that working in the restaurant industry meant forfeiting important parts of your personal life | Photo supplied

He brings his experience as an Executive Chef to make sure the food quality is sublime. Prior to the opening, he revamped the menu, and also decided to become resourceful with the food waste. His innovation was to use the trimmings of the briskets, and turn them into the buttery soft filling for their homemade pastry, Pancer’s Original knish. 

He then decided that the leftover brisket would elevate any dish they had on the menu. “We decided to put the shredded brisket ends on hot dogs, homemade hamburgers, poutine, or eggs.” 

On March 16, COVID-19 forced a temporary closure of businesses.  The Chef Upstairs was forced to cancel over $100,000 in booked business, and quickly went from being profitable, to losing money.

Within two weeks, Pancer had put on his entrepreneur hat, and decided to move his business model to online running classes for children, adults, and even corporate events for Fortune 500 companies. 

The clientele quickly signed up for weekly classes, which became important social experiences and escape, at a time when quarantine was isolating us from each other. At this time, he also realized that his clientele had no geographical limits. The Chef Upstairs began welcoming guests from all over North America, and even Thailand.

Now that Ontario has moved to phase 3, The Chef Upstairs is offering a modified summer camp program to allow for more options to suit any comfort level. They are offering both virtual online camps, and in-person camp, following all physical distancing guidelines. 

The business is now allowed to run interactive cooking classes again, but many customers aren’t ready for that yet. The Chef Upstairs is offering Chef Spotlight Dinner Experiences, where guests are seated at physically distanced dining tables to enjoy an evening of chef-led dining demonstrations, including a five or six course menu, along with storytelling behind the menu selection. 

They have also added entertainment, including special Zoom cameos that include live music from Greece and Italy, or a call to Japan to learn proper chopstick technique, and common Japanese phrases, or table etiquette. Also popular are private in-home chef services for events.

The restaurant business was hard before 2020, but those who couldn’t adapt may be lost forever. Chef Pancer and his team have persevered, and are ready to take reservations once again, for safe cooking experiences.

Brian Gerskup is a life-long Thornhill resident, married father of 3, community organizer, and frequent flyer

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

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Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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