June 9, 2015
News Post

Josh Sawyer saw it all as a high-seas chef

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Posted By Hank Daniszewski The London Free Press on Saturday, June 6, 2015

Bill Gates and his taste for Kraft Singles and M&Ms. Quincy Jones, who was liable to get the munchies at any hour of the night. Josh Sawyer saw it all, as a high-seas chef to the rich and famous aboard luxury yachts. Now, he’s serving up his own thing at his new upscale London sandwich shop. Hank Daniszewski reports.

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Once you’ve taught mega-billionaire Bill Gates to like broccoli, making a proper sandwich is a cinch.

Just ask Josh Sawyer.

The London chef has had an amazing career arc, starting out as a restless rock drummer who went out West to work in restaurants, rising swiftly to the top of his profession as an executive chef on a billionaire’s yacht, making meals for the likes of Gates, Warren Buffet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Wayne Gretzky and Roger Federer.

But after five years catering to the rich and famous, Sawyer ditched it all, to come home to friends and family, to raise his kids and open a premium sandwich shop, Wich is Wich, in partnership with his mother, well-known London morning radio host Elaine Sawyer.

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Sawyer, who turns 40 this month, was born in London but lived in the Toronto area for awhile as a child where his mother was working with advertising agencies in the late 1970s.

The family moved back to the London area around 1985, when his mother soon began a 28-year run as a morning radio host, paired with Rich Greven.

Unlike most future chefs, Sawyer didn’t dabble in the kitchen as a kid. Instead, his passion was drumming. He played in a series of bands, including Full Bloom, which recorded and played club gigs in the area.

After graduating from Laurier secondary, Sawyer had plans to go to a prestigious percussion school in California but drifted around, working at various jobs.

He was 24 before he decided to attend a government-sponsored culinary school in London.

After apprenticing at the Delta Armouries, Sawyer sold his drums, intent on bumming around Europe, but instead decided to hitch a ride to Calgary with a friend. He started working at the Metropolitan Grill in Calgary before moving up to the Teatro fine dining restaurant.

He broadened his experience working in South African and Japanese restaurants and at a health food establishment.

He moved on to Vancouver, working at the prestigious Provence and Hawksworth restaurants

“You’re there to learn. It’s endless. Places are hip and you want to go in that direction.”

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Dennis Washington is worth about $6 billion, according to Forbes Magazine — enough for him to crack the magazine’s list of the 100 richest Americans.

Not bad for a former construction worker from Montana, who grew up in a poor family, survived polio and was shunted between relatives when his parents separated. His family business empire includes Seaspan in Vancouver and Victoria, which has more than $10 billion in contracts to build icebreakers and other ships for the Canadian Navy and Coast Guard.

But the ships he really cares about are his own. He buys old boats and refits them as luxury yachts, all named Attessa.

Though he won’t confirm it, Washington is estimated to have spent between $250 million and $300 million on the latest yacht — Attessa IV.

The yacht 102 metres in length, is longer than a football field. It has a spa, gym, theatre, Gucci stainless steel deck chairs and a helicopter pad. The blown-glass chandelier in the salon is worth about $1 million.

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Young, single and looking for adventure, Sawyer spotted an online ad for a chef on a yacht in Mexico. He was flown to San Diego for an interview with five Seaspan managers. The big test was cooking a meal for Washington, but he didn’t get to meet the billionaire yet.

“I was pretty nervous, second-guessing myself. If he doesn’t like your food, that’s it.”

On the advice of a manager, he kept it simple, cooking what you’d expect a construction guy to like — roast chicken, mashed potatoes and apple pie. Sawyer got the job and lived on board Washington’s yachts, the Attessa III and later the Attessa IV, from 2007 to 2012.

Despite Washington’s wealth, Sawyer says, he remains a down-to-earth, decent fellow who treated employees well.

“Of all the stars I met, the biggest is Dennis Washington.”

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Sawyer faced the ultimate test on his 36th birthday.

He was on a deserted island with the richest man in the world, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and his wife Melinda, and had to cook dinner for them.

“There were times when it was just Bill, Melinda and I on an island, all by ourselves. It was bizarre. I had to pinch myself.”

The first officer from the Attessa fashioned a barbecue from sticks and a grate, and Sawyer prepared shrimp served in pineapples.

“He (Gates) really enjoyed himself. He didn’t really want anyone bothering him.”

The Gates’ spent weeks on the Attessa, sailing between remote islands near the Central American nation of Belize.

Sawyer says he’s not sure why Gates was there. He may have been interested in buying the yacht. No matter. What Sawyer learned is that Gates often eats, well, like a kid.

During a stop in the Mexican resort of Cozumel, Sawyer had to go foraging on shore to find Gates’ favourites.

“We were looking for Orange Crush, plain M&Ms — stuff that’s hard to find in Mexico. His cheeseburgers had to have Kraft Singles (cheese slices) on them.”

Sawyer did prepare some more sophisticated dishes for Gates, such as Thai food.

And then there was the big coup: “I had him eating broccoli. He didn’t like broccoli before.”

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When Sawyer lived on the yacht, feeding the rest of the 34-member crew was a big part of the job. The big crew was needed to keep the vessel ship-shape and immaculate even when Washington or guests weren’t there. They used toothbrushes to clean the shinier bits.

When guests were aboard, that added to the pressure.

“They know their food and you have to be able to step up.”

The ship was well stocked but didn’t always have what guests wanted. Sawyer would go ashore or to other yachts, bartering some beef for a bone-in ham.

Quincy Jones, the American music producer, was a frequent guest. He and Washington used to shine shoes when they were friends in high school. Jones is a notorious night owl and Sawyer was on standby long after midnight, in case Jones got hungry.

Business magnate Warren Buffet, often considered the most successful investor of the 20th century, was another guest on yacht along with about two dozen members of his family.

Washington also entertained celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey at his fishing lodge on Stuart Island, near Vancouver, which had its own nine-hole golf course blasted out of granite.

The Attessa also played host to Hollywood stars, many of them friends of Washington’s sons Kevin and Kyle, such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, Terence Howard and Kevin Sorbo.

There were also sports stars such as Federer, the tennis great, and Gretzky. The hockey legend helped schmooze Stephen Harper when Washington had the prime minister aboard for a cruise during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

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After five years on the yacht, Sawyer decided to move on.

“In that world, if you can last a year, you can pretty well call your shots.”

Sawyer had married Faith, a native of the Philippines, who was one of stewards on the yacht.

Not getting along with a new captain, Sawyer decided it was time to go home with London with his family.

Sawyer and his wife have a five-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter.

“I moved back for friends and family,” he says. “You can’t put a price on that.”

In Los Angeles and Vancouver, he saw a sandwich shop so popular customers lined up around the block. He decided London was ready for an upscale sandwich shop.

He struck a partnership to open Wich is Wich with his mother, who was ready to move on after her long radio career.

Wich is Wich offers everything from the familiar, like steak BLT and oven-baked cheese or tuna melt, to the exotic. Think Marrakech chicken with ras el hanout, a fragrant North African spice, or a vegetarian sandwich with sumac pistachio.

The shop also features soups, salads and local craft beer.

Sawyer plans to take his concept to other cities.

His mother says London may be traditionally conservative in tastes, but it’s “growing up” and is ready for a more sophisticated turn on the sandwich.

“Are we rolling the dice? Absolutely. But we have a good concept and if we plug away, we will make it work,” she says.

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