How John Jackson and Connie DeSousa found balance in the culinary industry

Advice about business focus, self-care and realistic expectations

The early days of what would become the Char Hospitality Group were – by accounts from company president and chef John Jackson – pretty awful.

In 2009, he and business partner Connie DeSousa opened Charcut, their first Calgary restaurant, now a leader in urban-rustic cuisine, focused on farm-to-table, homemade, simple but sensational dishes.

“Our lives depended on it, right?” says Jackson. “That's how we worked.”

Workdays often stretched to 20 hours, with naps grabbed in occupied rooms in the hotel above the restaurant. In addition to managing food operations, they’d clean toilets at 2 a.m. Jackson’s arms were covered in cuts, burns and dishwater rashes. One day, about six months in, DeSousa snapped.

“This sucks!” she shouted. “I didn’t sign up for this!”

“I didn’t either!” Jackson shouted back. “This is awful!”

That was the moment they realized that, if they were going to survive – as restaurateurs, as business partners, as individuals – they had to make changes. They had to find a balance.

They began looking for ways to shave off hours. Over time, it worked. Today, Jackson and DeSousa are in a position to step away from an enterprise that now includes half-a-dozen more restaurants and catering operations, and spend a week at NAIT.

From March 13 - 17, they’re serving as the first Alberta-based chefs in the history of the Hokanson Chef in Residence program – where they hope their tips on striving for sustainability will save, at the very least, a few cases of extreme dishpan hands.

Take a day off

chef connie desousa with nait culinary arts student

In time, DeSousa and Jackson went from constant 20-hour days to occasional zero-hour days, but it came of a tough choice. Early in Charcut’s history, the pair created “Meat Sunday.” Intended as a business-builder for the week’s quietest day, the event hosted a limited number of guests to gather at a communal table and feast on meat.

“It was a roaring success,” says Jackson.

But they also realized that it happened on the only day off they could have taken. So they chose between business and self-care, ending Meat Sundays, which ultimately allowed them to begin focusing on starting their own families.

That led to the next step in creating a sustainable business model (not to mention eventually implementing a four-day work week).

Look after yourself

chef john jackson with nait culinary arts student

Among her duties at the Char group – and media appearances including the likes of Top Chef Canada, Top Chef All Stars and more – DeSousa is an avid runner, having competed in the New York City Marathon. “Working out gives me the energy to do all those tasks throughout the day,” she has said.

That inspired Jackson, who wasn’t eating well or exercising. “I started getting really unhealthy,” he says. “I gained a bunch of weight – my max weight was 240 pounds. I got to a point when I had my first daughter and I was like, ‘Man, I'm not going to make it.’”

Jackson now rides his bike to work year-round and participates in an annual 480-kilometre ride with other chefs in support of No Kid Hungry, a non-profit in the U.S., where he spent the formative years of his career. He and DeSousa try to model the importance of fitness for other staff.

“I'm a better mentor, a better co-chef, a better father and husband … because of my fitness and that I’ve stayed healthy,” says Jackson.

Don’t be all things to everyone

chefs john jackson and connie desousa with nait culinary arts students

After 13 years of observing the ebb and flow of business, DeSousa has found that a targetted approach is better than scattershot.

“Focus on the hours that make most sense for your business,” she says. “Our old mindset was that we needed to be open seven days a week, 14 hours a day, to make sure that we're offering breakfast and lunch and dinner.

“But if that's not like the core of your concept, don't force it. You don’t have to be everything to everyone. And then you can have balance.”

Embrace the anxiety

chef connie desousa with nait culinary arts student

A kitchen can be an overwhelming place when a full front-of-house sends cooks and servers into overdrive.

But Jackson warns against taking a negative view of a nice problem to have. It’s a reality of the business, and can contribute to operational and creative improvement.

“It's okay to feel a certain amount of anxiety – anxiety that you’ve got to get the food out in this certain amount of time,” he says.

“It's like [what] a runner or cyclist feels – it's exciting. It's going to challenge you. That's going to help push you into thinking about creative solutions. You need to have a certain amount of pressure to be able to develop in this industry.”

Expect to work hard

chefs john jackson and connie desousa with nait culinary arts students

As much as they try, culinary schools can only replicate so much of that, says DeSousa. “You don't really get a sense for the anxiety that John's talking about until you leave school and are in the industry.”

And while DeSousa doesn’t want those who are eager to enter the industry to be anxious about the demands, she does feel that the right mindset at the outset will yield the best outcomes in the long run.

“The one thing that I think young culinarians need to know is that, yes, you can have this amazing lifestyle with balance … and still be still doing what you love to do in the kitchen, but it doesn't come without hard work,” she says.

“You still need to put in the time to get to that level.”

A brief history of the Hokanson Chef in Residence

nait hokanson chefs in residence

Since 2009, the Hokanson Chef in Residence has welcomed the cream of the culinary crop to NAIT for an annual week of inspiration and instruction. Each brought a distinct food philosophy and unique presence to the polytechnic. It’s the only program of its kind in Canada.

After a two-year hiatus, the program returned in 2023 and was marked by two significant firsts in welcoming Connie DeSousa and John Jackson, partners in the Char Hospitality Group.

Never have there been two chefs in the role, and never chefs from Alberta. Jackson and DeSousa co-own several restaurants and businesses in Calgary, including – CHARCUT Roast House, charbar, Rooftop Bar @ Simmons, Alley Burger, CHIX Eggshop, CHAR Catering & Events, and Connie & John’s Pizza.

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