IN THE KITCHEN WITH: Shirley Dawson
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With a bit of coaxing, the normally media shy Shirley Dawson recently agreed to be interviewed by this GoodLife reporter. Taking a break in between the lunch and dinner rush, the local kitchen icon relaxed at her bar and dished on everything from her self taught culinary skills, a soft spot for big portions, and why she doesn't want to change her menu.

GoodLife: Shirley's has been a restaurant mainstay in Barrie for the past 14 years. How did it all start?
Shirley Dawson: Guess it all started when I began catering out of my house on weekends. Word got out about my food and I was offered a job to build a restaurant named Oscars and became head cook (before Randy Feltis bought it). It was my first job in a professional kitchen and I was shell shocked. I can't even begin to tell you how stressful it was.

GoodLife: Why was it so stressful?
Shirley Dawson: I had never worked in a professional kitchen before.  I had never made a wine list, or a menu. I didn't even know what “behind the line” meant, or how to delegate tasks to staff. I just thought you did everything yourself. It was brutal because I was working everyday from 9 am until midnight. 

GoodLife: But two years later you opened Shirleys?
Shirley Dawson: I thought if I was going to work that hard, I wanted to be working for myself. I did have a silent partner in the early years, but I now have full ownership.

GoodLife: Was opening up Shirley's difficult?
Shirley Dawson: It was less stressful because by then I had figured out how to run a professional kitchen. I realized I couldn't do everything myself, and that I needed to surround myself with a great staff. In fact, many of my original employees are still with me today. Linda, Cyrs, and Liz (front of the house staff) have been with me since day one. April Morris, my main kitchen lady, has also worked with me from the very beginning and is literally a 10 out of 10 as far as employees go.

GoodLife: Let's fast forward to 2012. How's business at Shirley's these days?
Shirley Dawson: Honestly, we have been busy from day one. I feel very blessed about our success. We have a great lakeside location, great customers and we are steady at lunch and in the evenings. I truly appreciate life everyday. I have an amazing daughter (Brooke), a great son-in-law (Brian), an amazing fiancé and partner (Bruce Duncan) and a beautiful little grandson named Nixon. 

GoodLife: What's the secret to your success?
Shirley Dawson: Our large portion sizes (she laughs).

GoodLife: Hefty portions aside, what's the key to your success?
Shirley Dawson: People really seem to enjoy my down to earth home cooking. It's nothing fancy, but everything is made from scratch with fresh ingredients. I'm not a professional chef, and I don't compete with chefs. I just like to serve delicious fresh food, the kind your mother would make. I'm also big on great service.

GoodLife: So you've always loved to cook?
Shirley Dawson: Cooking has always been easy for me. I love entertaining and have always enjoyed hosting dinner parties. Over the years, my dinner parties just kept getting bigger and bigger and then friends started asking me to cater their parties. Truth is, we still host several dinner parties at our place every year and we like to make them special. Getting back to your question. Do I love to cook? Let's put it this way, I never dread coming into work. I truly enjoy it.

GoodLife: Did anyone teach you how to cook?
Shirley Dawson: My dad did all of the cooking at home for nine kids. He was a chef with the air force at Base Borden. He never really sat down and taught me, but I guess I picked up a lot from just watching him.

Goodlike: My husband loves your grilled lobster, tomato and cheddar sandwich served with a house salad. Is this a menu favourite?
Shirley Dawson: He's not alone. People love that sandwich. The recipe is based on something I had in a Florida restaurant. I changed the cheese and added tomato because they had served it with asparagus.

GoodLife: What are some of your other best sellers?
Shirley Dawson: We have so many of them. Ladies love our apricot chicken stuffed with green apple and brie, topped with an apricot glaze. On Saturdays we do prime rib and it always sells out. The oven baked pickerel topped with grilled maple pears, amaretto cream sauce and candied pecans is also popular. For lunch our Italian panini featuring panko crusted provimi veal, caramelized onions, melted Swiss cheese and honey garlic mayo is simply to die for. I think it's the best thing on the menu. 

GoodLife: What's your favourite thing to cook?
Shirley Dawson: I love preparing Chateaubriand, which is a whole beef tenderloin with roasted vegetables around it. I serve it with a brandy sauce and stuffed potatoes. It's so easy, and the men love it because it just melts in their mouths.

GoodLife: Where do you find cooking inspiration? 
Shirley Dawson: I don't have time for cooking shows, or that sort of thing. For me, travel is a great source of culinary inspiration. We eat out a lot when vacationing, and I love recreating certain dishes for friends when I get home. I put my own spin on them, and if I really like them they show up at one of my catered events.

GoodLife: I understand you rarely change your menu.
Shirley Dawson: I add things here and there, but I figure why change a good thing? People seem to really, really like our menu. Take our escargot appetizer made with two types of cheese, melted butter, fresh garlic, and topped with puff pastry. I could easily change it, but our customers love it the way it is. Overall, my menu is made up of dishes that I have been serving my friends at dinner parties for years. 

GoodLife: You've got the ear of about 36,000 potential Barrie customers. What would you like to say to them?
Shirley Dawson: I want people to know that we will happily close down for weddings and private functions. Beyond food, we can also look after your event decorating. My daughter Brooke is an excellent event planner, and she does a beautiful job with linens, flowers and the overall decor. She's super creative, and can make any event look fabulous!

GoodLife: As a successful restauranteur, any words of wisdom for others seeking to start up an eatery?
Shirley Dawson: Anyone who is successful is involved in the kitchen. I prepare all of my own food from scratch, so when my staff comes in it's ready. I make all of my own soups, dressings and sauces from scratch. You can't leave your kitchen to someone else and just give them the recipes and tell them to make them. You can leave for vacation if your staff is well trained, but never take your hands completely out of the kitchen. Lastly, any money I make I throw back into the restaurant. Over the years, I renovated several times to ensure Shirley's always looks fresh and welcoming.

Shirley's Bayside Grille is located at 150 Dunlop Street East. For more information call (705)735-0035 or
visit www.shirleysbaysidegrille.com

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