News & Events
Chef to a President, Prime Minister & Prince Interview with Deon Bessey
Fanshawe News first met Deon Bessey at a fundraising lunch he single-handedly cooked in Fanshawe's First Nations Centre. We thought our readers would be interested in this fascinating story of an Inuit hunter and fisher from Labrador who has cooked for VIPs like President George H.W. Bush, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and Prince Philip, and is now studying to be a Health & Safety Officer through Continuing Education at Fanshawe College. Here's Deon's story in his own words . . .
Deon Bessey serving up lunch in Fanshawe's First Nations Centre.
FN: Where are you from, Deon?
DB: I was born in Happy Valley/Goose Bay, Labrador; I am an Inuit who grew up hunting and fishing.
FN: What kind of work have you done in the past?
DB: I used to work at a hotel called The Labrador Inn for 20 years off and on. I started off working as a dishwasher after school for four hours. During high school I went to community college and took a cooking course.
After I graduated high school I worked the midnight shift as a desk clerk, checking in hotel guests. I met a lot of musicians and movie stars like John Travolta, Mr. Dressup, Ann Murray, Jon Bon Jovi and so on.
The Manager said she heard I had cooking papers from community college, and asked if I wanted to cook in the kitchen. I said no problem. My first day, no cook came in to teach me their ways. In walk 126 hotel guests hungry for breakfast; I had them all fed in one hour. I said to myself, I guess I'm going to be a cook from now on. The manager asked me to work full-time ever since.
FN: I hear you've met the first President Bush? How did that come about?
DB: A few years later I got a phone call from the hotel manager at 3:00 a.m. They asked me to come in and cook for a V.I.P. I said I'd be in right away. Upon my arrival there were some men in my kitchen. I asked them to leave but the manager said, "They're here for the food, it is for George Bush." I said, "Stop kidding me," and he said, "No, I am serious."
The President of the United States, George Bush, wanted anything that involved shrimps. I made eight different meals for him. A month later we got a letter from the White House saying how much he loved our food and asking if we can continue to provide food for him and his wife whenever they used Air Force One. Apparently somewhere in the States that provided food for the President for Air Force One forgot to load up the food on the plane; that is why they made an emergency landing in Goose Bay for food. During his presidency we provided the food for him. In the last few months before the new president, George and Barbara Bush wanted to say thank you for the food, so the management team went to the airport to shake their hands.
Since then I have cooked for Brian Mulroney when he was our Prime Minister, Prince Philip, Danny Devito, Arnold Schwarzenegger and many more because our hotel at a contract with the aiport. I find it strange that when you cook for the President of the U.S.A., the Secret Service watches your every move. And when you cook for royalty they have royal tasters. But when you cook for the Prime Minister of Canada no one watches you.
The most I have cooked for in one day by myself was over 750 people. A plane from Italy had engine trouble and 250 guests showed up at the hotel while I was cooking for a party room for 500. The two cooks who were to work with me were sick and the day-shift cooks refused to come in because they were tired. I managed to cook without incident, except the waiters and waitresses were very sore and the dishwashers didn't wanted to see another dirty plate for a week. My passion for cooking is very strong; even cooking for my worst enemy I made sure he had the best meal he ever had.
The managers put up with a lot from me because I loved the mountains and I sometimes forgot how many days had gone by when I went and set my trap lines and fished. Sometimes I was gone for months and the hotel manager kept taking me back. During my time off I cooked for fishing and mining camps.
There was a crew from the Discovery Channel who asked me if I could do an interview for them; I said "no problem." They asked me what kind of food I cooked for Air Force One and how it was cooked and preserved and stored for the plane. Six months later the same crew saw me cooking in Voisey's Bay, Labrador (the site of one of the world's largest nickel deposits) as a head chef and asked me if I wanted to do another interview. The show is called Flight Path on Discovery Channel.
I was told I could make better money cooking in the oil fields so I packed up and went to Calgary, Alberta, and was the head chef for Diamond Catering that contracted for oil companies. After the oil companies laid everybody off in 1998 I called my brother in London, Ontario, and asked if anyone was looking for a chef. He told me there were a lot of jobs here. So I packed up and moved to Ontario. I went on a lot of job interviews for a cooking job but was told I had too much experience or I was over-qualified. That is when I stopped cooking except when someone hired me to cater a wedding.
FN: How did you come to enrol at Fanshawe? What program are you taking here?
DB: I worked in a factory and hurt my right hip and permanently damaged my back. The factory closed and WSIB is putting me through school at Fanshawe College. I am taking the Health and Safety course through Continuing Education to become a Health and Safety Officer.
FN: How are you finding life at Fanshawe?
DB: During my education program I found out about the First Nations Centre here at Fanshawe and I was welcomed immediately. Everyone here in the First Nations Centre was very helpful which inspired me to cook again - when I found out that we can bring in food for others, I was excited. My love for cooking was relit. I know I can't work in a kitchen full-time again because of my back injuries but at least I can enjoy cooking for anyone who wants to eat it at Fanshawe's First Nations Centre.
FN: What are your plans for the future?
DB: I'd like to become a Health and Safety Officer so I can educate the workers and employers of their rights in the workplace. I believe if every worker knows their rights and how to work safely the injury rates will drop. Everyone deserves to go home safe so they can hold on to their loved ones.