The Singing Chef
It didn’t take long for chef Michael Lockley’s secret to surface. About a month into his kitchen gig at Iqaluit’s Frobisher Inn in 2016, he was asked to sing at a fundraiser for those impacted by the Fort McMurray fires.
“I came up here not wanting everyone to know I was a professional opera singer,” says Lockley, who's now head chef at Iqaluit’s men's shelter. This fall he sang with the Montreal orchestra, as he still does a few times each year.
Lockley started his operatic career at age 24, living between New York and Europe “wherever the work was,” he says. He’s a student of the Royal Conservatory, and at one point studied at Julliard before taking a job on tour. He’s a three-time Grammy nominee and you can even find his voice in the background of sports car commercials. But at 48, while living in France, he quit opera cold turkey.
“I’d done it for 25 years and I woke up one day and felt, I’ve had enough,” Lockley says. “It’s a disciplined lifestyle, not nearly as glamourous as people think. It’s like being an athlete.”
While travelling, he’d become a foodie watching cooking shows and dining on local cuisine. This launched him into a new career where, after studying culinary arts in Montreal, he worked in high-end restaurants. But like opera, the ritzy environment of gourmet food wore thin. “Is this what I want to be doing?” he thought.
In 2017, Lockley was hired by the Qajuqturvik Food Centre to teach culinary and career skills to underemployed Iqalungmiut. He’s recently taken a job at the men’s shelter, run by the Uquutaq Society, making daily breakfast and supper.
The shelter sleeps 32, but there are often 50 men in need of shelter and meals. Lockley is working to create a food program that will move with the shelter to a new location, likely in the coming year, when the emergency shelter upgrades to 62 beds and opens transitional housing for employed men trying to get up on their feet.
One man, a senior, told Lockley that the new healthy breakfast he’s been getting at the shelter helps him perform better at work. Many clients of the shelter have steady employment, but can’t access affordable homes.
“It’s rewarding to help on a level like that,” Lockley says. Today, he’s making chicken a la king, and tomorrow beef stroganoff is on the menu. It’s these kinds of hearty meals with ample servings that Lockley works to provide. “Especially in the winter when it’s minus 40,” he says. “It’s brutal cold outside. People need their calories in the cold.”
It’s in the busy hours, when he’s gearing up to feed a large group, that Lockley is reminded of his days on the big stage. “I loved the moment when you have produced something special, when you’re performing on an opera stage,” he says. “The closest thing to that I’ve found is when you’re working in a (busy) kitchen.”
But he doesn’t miss his old life. “I stepped away from opera, and fine-end dining too, when I thought, the people I’m serving with my talent, it’s not making a big difference. Here, my cooking really makes a difference.”