Back to the grind

Kate Lee, the Spice Lady of PEI, adds flavour to the local retail landscape

Kate Lee’s obsession with spices began with a fervent search for the perfect shawarma spice mix when she was just 19 and working at the Town & Country restaurant in Charlottetown. While the family that ran the restaurant shared many recipes with her, the concoction of spices that made their shawarmas addictive was a closely-guarded secret Lee was determined to uncover. And so, without Google to turn to, Lee dove into the world of spices and hasn’t looked back since.

Today, she’s cemented her sobriquet as ‘Kate the Spice Lady’’, sharing her love of spices with patrons at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market and those lucky enough to discover her cafe/retail shop of the same name tucked behind Butcher & Butcher on St. Peter’s Road.

“A lot of spices that I wanted for my own use, I had to go to Halifax for. Freshly ground spices smell nothing like what you get at the grocery store,” says Lee, as she shares excerpts from the long and winding journey that has led her to her current spice enterprises. To prove her point, she pulls a jar of freshly ground cinnamon from the shelf and shares its aroma. I happily inhale and am treated to a rich, sweet scent that immediately confers its superiority to my sad, store-bought ground cinnamon. She does the same with a jar of cumin, which happens to be amongst my favourite spices, and I am wholly converted.

photo credit: Salty

It’s a bright Thursday afternoon in early January and I’m sitting at a table for two in Lee’s cozy cafe, which is filled with the aforementioned jars of spices, spice paraphernalia, pottery, art and eclectic items with mysterious purpose.

While the Town & Country’s shawarma stoked Lee’s passion for spices, it was when she met Simon, her now-husband, that the love affair really began. “Simon’s a chef so I bought him this book called The Spice and Herb Bible,” she says as she pops up from her chair and retrieves the well-used book from a nearby shelf. “That’s when I realized that someone did this for a living.”
Armed with that revelation, Lee decided to pursue her own spice ambitions by getting a booth at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market. Lee speaks highly of the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market, noting that it’s a great place to test the waters and build a loyal customer base.

Kate’s Spice Essentials

The Favourites: Sumac, Cardamom,Galangal (a mustardy ginger)

The Must-Have Read: The Spice and Herb Bible by Ian Hemphill

The Highly Coveted Board Game: Spice Navigator, which requires players to accurately identify spices by smelling them

The Canadian Content: Mustard seed, because Canada (not France!) is the mustard capital of the world

Contrary to her own expectations, winters have turned out to be busier for Kate than summers. “That’s when people are cooking. April is my quietest time, because things are starting to sprout.”

Lee sources her herbs and spices from a variety of trusted sources. One of her favourite spice suppliers is a US-based company called Frontier. “They’re organic and fair trade, and they’re a cooperative just like the Farmers’ Market, so it’s good all around,” said Lee. She also has a soft spot for “weird stuff” that she happens upon, and yearns to have a wall filled with oddities and curiosities “like the one that the Root Cellar used to have (when it was owned by Joe and Gail Kern).”

With six years under her belt at the farmers market, Lee decided to open up a cafe/shop in 2015. Fast forward two years and Lee has a steady stream of lunch-goers and spice shoppers coming through her doors each day. Much to her delight, her chef husband took over the cooking duties when Lee realized she couldn’t wear all the hats required to run the cafe solo. “I was everything. I was the cook, the server, the cashier, the dishwasher, the shopkeeper. I thought about selling the cafe, but then Simon offered to help out with the cooking and that worked out perfectly!”

photo credit: Salty

Perusing the menu of the day, which features an assortment of homemade soups, sandwiches, comforting sides and a daily feature, I give myself kudos for uncovering this gem that’s a mere five minute walk from my house. The food is very reasonably priced, wholesome and delicious (I especially loved my Asian-inspired Cooler Noodles and the focaccia bread), while the warm, eclectic design of the space makes it easy to imagine you’re dining at a good friend’s house if said friend were, you know, obsessed with spices. It’s the kind of place you want to make a part of your weekly ritual.

As we get set to leave Lee’s warm, sun-filled cafe, I make a promise to myself that from here on in I’ll stop and smell the spices, because what’s life without a bit of freshly ground, organic spice?

About Shannon Courtney

Shannon is the co-founder of Salty and was its editor-in-chief for the publication's inaugural year. When she’s not writing about food, Shannon's either cooking, eating, talking, or thinking about it. Her food adventures have included milking a Jersey cow in Australia, almost overdosing on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and studying local food systems in Vermont as part of her Master’s thesis research. Shannon is also a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and strongly believes you CAN make friends with salad.

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