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Chef James Oja fills the Orange Lunch Box

Chef’s Table
by Luke Arbuckle

Chef James Oja, owner of the Orange Lunchbox in Charlottetown displays two of his culinary inventions, the Wake & Bake and the Squeal Piggy Squeal. James says none of the menu items were named before they were tasted. “We let them name themselves.”Many chefs will tell you it’s their dream to one day own their own restaurant, even more will tell you how difficult it can be. For chef James Oja, the journey’s been one of highs and lows, but at the end of the day he’s accomplished what so many other have dreamed of.

Shortly after graduating from the Culinary Institute in 2010, James spent a few months working odd kitchen jobs in Charlottetown and helped local restaurants iron out their service and menus. He spent some time with Famous Peppers working on their pizza menu and helped the folks at Black & White revamp their kitchen.

James says he was privileged to work around town in different capacities and really go t to know what Charlottetown has to offer. “It was a great learning experience and really got me out there working with other local chefs,” says James.

“It was around that time that I realized what my next steps were going to be.”

By the summer of 2011, James had purchased a bright orange food truck and was parked in various locations along University Avenue. His idea was to provide gourmet street food to anyone interested enough to stop by and he made sure build a menu the likes of which Charlottetown had never before seen.

“I wanted my food to stand out, to bring something completely different to the area, offer choices and flavours from outside the box,” he said. “It was a very successful summer, I learned more about cooking and managing kitchens, especially how to deal with kitchens on wheels.”

With summer wrapping up and encouraged by the success of the Orange Lunchbox, James set his sights on a more permanent venue for his gourmet hamburgers. He parked the mobile kitchen and moved into a new location on University Avenue.

Since then, James says he’s had his fair share of highs and lows. “The business end of things is great, we get a lot of support from locals and still focus on giving people something they normally wouldn’t think of. The Howie and the Porky Pig are two of our most popular dishes,” James said. “The Porky Pig took third place in the Great Grilled Cheese Competition last year and we’re really proud of it.”

James admits as dedicated a chef as he is, owning his own restaurant can be difficult at times and public relations has never been a strong point for him. “I got us in a little bit of trouble a couple of times early on,” he said. “It wasn’t big deal, but social media is an important tool for business owners and I took a few lessons from that.”

James had tweeted a reply to a local foodie who was trying a new restaurant in town. The tweet was picked up by local news stations (making a fuss over what they called “Burger Wars”) and received over 300,000 views in two days. “It wasn’t great PR, but lessons were learned and we’ve moved on. We still have a lot of local support and are thankful for the experience,” he said.

“All in all it’s been an amazing journey, something I can look back on in the years to come and feel proud, I took the chance, gave it my all and hope to continue to do what I love.”

In addition to the restaurant, James plans to have the mobile lunchbox up and running again this summer.

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