Unni Simensen is a legend in the Halifax food scene as creator of Scanway Catering and Restaurant as well as Sweet Basil, Cheapside at the Nova Scotia Art Gallery, Sweet Treats at Neptune Theatre (where she first sold her delicious Florentines) and most recently, Saege. “It was a lot of hard work. I’d often be in the kitchen at 4 a.m. and then run home to be a mom.” She survived three recessions and once employed 150 people.
Unni came to Nova Scotia in 1978 after 10 years in Montreal. She and husband Ragnar had left their native Norway intending to stay a couple of years. “We were young, we wanted to travel and see the world. We had no money and slept on the floor for the first year.” Ragnar found work as an engineer; Unni hitchhiked to work as a nanny to three children, and then stayed home when their two children were born. She learned to speak fluent English and passable French. They loved Montreal’s art scene and the city’s humanity – a Jewish doctor operated on their ill son for free because of his appreciation for Norway’s efforts during the war.
I’ve followed the whole circle of life. I’ve been very lucky. I got to live my life’s passion.
When Ragnar was offered a job in Halifax, they took the plunge. “In today’s busy world, it’s a little old-fashioned and not too hectic.” She found people to be kind and enjoyed being near the ocean – something she’d missed in Montreal. Unni decided to start a catering company. She had taken cooking courses in Norway and her mother was a fabulous chef who was employed as a cook for a large household (where she met Unni’s father who was the gardener). “I knocked on a few restaurant doors and told them I make better desserts than they do!” They soon realized that was true and Unni’s career took off. Son Geir now operates her business, while daughter Kari currently travels the world with her husband and two children.
Life changed in 2013 when Ragnar, her beloved husband of 47 years, died after a long illness. Kari and family had moved in with them while he was sick and they’ve remained while Unni lives in an independent part of the house. Although officially retired, she bakes for people and consults in the local food scene. She travels, walks, bikes and enjoys her fabulous flower gardens. She offers life skills cooking classes for Autism Nova Scotia. Unni always supported the community, donating time and food. She recalls the difficult time after 9/11 when her team pulled together meals for a thousand people. “I’ve never baked so many chocolate cakes.”
She thinks hard when asked if there were barriers to overcome as an immigrant. “I don’t think so.” She came from a peaceful, prosperous country that people don’t generally leave, and knows, unlike many immigrants, she could always go back. But Nova Scotia is home. She has catered birthday parties, weddings and funerals for the same families. “I’ve followed the whole circle of life. I’ve been very lucky. I got to live my life’s passion.”