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Out of the ashes

When a fire destroyed chef Jesse Vergen’s New Brunswick house, the family rebuilt their dream home from scratch

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As Kim Osepchook looks at her kitchen, she doesn’t see garden-fresh vegetables and bone-white china. She doesn’t smell the flowers. In her mind, she still smells the smoke and sees the devastation left in the kitchen after fire ripped through her Quispamsis, New Brunswick, home on Christmas morning in 2013.

“The food was completely frozen in time,” she recalls. “Our appetizer plates, the shrimp rings, the bread, were all still there, still perfect, just completely black.”

She looks up and surveys the now picture-perfect main floor dining room, kitchen, and parlour of the bright, white open concept home that was completely rebuilt, renewed, and refreshed in the months following the blaze.

  • The view from the Osepchook-Vergen family’s kitchen window: farmland, woods, and the home of Jesse Vergen’s parents, Thomas and Sandra Jepson.
  • Kim Osepchook, Jesse Vergen, and their children, Cole and Briar, chat around the family’s stainless steel-topped kitchen island, custom-built after fire ripped through the family’s original home on Christmas Day 2013.
  • Vergen working at his GE Monogram series gas range, which he calls the most important tool in his kitchen.
  • The family’s open-concept dining area, outfitted with a table recovered from an old barn on the property, modern chairs and lighting from TUCK Studio.
  • The main floor living space is flooded with natural light, bordered by custom transom windows by Bishop’s Windows and Doors.
  • The family’s open-concept main floor living space. Sofa by Gus Modern, supplied by TUCK Studio. Maple coffee table designed by Judith Mackin, built by Brent Rourke.
  • The concrete foundation was all that remained after the fire, but was polished and repurposed as bare flooring for the new home’s lower level. Red chairs by Herman Miller supplied by TUCK Studio
  • In colder months, the home is heated by a woodstove from Valley Home and Hearth.
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Today, the smoke grey split-level is more than just a place for Osepchook, spouse Jesse Vergen, and their children (Briar, 7, Cole, 9, and Ethan, 17) to rest their heads. To them, their home is the perfect marriage of function, simple style, and a reminder of what matters most in their lives.

The family is known in culinary and agricultural circles in Southern New Brunswick. Vergen serves as the executive chef of the bustling Saint John Ale House, owns the Smoking Pig BBQ, competed on Food Network’s fourth season of Top Chef Canada in 2014, and appeared on episodes of You Gotta Eat Here and The Village Feast.

Today she works as a biology lab technician at the University of New Brunswick, but Osepchook is a veteran organic farmer who shares Vergen’s passion for local food. She’s tended gardens and supplied fresh, organic food to markets and restaurants all along the Kingston Peninsula. The pair met and settled in an old farmhouse on nearly six hectares of land owned by Vergen’s parents, Thomas and Sandra Jepson, in 2006 to plant gardens and start their family.

In 2008, Vergen and Osepchook built and moved into a new home across the field. Five years later, embers blown from an ash can plunked in a snow bank sparked the fire that burned the home to the ground.

“It felt like we had worked really hard to get to where we were at that point,” Osepchook says. “Jesse had been working 70 to 80 hour weeks, I was raising two babies born 18 months apart. I felt like we lost it all.”

“It was our dream house,” Vergen adds. “We literally had built the house we wanted and we were only in it for five years. It was like ‘This is our dream house going up in flames.’”

Saint John, N.B., interior designer Judith Mackin stepped in to help the couple redesign and re-furnish, while visual artist and Rothesay, N.B., architect Jill Higgins helped shape the structure of their new home, set for construction atop the original concrete foundation.

Because the first structure was their dream home, the couple wanted to use the original footprint as a base plan for the new house. Osepchook realized that the project presented a once-in-a-lifetime chance: to rebuild their dream house even better than it had been before.

“That’s when I started to get excited,” Osepchook says.

The couple sat down to map out the new build with Higgins, a family friend who was familiar with their old home. “This time, [Osepchook] got to enjoy the process of figuring out layout and what worked well for them as a family,” Higgins says.

Built by Quispamsis-based Queen Construction, the new house features 12-foot cathedral ceilings and transoms above the main floor windows. The extra height allowed for taller windows, filling the space with natural light.

Notable design changes to the 3,000-square-foot, four bedroom, two-storey home included: a larger master with a walk-in closet; a new basement office space to stop Vergen’s documents from dominating the dining room; a privacy wall and roof added to the patio; and a massive, carpeted loft lounge space above the garage for the children.

Mackin, owner of Saint John design firm Punch Inside and décor shop Tuck Studio, says that the Vergen-Osepchook home wasn’t an average residential design project.

“Because they’d just gone through such a traumatic experience in their lives, it was even more important to me that the new home be extra special and bring elements in that spoke to the history of the land,” Mackin says.

The couple’s original home sat on a slight hill, bordered by thick woods and a roadway, overlooking the old homestead, pasture, barn, and outbuildings. The property offered a unique design opportunity for the rebuild, says Mackin, who proposed they bring the outside in. Mackin, Osepchook, and Vergen combed through the barn, sheds, and an old house on the property in search of pieces that could be easily repurposed. They discovered a few gems, including a handbuilt, mixed-wood table that sits in the family’s new dining room, accented by modern chairs.

Saint John-based Elevation Contractors used a pile of discarded pine headboards and footboards from Vergen’s childhood bed (wood cut and milled by his father, Gary Vergen) to create the base of a living wall and a half-wall railing in the main living area. The vertical houseplant garden is composed of four pine platforms and eight planters, all donated by small-space décor company, Urbio.

Loose boards gathered from around the barn, lacquered in a high-gloss white, form a wraparound feature wall, also by Elevation Contractors. Reclaimed wood is now a contemporary design staple, but Mackin convinced the couple to opt for an understated tone atop the rustic texture. “Sometimes you can be too literal in a reclaimed sense,” she says “When you look out onto the property, you see the authentic wood in its raw state on the barn. Now inside you focus on the texture, rather than the colour.”

Where colour splashed every room of the old home, the new space is mostly white. A classic, clean base colour keeps the aesthetic simple and easily adaptable should the family want to change décor or add colourful patterns in the future.

“A lot of people are scared of white, initially. They think white isn’t a colour, it’s stark, it’s modern,” says Mackin. “The minute that you keep everything clean, white, and pristine, it allows all the other elements to pop, lighting, nice pieces of furniture. There’s a real airiness.”

The functional chef’s kitchen is the heartbeat of the home. It was at the top of Vergen’s wish list in the rebuild.

Built by Rothesay-based Bishop’s Windows and Doors, it’s outfitted with GE Monogram series appliances, including a four-burner gas range with centre griddle, stainless steel backsplash, pot filler, and custom exhaust system. Walnut butcher’s block counters by Beamer’s Creek Woodworking in Hampton, N.B., sit atop classic white shaker cabinets, and a deep stainless steel farmer’s sink serves as an all-important basin for rinsing black earth from garden veggies or cleaning fresh-caught mackerel.

A massive island topped by a custom stainless steel surface, made by Quispamsis metal fabricator Michael Scott, serves as Vergen’s central workstation. It’s where the avid hunter regularly butchers freshly killed livestock and game, such as chickens, ducks, and deer.

“A kitchen-living space is the most used spot in the house,” Vergen says. “It should be the centre of the house. It goes back to the older days of the hearth: living, eating, prepping, and preserving food. All those different elements are a central focus of our family.”

Geometric, industrial-inspired pendant lighting supplied by Tuck Studio hangs on the main floor. The walls are peppered with Higgins’ original oil paintings.

Area contractor Wayne McClusky installed flooring from Saint John Ritchie’s Building and Flooring Centre, a light ash grain laminate flooring and simple grey ceramic tiling on the main floor. In keeping with the home’s relaxed energy, the durable flooring was a cost-effective, practical choice.

Knowing the family well, Makin says the flooring had to play a key functional role. “They don’t live a precious lifestyle,” she says. “They hunt, they garden, they’ve got kids running in and out, dogs. They don’t tread lightly through their home. It was important to choose materials that would withstand a busy, active family.”

This particular day appears to illustrate the sentiment. The kids and their friends make endless, leaping laps from floor-to-floor; a steady stream of visitors tap on the front door, and the family dog announces every arrival.

The only salvageable element from the fire, the concrete foundation, is arguably, the new home’s unlikely pièce de résistance. Saint John B&N Flooring polished and finished the slab, which now offers the basement a surprising warmth and eye-catching contemporary element.

“I said, ‘Let’s celebrate those floors, the one thing that didn’t get destroyed in the fire,” says Mackin. “Let’s polish them and just have a beautiful concrete floor.’” In modern builds, she says, homeowners request concrete floors because the material is warm, but it’s also expensive.

Ospechook pauses in front of the glowing wood stove by Valley Home and Hearth Shop of Rothesay and points to a quote stenciled on the adjacent wall. It reads “Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.”

The words seem to define their journey, she says.

“It was very eye-opening. We had so much stuff, and it’s really just stuff at the end of the day,” Osepchook says. “When it comes down to it and you end up with nothing, you realize what’s important are the people around you.”

“One of the biggest things out of this was the realization that material things come and go,” Vergen added. “At the end of the day, what we’ve built is something more than material.”