Happy 2012! Time to discover a new place to get fed in Toronto. Racing to open in February, Chantecler can only be called a labour of love (with emphasis on the labour part). Chef Jonathan Poon and partner Jacob Wharton-Shukster (who will run front of house) spend every moment –between full-time jobs– doing renos on their new place. When Jonathan brings me by for a sneak peek Jacob is slightly sawdusty and torn between a dozen stain options for the long bar which will run down one side of the room.
This 26 seat modern bistro will have small tables opposite the bar seating and tables in the front window that can accomodate a larger group (up to 8). Cozy with high ceilings, the 450 ft dining room is attached to a dream 250 ft prep kitchen in the back.
Your first nod of appreciation will come when seeing the stove tops. Poon and crew will be cooking not on gas burners but on electric. Vintage electric. Jonathan shows me where the two stoves will go. A 1952 cream-coloured Moffat stove will be in the back kitchen and the other, a butter-yellow 1935 model will be used during service in the restaurant. When I say “in the restaurant” yes, I mean the concept is open kitchen but even more kitchen party. The prep area in the back will be visible but if you’re sitting at the bar you might be beside the pass, privvy to dishes being plated or sipping wine while the cook at garde manger is dressing a salad inches from your elbow. Similar experiences can be found in the city but in this intimate space the idea is that the chef can step into the role of attentive host, even saucing your plate tableside.
The name Chantecler comes from a heritage chicken breed from Quebec. Most obvious is the tie in to Canada and local ingredients. But the two partners also wanted a name that had a classic feel and longevity. A restaurant whose cooking would be creative and dynamic enough to impress the critics and foodies while also implying a warmth of service, good food and a sense of comraderie.
As for the menu– Jacob and JP have termed their food Progressive Canadian Cuisine. “Inspired by global influence, using modern techniques and local ingredients,” says Jonathan– following with, “so pretty much whatever I want.” As for the booze? “We’re focusing on natural wines and sourcing from small scale producers local and abroad. We’ll also be doing some good old fashion cocktails.”
I met Jonathan while working in the kitchen at Colborne Lane. It was the first place I worked in Toronto after returning from cooking school in London. In my first week JP simply asked if I could prepare a large bowl of tomato concassé to help with his prep. I was so paranoid of the perfection of every small cube I culled any rejects enthusiastically with the resulting concassé having to be redone as there was barely enough flesh left to rebuild one full tomato. Often we would ride the subway home together after service and he would tell me about his early love of cooking and baking (he’s equally talented at both). At 16 he was preparing bread and baked goods out of his home (in the wee hours) and selling it fresh-baked to local bakeries- 170 pieces a day . (Meanwhile I once spent a satisfying evening as a teenager putting chocolate icing on my face. I later learned to make cake.)
JP has gone on to cook in many kitchens in the city such as C5, Delux and is currently at Woodlot. In between 15 hour shifts he and Jacob (who currently works as a server at Origin) started organizing The Monday Night Dinner series, a bi-weekly event which gives upcoming new chefs a chance to get creative and serve their own menu. Organizing the Monday Night Dinners is no easy task–Poon’s found himself skinning rabbits at 2 am after a regular shift at Woodlot or riding down the street on a bike with 17 ducks on his back. (Take that Cirque de Soleil craft service).
Currently you’ll only be able to recognize Chantecler by the distinctive artwork covering the front window. It’s courtesy of Jonathan and Jacob’s friend Allister Lee who’ll also be doing the sign design (in between helping with the reno.) When Chantecler opens reservations will be taken for about half the space, but for myself, I’m going to offer to sand some drywall and see if it gets me onto the VIP list.
You can follow Chantecler’s progress on twitter @chanteclerto