Tag Archives: Chantecler

Musings on Toronto’s Chef legacy

Not to flog a well-ridden horse (ok, I will)  but I’ve been meaning to get back to posting about the Terroir 2012 conference  and while looking through my notes got to thinking about the dialogue surrounding the 50 Best Restaurants List.   There was outrage, insult and a lot of defensiveness felt at Canada’s chefs being excluding from the rankings.

I read a few interesting opinions as to why we are being “overlooked”  and even why we may not yet deserve to be there.  Some writers seemed to feel that cuisine in Toronto (or across Canada) is very good, excellent even, but  plays it too safe– no real risks are being taken.  Or perhaps not enough.  Maybe this is partially due to clientele.  A restaurant has to survive in an incredibly tough business.  A kitchen must cater somewhat to the palates (and wallets) of the customers as much as the chef may be dying to expand his diners’ comfort zone.

On my initial visit to Chantecler in April I asked which dishes were the “hits”.  The answer was “depends who you ask”.  The regular customers had certain faves and the industry people who ate there had others.

All of this was running through my head as I thought back to the Terroir 2012  “Culinary and Drink Trends” session.  The first half seemed to focus more on food trends in general than just drinks, and a fascinating conversation evolved about where cuisine in Toronto was headed.  Grant Van Gameren, executive chef at Enoteca Sociale (formerly of Black Hoof fame) was very outspoken and raised some interesting questions about the legacy of Toronto’s chefs as leaders.

He said that as new interests develop and old trends fade (so long charcuterie) we need more chef-leaders in the city. A lot of  small restaurants are being opened by newer, younger chefs and a lot of the “grandfathers” are doing TV.  Which wasn’t a criticism, just a question about who is out there teaching these new up and comers?  In Van Gameren’s opinion, “we’re in a 5-year block of transition” to what our food scene is going to be.  And which of these younger guys/gals is going to still be around?

He went on to say that the need to break free, expand your creativity in your own kitchen is understandable but are 27 and 28-year-old chefs ready to set the pace for the next generation?  He suggested that many chefs in Toronto need to travel more, stage more around the world.  Get a more international perspective.  Right now no one in Toronto is doing much to stand out.

He even singled himself out saying sometimes that when he is mentoring his crew, he will find himself wondering what more he can learn–so he can better lead those under him.

Van Gameren also acknowledged that in order to sustain a groundbreaking restaurant like Chicago’s Alinea in Toronto you would need investors to take on the risk and also the local support of Toronto’s diners–people need to be willing to shell out cash for more than just comfort food.

He pointed out that a lot of the smaller places opening these days take on the same formula– reclaimed wood, edison bulbs and copper accents–and some chefs do serve  avant-garde cuisine in these cozy rooms–but often the stereo is blasting so loud you can barely hear your server describing, with great care, the dish you’re about to eat.

Which brings me back to the type of restaurants that are featured on the Top 50 list; true “fine-dining” venues with a less laid-back atmosphere.  Places where the chefs are moving cuisine forward, maybe even before the diner is ready to take the leap.  Though hopefully they have enough faith to jump.

Do we have these kind of leaders (and diners)  in Toronto? In Canada?  I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens next year.  Or in the next five.

For some interesting perspectives on the Top 50 list (and how it’s is judged) you can check out these links:

Lesley Chesterman, The Montreal Gazette

Chris Nuttall-Smith, The Globe and Mail

Adrian Brijbassi, Vacay.ca

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Chantecler: Kitchen Party coming to Brock and Queen

Chantecler partners Jonathan Poon and Jacob Wharton-Shukster outside the new digs

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.

Chantecler in the works

Chantecler in the works (Dec 2011)

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.

Moffat Stoves: A nod to the classics at Chantecler

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.

Chantecler: A French Canadian Heritage Chicken

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.)

Jonathan Poon in the kitchen on Boxing Day at the Monday Night Dinner Series. (Courtesy of photographer: Nick Merzetti)

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).

1320 Queen Street West (at Brock)

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


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