Back in the days when I was working in the kitchen, Chef and I would regularly belly ache about our outsider status—we simply did not register on Toronto’s food-hipster radar. We were (and still are) a good restaurant. What we lacked was cool. Judging by my twitter feed, there appeared to be a sort of camaraderie among the downtown restaurants. This included booze-fuelled cooking competitions, collaborative themed events and plenty of Instagram bro shots and pics of each others creatively plated shit. Vice Media had started following the hottest chefs around with cameras. You can watch videos on YouTube of them getting drunk in other hip restaurants, raving about the good eats and then stumbling into the kitchens to chum it up with the cooks on duty, creating a self-propagating miasma of cool-chef tom-fuckery wherever they went. The Beech Tree wasn’t part of that world—I would sometimes work myself into a frothy rage if I thought about it too much.
“We’re not allowed in their club, Bab. Does that make you jealous? ” Chef would taunt. He was right. I wasn’t some young gun swaggering in front of a millennial’s digital cam. I was an old goat. I think Chef got a sick thrill from poking at my insecurities. Regardless, I took solace in the fact that I knew he too was insecure about the lacklustre cool-quotient of The Beech Tree. He wasn’t in their fucking club either.
What made one place cool and another not cool? Why did it feel like The Beech Tree wasn’t cool? Sure, we weren’t downtown. We were on the wrong side of the Don River. But it couldn’t just be our far out-of-the-way residential neighbourhood. I knew that our food and cocktails were excellent—I stood behind our product all the way (and still do). Our customers, mostly locals, loved us, but the Toronto food sphere generally ignored us. Was our music lame? Did our decor look a little too Coronation Street? Was it the lack of subways rumbling beneath our feet? Was I the common denominator—a fortyish, neurotic, married father of two with no tats? I wanted to know. So in those first few years of The Beech Tree’s life, Chef and I ventured out to some of the buzziest downtown restaurants to sample the food and do some low-key reconnaissance.
One of our expeditions took place on a snowy winter night in 2014. We were going to check out the latest ‘it’ joint: Bar Isabel. Executive Chef Grant Van Gameren, was an inked-up kid with hound dog eyes and a penchant for Spanish nosh. He had cut his teeth as a partner at the now famous charcuterie joint, the Black Hoof. Isabel, however, was all about Grant. There’s a pretty well-circulated photo of Van Gameren taken by Toronto Life Magazine; he’s lying flat on his back atop the colourful tiled floor of his restaurant, arms propped behind his head, tattoos on full display, making come-fuck-me eyes to the camera. That photo alone drove us nuts. We wanted to hate him and we wanted to hate his restaurant. Bar Isabel’s kitchen was open late on Sunday, so I booked a table for 11 pm. We grabbed a cab that night after our own Sunday dinner service had concluded and headed downtown.
We found an unassuming storefront adorned only by single cursive line of neon. Beyond the wooden door was a crowded, slightly too-warm space. The tables were mismatched marble and polished wood. The ceiling was vaulted, the curvature of a Spanish country church. The floor tiles, mismatched like the tables, were kaleidoscopic and vaguely Arabic looking. I recognized them from the photo of Van Gameren on the floor. Cheap courtesan’s red lanterns hung dimly from the ceiling. The music was very loud. The space throbbed with a sort of vibrant Iberian energy. It was the antithesis of my restaurant.
Chef and I were seated at a small round table giving us a full view of the room. For a few moments we did nothing but look about in envious wonder. My gaze moved over to the bar which was made of a golden-coloured wood. Three bartenders were shaking cocktails, the rattle of the ice cubes adding to the cacophony of the chatter and the pulsating music. A sudden burst of laughter could be heard form a dark corner filled with sleek young women clinking glasses. Everywhere I looked I saw beautiful, well dressed people. But I had thought it was industry night—where the hell were the dirty drunken cooks with burn scars and surly attitudes? Where were the gossiping servers spending their tips? I looked across at Chef’s furrowed brow as he scanned the menu; he had yet to remove his bulging goose down jacket. It looked like a shiny life preserver. I caught my reflection in a mirror behind him. My hair was messy and damp; I had been on grill for our Sunday service. I probably reeked of grease. My glasses were dirty. Shit, I realized I was wearing an argyle sweater. We were a couple of misfits—not meant to be in such a place. I suddenly wished I had a bunch of tattoos on my forearms. Or a nose ring. Or something. Anything. I looked like a fucking math teacher.
As was our custom, we started with beer. At Bar Isabel, the beer was expensive and you got less of it. Someone had to pay for those beautiful tiles. The server, one of several bearded young men, informed us that the special for the night was hay-baked rabbit with a cauliflower. He called it a rabbit porchetta, which didn’t make sense to me. We ordered it anyway, along with a collection of tapas including patatas bravas and some kind of marinated pork skewers. We especially wanted to try the octopus, the buzzed-about signature dish of Bar Isabel. At the time, there was a small controversy around the dish. Van Gameren had got into a public pissing match with someone in an online forum who accused him of ripping off customers with the steep price of his famous octopus. “If you’ve discovered a way to cook octopus without losing half its net weight in the process, I would love for you to enlighten me,” Van Gameren had written angrily to the disgruntled diner. It seemed a bad move for a chef to get drawn into an online forum, but he leaped into the fray with the abandon of a brawling drunk. Last I looked, any evidence of this online dust up had been scrubbed clean from the Internet; perhaps hindsight compelled him to back off.
Eventually the food arrived. We had opted for the half octopus–the whole animal would have busted our modest budget. The Octo was brilliant, living up to all the hype. It had a beautiful blackened char and it was presented on an ornate platter. The shit was legit. It was expensive though; thirty dollars for a few smoky bites. The pork skewers were lame, we both agreed and not worth the money. The patatas bravas were my favourite of the tapas, especially spicy from jalapenos with some generous hunks of boudin noir nestled in the bowl. I showed Chef a picture on my cell phone of a dish I had made two years previously which was almost precisely the same thing – potatoes, Donato Macina chillies and in my case, English black pudding—not the most common collection of things. I joked that Van Gameren must have read my old blog and ripped me off. As preposterous as the notion was, Chef didn’t disagree with me. We knocked back a few more drinks, feeling mentally loose but starting to get physically full. We still had an entire rabbit to tackle. 1:00 am rolled around, and somehow the restaurant seemed even more crowded.
Eventually a server arrived carrying a large earthenware dish and placed it on our table and removed the lid. A dramatic puff of steam burst out and immediately the smell of roasted meat hit us. Served with the rabbit was a whole cauliflower. I didn’t typically like cauliflower, a hangover from my childhood, and assumed Chef would eat most of it. We were to serve ourselves the rabbit, family-style onto our own terra-cotta Spanish plates. It was utterly perfect. The rabbit had been boned out rolled up like an Italian porchetta, which I suppose is why they referred to it as such (was this supposed to be Spanish?). The flesh was tender, succulent and did not suffer any of the usual setbacks of such a lean animal. I could be wrong, but I suspected pork fat somehow played a role, echoing the porchetta concept; certainly not a Kosher bunny. The wine flavour was pronounced, I had a feeling they may have splashed a bit of raw wine in with the cooked-out wine at the end to give it some fragrant punch. The jammy, boozy pong of the wine (or actually…was it cider? …maybe…it’s been a few years) paired well with the rich aroma of bay leaves and something else, maybe juniper I thought, and gave the whole dish an ancient flavour. I was going to ignore the cauliflower, but it was throwing off a beguiling aroma so I decided to try a tentative bite or two. I am glad that I did. I have never tasted cauliflower like that I have not since. Chef tried it and we both looked at each other in wonder. What the fuck did they do to this? It had none of those earthy, coarse tasting notes to it, but instead was buttery, nutty, and creamy. It had the mildness of a potato, but sweet, like celeriac or parsnip, even a bit of artichoke. Chef and I, despite being quite engorged from all the tapas, emptied and practically licked clean the ceramic vessel. The bearded server came around to clear our plates.
“Is Grant cooking tonight?” I asked, immediately hating myself for calling him by his first name, like I fucking knew him or something. Chef stabbed me directly in the spleen with his eye daggers. Sure, a poor move on my part, but Christ, I’d given up everything to own a stupid restaurant. Why could I not hobnob with Toronto’s cooks? Were we not brothers and sisters in arms? Why was I not part of their club? It was that old Beech Tree inferiority complex. Despite my nakedly sad attempt to be part of the cool kid club, the server remained warm and personable.
“No Brandon is running the kitchen tonight,” he answered.
Of course, I would later learn that Van Gameren was rarely in the Bar Isabelle kitchen. At the time, he was busy working on his next project—a wood-panelled Hobbit-house on College Street called Bar Raval.
“I was curious about how he cooked that cauliflower,” I mumbled.
“I’m glad you liked it; Brandon would be happy to answer your questions. Let me go see if I can grab him.” This surprised me—an unlikely turn of events. I watched the server disappeared into the kitchen. I assumed he was referring to Brandon Olsen, the chef de cuisine; a Black Hoof alumni like Van Gameren. Interestingly he also had worked at Rain in the early 2000’s, the Rubino Brothers’ restaurant. Chef’s first job in Toronto had been to cook under one of Rain’s original chefs– that was only two degrees of separation. I hadn’t thought of it before. The server was back in a matter of moments. “Okay guys, you can come with me,” he said.
“I’ll hang back and finish my drink, you go ahead Bab,” Chef said, suddenly reserved. I stopped for a moment. Why didn’t he want to come with me? I wondered. Maybe the connection between Chef and Brandon was closer than I thought and he didn’t want to be recognized. Maybe he was humbled and embarrassed that a cook who was likely younger than him was working in such an amazing place. I wasn’t sure, but at that moment, didn’t really care. I was boasting drunken bravado and really eager to meet one of the ‘cool’ chefs. I got up and followed the server into the kitchen.
The Bar Isabel kitchen was predictably grandiose. Relative to most commercial kitchens it was a veritable air plane hangar with neat rows of smooth maple work spaces. The walls were clad in shiny white subway tile with grey grout, just like my own kitchen at home and there were countless expensive looking stainless steel ovens and other machinery. I noticed an Iberico ham mounted in a steel gondola (called a jamonero). It still had the bristly, cloven hoof attached. The ham had been carved down to the bone on one side, and despite the fact that I couldn’t eat another bite; its pink succulent flesh looked terribly appetizing. The kitchen was bustling with more bearded, tattooed guys with trendy leather aprons worn over t-shirts. Not a double-breasted chef jacket in sight. The kitchen printer was firing constantly, tickets busting out of it; more money in the bank. The server called Brandon over.
“Hey Brandon, this guy has a question,” He said. Brandon wiped his hands and approached with a warm smile. He looked young, younger than me and younger than Chef. He was wearing a trucker hat on his head. On his left arm was an elaborate tattoo of a smiling, cartoon pig being fed into a hand cranked meat grinder. It suddenly occurred to me that my Chef did not have a single tattoo, likely the only cook in the city that didn’t. Why didn’t he have any tattoos? Maybe that’s our problem.
“Hey, how you doing?” He asked, extending his hand to shake mine.
“Good, good, thanks. I tried that cauliflower, it was amazing. I wanted to know how you cooked it. I own a restaurant; I’m always checking things out. This place is great,” I stopped, realizing I was babbling like an idiot. Brandon never lost his smile.
“What’s your restaurant called?” He asked. I told him. He had never heard of it. I told him I loved the rabbit dish again, especially the cauliflower. I asked how they made it.
“Yeah, well, it’s pretty simple, man. We just roasted off the cauliflower with the hay, olive oil, you know that kind of stuff.”
“You didn’t use sous vide or anything? I asked.
“Heh, nahh, it’s really simple dude.” He said, gracefully batting down my question and dodging details. I figured he was concealing his secret, so I stopped pressing. I told him about my restaurant, how we had slaved to make our burger right, that our bun recipe came from a London steakhouse and that we made our own flat bread.
“That’s sick,” he said. From his tone, I had to assume ‘sick’ was a good thing and not the bad thing that the actual word suggested. I suddenly felt very old. “Hey man, take this,” Brandon grabbed a loaf of bread off the counter and handed it to me. “We’re baking these in our new ovens.” I took the loaf, football shaped; it was light, crusty and beautiful.
“Thanks, thanks a lot,” I said feeling humbled. “Thanks for talking to me.”
“It’s all good. I’ll come check out your place sometime, what’s it called again? The Peach Tree?” He asked.
“Beech. Beech Tree,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s it.” He said, as another cook came up to him with a question, the printer sounded like an assault rifle on full auto. I figured I shouldn’t take any more of his time. The server who had been standing by the whole time (who was watching his tables?) escorted me out to the dining room, handing me a paper bag for my bread. I sat back at the table. Chef was looking bored, and probably a little drunk. I held up the bread.
“Look what I scored,” I said.
“Let me guess, the kitchen was awesome, wasn’t it?” He asked
“You don’t want to know,” I said, realizing that Chef could up and leave me any day to work in such an amazing kitchen. We paid the astronomically high bill for rustic poor man’s food and then left. I realized if I ever wished to have a ‘cool’ restaurant I would need hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it right. The ovens alone in Bar Isabel’s kitchen were probably worth more than my entire restaurant. How could I ever hope to own a place as amazing as Bar Isabel, and to think its chef/owner was younger than me and likely didn’t have student loans to pay off. I brooded in the cab all the way home.
Early the next morning, I walked in to my empty restaurant and reassessed. I looked at the damask wall paper wrapped around the room—peacock blue with gold accents. I remember working till 1:00 am hanging it the night before our soft launch. I examined the dark, austere cabinetry behind the bar, almost saloon-like in its simplicity. I had stained it myself. The chairs were upholstered with a staple gun in Victoria and Albert style paisleys that Dorothy had picked out. My book case stood resolutely at the back of the room, bowing under the weight of my cookbooks. The brass lantern on the top shelf was an artifact from my late uncle. There were a couple of shabby little landscape prints on the wall that Dorothy and I had bought at an outdoor art show. My kids had helped choose the cushions arranged on the wooden benches running along the far wall. It wasn’t a restaurant. It was my fucking living room.
I walked through the swinging door to the kitchen. All was quiet except for the hum of the refrigerators. The room smelled of pine cleaner and fryer grease. It was a small kitchen; so small in fact, that during service, the dishy could stack clean plates on to the pass by merely pivoting on one foot. We had no fancy ceramic tiles. No maple work surfaces. No jamonero. Although our equipment was clean and perfectly functional, it was as unremarkable as private’s mess kit. I opened one of the fridges to find neat stacks of plastic 500’s, carefully labelled with Chef’s writing. Or sometimes my hand writing. This wasn’t a restaurant kitchen. It was my kitchen. It was Chef’s kitchen. It was not an eating establishment; it was my home.
The first official review of my restaurant was by NOW magazine. The photographer they sent snapped a shot of me wearing my argyle sweater, holding aloft one of our dishes. No, I wasn’t lying down on the floor in some sexy pose on cool tiles, my forearms aren’t covered in tattoos. Even the headline for the review kind of hit below the belt: “Not the Trendiest Trat’ in Town”. Ouch. Regardless, the late Steve Davey, the guy who reviewed us, loved the food and drinks. He was surprised by what he had found way out in our little strip of Kings Highway Number 2. Expectations are low when people walk into my place. It’s probably best I keep them that way. We almost always surprise people with the calibre of our plates and drinks. I’ve never had to wrestle with ‘hype’ or ‘expectation’. That must be a good thing.
The infamous NOW Magazine Shot.