I’m chef mark McEwan for 40 years. The kitchen has been my world creating cooking eating drinking entertaining growing and teaching Now I’m searching out other chefs to share their stories their food and finding out what drives them What I’m looking for is unfiltered an inside. Look at what it takes to be a chef Organic and unscripted outside all the fame and glamour prepare yourself for something different I’m meeting with Chef Grant van Gameren today at his restaurant Bar Isabel one of his five successful Toronto spots Grant’s unique career path and entrepreneurial attitude should make for an interesting conversation Cool, it’s always good to see your restaurant when it’s shut down I like that So Grant van Gameren you’re busy guy A little bit. You’re a busy guy man. You’ve done a lot in the last number of years Yeah, it’s been, ah it’s been a long run, I guess the last eight years, eight years since I opened my first restaurant You’re how old now? 35. 35, married having my first kid on the way opening five businesses this year Yeah, it kinda blew me away, how many spots you, you opened. I never really wanted to be a chef for me it was… Cooking was always out of necessity. My mother died when I was 11. My father raised three kids, you know, we regularly ate hungry man TV dinners. I never really got into food, for me, I’ve always been a very excessive person. So when I get into something I get into it and, ah… Cooking Um, you know started at Pizza Pizza, veal sandwich joints. And then before you knew it, I was you know, my early 20s and All my friends were graduating University with engineering degrees. – right and I didn’t even have a bank account. I was still catching my cheques at Money Mart. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but you used to be a rapper I used to be a rapper, yeah. Is that on chef database? Do you have videos of yourself? I did actually shoot two music videos, but I have it on my will actually because everyone wants to see it so I put on my will that When I die these videos will be released at my funeral, so. Then we’ll see the full broadcast, right? If you’re still around then. That’s hilarious. Well, you were like a cool kid. Yeah. I was a skateboarder, rapper, you know soccer player Ditched the rapping thing went into snake breeding. Snake breeding? So, my old Parkdale apartment, bachelor apartment I used to have like 50 snakes. – That’s kind of strange. Yeah, yeah! – So, so when you brought women home to your apartment… Yeah, yeah. – It was full of reptiles? and rats. How did that go? It was uh, it was uh 50-50 I think it was the breeding the rats in the closet, which was more of an issue for them but again Excessive nature. I got one snake and within six months. I had a website I was captive breeding, you know, some of the most endangered species of snakes from around the world And so that’s the same kind of mindset
that I’ve put for restaurants It’s you know, just being hyper aware and really understanding. I think looking… Underneath that first, second, you know, third layer of what people are actually doing You know, I’ve had a lot of debates with my partners, you know over coffee cups You know a three-day debate over what style of coffee cups. By doing that you eventually get to the best choice So you’ve had a really sort of an unorthodox training but I think the type of training you’ve had Is incredibly positive because it teaches you sort of the nuts and bolts of the restaurant business I never went to culinary school but I’m also jealous of people who have gone to culinary school because there are things that I don’t know that are basic things That someone would learn in the first week of culinary school All I’ve learned is what I’ve done what I’ve taught myself or what I’ve been taught so, you know in that respect I’m jealous But let’s be honest real-life Situations is where you get the bulk of your learning. When I took a job at canoe I thought I was hot shit. And I thought I knew everything I was a sous-chef at, you know an Italian restaurant for four years Fettuccine alfredo in pizzas, you know. I thought that was it. I thought that was cooking. That’s the food I knew so I went into canoe, you know a big hotshot demanding like the highest, you know hourly rate that they that they give and you know They put me on garde manger and all of a sudden like what are all these ingredients What is it about young chefs when they know a little bit they get really cocky. What, what is that with chefs? I don’t understand it. I think yeah, I mean all the time like I’ve had you know chefs come in here who have been cooking a year. And I’m like, what are your goals and they’re like I want to do a TV show and a cookbook You know what? I mean and it’s like wow, that’s your goal, like? I show them the door instantly when, when I hear that. People don’t understand what the business is. A lot of people are attracted to it not because it looks very interesting from the outside like You know come in to Grant van Gameren’s world Yeah It’s all about cool food cool vibe and they get in there and they don’t know what a service is. Like, service is tough. Yeah, it’s not glamorous being a being a cook like glamour is like 5% of it, right? The rest is like a kick in the head So, that’s really the hard part is finding these soldiers, that can actually fight the fight every day Yeah, and that also have you know dreams and aspirations and like a head on their shoulders The Black Hoof was your first ownership? Yeah I think it was like the first restaurant that really like, you know amplified its no reservations loud rock music Do yourself design. It was this kind of like modern high-end molecular gastronomy restaurant with like a house maitre create plate you are like the perfect example of rising up through the swamp And, and actually achieving something that’s really interesting So I look at you as a chef, but I look at you as a, as an entrepreneur as well I think so. I think like the chef for me What I’m realizing now is the chef is really like the stepping stone and I’ve always been strategic, you know Do you want a coffee? Would love one. I’m not the best at making coffee. But… All right. It’s hot. You actually know how to use the machine? Yeah, a little bit. Usually someone makes me a coffee, but what’s funny, you know the more the more you own the less you actually do In terms of the physical nature. Yeah, that’s why I look for opportunities of bringing my managers you know or my top chefs into ownership roles and I think that’s what I growing up as a cook. I didn’t get from my chefs So I’m very conscious of those decisions. It’s like, you know media comes it’s like hey take a picture of me and my chef It’s funny how a lot of the media doesn’t want that though. They don’t if no one knows this person, they, they don’t want to put it in and I remember Joanne Kates was reviewing Hoof Cafe And the chef there was Geoff Hopgood. I remember emailing Joanne Kates this big Globe and Mail review I was like, please just so you know, you know 90% of the menu is Geoff Hopgood, a glowing review came out. It didn’t say a word about Geoff. A food reviewer’s job is to set the tone for these new up-and-coming chefs And how are we ever gonna get to know the new people? My goal is that I become anonymous. Again the media will always push back They always want you in the equation and they sort of drop all this stuff and they don’t really pay a lot of attention so you’re you’re very brave to To want to highlight all these people in your operations Well, I mean you still have to market yourself, but I want people to come to Bar Isabel and Bar Raval for the restaurants I don’t want your experience to be any different if I’m in the kitchen or not. I’m no longer the product anymore You know, it’s, I’m a little bit of the brains But I’m looking forward to seeing the next star bartender. You’re the entrepreneur You’re the guy that creates the business opportunity now I do want to give you a little bit of a taste of what really excites me In our restaurant. I’d love to see your kitchen. So yeah, we’ll check out the kitchen here and say hello to the crew. Yeah, this is our kitchen, you know gets a little jammy on a Friday night, but We don’t we don’t wear the traditional chef’s uniforms here. How many online for service, you think? Instead of having less cooks and doing a shittier service we prepare for it and we get it out We get it out quick, you know. Can you pass me the muscles We got these, we got this. This is where the inspiration came just from travelling Spain and kind of you know learning the appreciation of canned seafood. I think in Canada Everyone looks at like canned tunas like the poor man’s food Whereas in Spain, these are the highly prized delicacies Certain ones we do better. I think, like homemade stuff We do like tuna mussels and we’ll get these fresh anchovies in from Italy. And then we brine them cure them soak them in vinegar. You’d really have to educate people as to what it is. They’re indulging in. The idea with this is to harvest something in the peak of its season so that you can enjoy it You know year-round, right? Why don’t we start with the most expensive like Berberechos , it’s.. they’re cockles They’re just absolutely perfect It’s a flavor… the flavors are so rich and and round and the mussels. Look at these clams, clams are one of my favourite things to eat. You know each one of these little squid is cleaned And then stuffed. You know, it’s just so natural. You wouldn’t want to add anything to this. Oh for sure What uh, what about your restaurants? Food-wise I… I try to be as, as Best in category as I can in terms of the product we buy. The meat we buy. We try to be as genuine as we can on every single front I’ve always tried to be a risk-taker I’ve always tried to go against the grain or do something new and I think when you believe in something and you really want to Show it people can receive it well. I like not doing the same thing as everyone else I think that’s what makes us a little bit unique Canned seafood. Who would have thought eh? Go figure. Go figure, man. What aggravates me the most is that people Second-guess my intentions of why I’m doing this. A lot of them think I’m just backed by, you know, a big financial investor Which I’m not, you know, I just remortgaged my house two weeks ago to pay for our creative office space Because I don’t have a financial investor. Hey Alex, are you doing the baseboards first? I have never felt more stressed and more overworked and more broke Than I am in this moment, you know, and I’m supposed to be on top of the world Is this a new line? Yeah, we can run it anywhere through here. As long as we have heat When I opened North 44 I spent double the budget I had. Mm-hmm. I hocked everything at the bank I actually had my parents condo as collateral. I leased this building I ended uptearing the whole building apart And I was standing in the basement that I’ve dug out and underpinned and resurfaced And I’m looking up and it’s snowing on my head in November and I thought what the fuck did I just do to myself? This was gonna be my… I thought it was my tomb. There’s no going back There’s no going back right. Not many people know this about me, but I… During that Noma craze, you know forging and all that kind of stuff. I Shut down the hoof cafe to open a fine-dining restaurant of a tasting menu Restaurant that was gonna be like 21 courses opened three days a week and a week before opening I realized I woke up one day I was like, you know what this food is not the food I like to eat Do not get sucked up by trends or what other people are doing around you Because that’s what they’re doing It’s like really think about what you should be doing and I totally was a sucker at the same time I’m very happy that I decided not to go through with it. Every single time you do a project you You think it’s gonna go perfectly because you’ve done it before and you can’t anticipate everything. Yeah All right, so you’ve got to be on the balls of your feet every single time you do something. Yeah. You can never lean back. I’m like super insecure every project it like drives me crazy, and I also think that’s part of the success Is that because of this unconfident sometimes You know, you’re just more aware of where you can make mistakes, you might overthink things, but it’s better than under thinking so You know every new project to me, it’s like the reality of failure is right there. It’s right in front of you. Tell me a little bit about your last, your last venture that is up and running now, which is Harry’s. Harry’s. Yeah So I grew up in Parkdale I grew up in the Jameson buildings there Used to go to this diner that was down the street and so when this place I heard that it was for sale or might be for sale I jumped at the opportunity because I had been going there for so long and I thought how cool would it be for us to take It over and reinterpret it and give it a new life for another 50 years It was really just a move, you know just built on like love and passion and memories and kind of Very nostalgic for you. For sure and for them and for the community. To be honest, that’s the restaurant I feel the most comfortable in. Even though it came from so much love and passion Immediately. We got shit on by the public, you know So I was just instantly again assumptions. Like what what the hell is Grant doing? Like all of us guys moving into Parkdale It’s like how Parkdale how much of a Parkdalien. Do you have to be to invest in your own neighborhood? So where was the inspiration for Pretty Ugly? Pretty Ugly is just a cocktail bar. So it really had nothing to do with me That was for my partners at Bar Raval, Mike Webster, Rob Goodfellow. They wanted to do a cocktail bar That was just spoke cocktails. There’s a lot of time like the food Overshadows the cocktail sometimes right? We decide to do El Rey a little mezcal bar There’s a very talented couple in Montreal with this goal of opening up a new restaurant I flew down to Montreal for one day. I tasted their food there were friends of my wife’s They did cocktails wine pairings food, and it was literally, you know One of the best meals I’ve ever had Mexican cuisine but a mature different Mexican, not tacos and hip hop You do late night, you’re kind of famous for late night. Yeah Bar Raval literally barely closes So you open for breakfast there. But we don’t do breakfast. You don’t. No we don’t do eggs We do you just octopus at 8:00 in the morning blood sausage at 8:00 in the morning So we don’t really actually offer the traditional brunch we offer, you know a Spanish brunch People like come in at 8:00 in the morning and order a plate of octopus and a cortado If you could have one restaurant knowing what you know now What would it be? This one. This one. You didn’t have to think about that. Nope So is this the mother that built all the other restaurants When I left the Black Hoof that was a huge decision for me. It’s like breaking up with your first love Took a year off travelled and that’s when I got introduced to Spain. And Spain just you know, blew me away And that’s where you know I was inspired from and I know this restaurant has just been so consistent Which from a restaurateur’s perspective that’s like what we try to achieve every single day is consistency Absolutely. People come here for certain things and we can’t ever change that, you know what I mean. There’s these classics that are gonna be around forever. So what would those two classics be on your menu that can never leave? The grilled octopus, and the bass cake which are two of our most famous dishes We have a lot of restraint and the way we do our food we’re not Trying to throw a bunch of things on the plate to get noticed, you know, which a lot of new chefs do. They think that they have to do something more in order to get acknowledgment. Here’s a plate of razor clams They just came in fresh. They’ve been grilled. Then they have butter that to me is Someone who is confident or a restaurant or a chef or a group of individuals. That that are confident with what they’re putting on a plate I love food like that. When I was at Bar Raval, I had barnacles. Yeah Fantastic Did you get messy? I did and I was happy to be a messy One of the coolest things I’ve ever eaten. Yeah, it’s like a cycle. You know, you start off at Pizza Pizza You know You go up to molecular gastronomy and then you start simplifying things and then you buy a farm and start gardening and you know, do what Jamie Kennedy does now Oh my god Grant van Gameren matured. Yeah I think it’s really helped me that I I’m not tainted by this by these beautiful memories of you know cooking with my Nona Making gnocchi at four years old. Like I literally don’t even Remember my childhood, but I know I wasn’t making gnocchi So I I look at food objectively, you know, this being a chef has always been a job for me and the job is not cooking the food the job is making customers happy I think people know especially nowadays they’re not hungry anymore They’re emotionally hungry what that means to me is that they are seeking a feeling and they need to also fill themselves up We need to go out drinking one night, I want you to tell me all about the Hoof and All that drama. Put a bottle on the table with a couple of glasses and we’ll have a conversation Let’s do it. Off the record. Off the record. Completely No cameras. All right. I would love to do it. Pleasure. Thanks man.