Q&A: Victor Barry, the fine-dining holdout behind Toronto’s most famously fancy restaurant

Q&A: Victor Barry, the fine-dining holdout behind Toronto’s most famously fancy restaurant

(Image: Claire Foster) (Image: Claire Foster)
 

Over the past few years, Toronto has witnessed the rise of the snack bar and the decline of traditional fine-dining. In the midst of the turmoil is chef Victor Barry, who last year pulled out of the casual restaurant biz (he parted ways with The County General and his longtime business partner, Carlo Catallo) to focus on Splendido, the 23-year bastion of fine-dining on Harbord Street. Is he desperately hanging on to a tradition that’s bound to die, or does he know something that we don’t? We caught up with Barry to talk about the state of Toronto’s restaurant scene and how it’s possible to have a great dining experience and fun at the same time.

Last year you split with The County General to focus on Splendido. Why did you decide to take that path?
The biggest reason was that Carlo Catallo was really interested in opening up more restaurants. I never really saw myself as a restaurateur—I want to have my own restaurant so that I can do my own thing, but I’m not really into opening many of them. It takes away from what I really want to do, and that’s fine dining and striving to be the best restaurant in the country.

You see these celebrity chefs who start off as artists, and then they go into nonstop expansion mode and start opening bad restaurants. I’ve never really understood that.
It’s because you make no money in fine dining. The County General sold a half to a third of what we sell here, and it made 100 per cent more profit.

That’s why I find it interesting that you stayed with Splendido. You’re starting a family, and you had this very profitable brand in The County General, and yet you decided to stick with what’s essentially a passion project.
It is. And yes, we were making money at The County, and that was great. But I was miserable. I don’t care how much money I make. I don’t need a fancy car, I don’t need a fancy big house. I rent my place and I live in the exact neighbourhood I want to live in. I’ve got a beautiful daughter, I’ve got an amazing wife, and I get to come in every single day and cook the food that I want to cook. And I do it for 40 to 45 people a day now, and that’s it.

Why stay in fine dining, when it seems to be on the decline?
It is on the decline. I’d blow your mind if I told you how many restaurants I know about that are closing in the next four months. It’s pretty crazy, and it’s scary. We’re a value-driven restaurant, but it’s way more expensive to come to Splendido than just about any restaurant in the city. I think the only restaurant that’s more expensive than us is Hashimoto. But fine dining will never die. It will never go away. There are always milestones—graduations, anniversaries, birthdays, weddings. People want to go out and celebrate. And in Toronto, there are a handful of places where you can go out and celebrate properly.

Still, Splendido has become less stuffy since you came on board.
I bought the restaurant in 2009, in the middle of a financial disaster. The former owners told me to turn it into a brasserie-level restaurant, with lots of volume. They told me to make it cheap, light and fun. Splendido used to be a very stuffy restaurant—we used to have a champagne trolley, a cheese trolley—and I don’t like stuffiness, so we did some downscaling. But I got bored, and we started creeping back into fine dining.

What’s the menu format here currently?
There are two menus. One is five courses with eight snacks, and the other is 12 courses with 16 snacks. It’s a whole-night experience to come here. There’s no à la carte. We don’t bring out a menu when you arrive; we just bring a glass of champagne.

Do you think customers crave this style of dining?
No, people don’t want it at all, actually. I just don’t care. I find that we can be more consistent and do higher-quality stuff this way.

When Acadia closed, the owners said that the food wasn’t accessible—that people were going to The Keg instead. How frustrating is that for you, that you can execute your cooking at the highest level, but people will still flock to mediocrity?
I don’t think that happens. I think that’s a cop-out. Scott Selland [co-owner of Acadia] had an amazing chef with Matt Blondin, who left to go to Momofuku. Then they took [ex-Splendido chef] Patrick Kriss—who is about to open his own restaurant, and it will be the best restaurant in Toronto—and then they lost him. The food did push the envelope a bit, but it’s about value for money. And you know what? Maybe opening a fine dining restaurant on Clinton Street, right across from Cafe Diplomatico, with a bullshit dining room—no wonder it didn’t work out. You’re charging more money for the food than I’m charging at Splendido, where I’ve got tablecloths, I’ve got a $200,000 wine cellar downstairs, I’ve got tons of staff at your beck and call. If I’m paying $25 for an entrée, my glass of water should be full all the time.

Toronto seems to be in a weird spot right now, because you’ve got all of these fine-dining restaurants closing, but then there are high-end spots opening up, like The Chase, America and Buca Yorkville.
Rob Gentile and Buca have hit it on the head. They know exactly what Torontonians want: nice and flashy, with really good food, but for the most part pretty approachable. There are cool dishes for adventurous foodies, like lamb brains, but I can also get a pizza. It’s an incredible restaurant group. I look at The Chase—a multi-million dollar restaurant to build—and it’s awesome. People are going there.

So would it be fair to say that it’s not fine dining that has fallen out of fashion, but the pretentiousness that has traditionally gone along with it?
Yeah, I think the old way of Splendido has had its time. You go into the Chase, and that’s a three-Michelin-star dining room, but I don’t go in there and feel like I can’t talk to someone. People want loud; they want energetic; they want fun. There are restaurants that can do that but still aim for food at a two- or three-Michelin star level.

What have you done at Splendido to lighten things up?
It’s not that old-school, maitre d’ mentality: “Hello, sir. Good evening, madame.” You talk to people and make sure they’re having a good time. It’s the way that you approach the table. Nobody wants to wear a tie anymore. You joke around with people and make them laugh. Sometimes you go to a restaurant and it’s a bit too much. It’s like, dude, you’re not performing heart surgery here.

Have you been experimenting with any new flavours or cooking techniques?
We were doing sous-vide cooking a few years ago, but we’re reverting back to more traditional cooking. We used to cook with charcoal, but now we just use wood, because I find charcoal too hot and too aggressive. It’s not so common to have a wood-burning grill. We use hardwood, mostly maple. And we’ve also opened ourselves to using spices from all over the world.

How do you think Toronto’s food scene holds up on an international level?
I honestly think that Toronto is a fantastic city, and I wish that people would believe that more. We have just as good food here as anywhere else I’ve ever been in my life. We’ve got taco places, we’ve got good mid-range places, we’ve got fine dining, though not a lot. Bar Isabel is amazing; DaiLo is great; Grand Electric is great; The Harbord Room is great; Rasa is great. Yasu, right across the street, is amazing. I’ve never had a real sushi experience like that. Everyone talks about our little-brother syndrome, about how Toronto wants to be New York. Fuck that! New York is too much. If Toronto ever became New York City, I’d get out of here right away.