The Fixe Is In: James Chatto on Lynn Crawford’s new restaurant, Ruby Watchco

The Fixe Is In: James Chatto on Lynn Crawford’s new restaurant, Ruby Watchco

At Lynn Crawford’s new restaurant, customers eat whatever she feels like cooking that day. The concept is bold and bossy, but the celeb chef has the talent and swagger to pull it off

I had to admire their cool. With only four hours to go before the grand opening of Ruby Watchco, the restaurant’s three owners—chef Lynn Crawford, designer Cherie Stinson and her husband, front-of-house veteran Joey Skeir—were showing no sign of nerves. They were just sitting around the lunch table at the back of the restaurant, laughing and swapping renovation stories over a bottle of pinot grigio and an excellent chicken cobb salad made by head chef Lora Kirk. If this were an episode of Restaurant Makeover, the TV show that made Crawford and Stinson celebrities, there would be cussing and tears and all sorts of last-minute nail-biting melodramas to negotiate. But everything was pretty much ready, or would be once the last of the green masking tape was peeled off the front window. Even the tall boughs of quince blossom in a vase on the bar co-operated: all the buds popped open that morning, precisely on cue.

Lynn Crawford (left) and head chef Lora Kirk at their new restaurant, Ruby Watchco, on Queen East (Image: Ryan Szulc) 

As ownership groups go, this one is remarkably well qualified. Stinson is a top designer with Yabu Pushelberg whose work often takes her to China, Hawaii and the Middle East. Until last fall, Crawford was executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City, the most prestigious job in North American hotel cooking. Glamorous Manhattan seems a long way from this stretch of Queen Street East, just a few doors down from Jilly’s strip club and Dangerous Dan’s diner, home of the famous Big Kevorkian burger. A small restaurant like Ruby Watchco shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for a chef used to managing five unionized outlets and a team of 70 cooks and sous-chefs. Then again, this is the first place any of them has ever owned, and that brings special responsibilities.

“We have to do everything ourselves, including trying to get the printer to work,” says Crawford, recalling the teams of experts at her disposal in New York. She waves a piece of paper covered in her handwriting. “These are next week’s menus.”

The list seems remarkably short, but that’s because Ruby Watchco is built on a bold and unusual concept. Crawford and Kirk have dispensed entirely with the notion of choice. Each night, they offer one simple four-course meal—salad, main, cheese and dessert—starring whatever ingredients they are able to source that day from local farmers. The style of food has been described by one of their friends as “souped-up home cooking.” At $49 a head, however, this is no cheap table d’hôte: every dish has to deliver. No doubt, some diners find the take-it-or-leave-it attitude bossy, but Crawford makes allowances for allergies and vegetarians and thinks most people will embrace it. “When you go for dinner at a friend’s house, you don’t ask what the menu is,” she points out. “That’s what we’re doing here—saying, Trust us, it’s going to be delicious.”

When you’re a success on television—and it can be an honour or a curse—millions of people think they know you quite well. TV simplifies and exaggerates reality, often reducing complicated characters to cartoon archetypes. This isn’t the case with Crawford’s new show, Pitchin’ In. In fact, it’s startling how true-to-life she is on the screen. The premise is straightforward: she visits farmers and fishermen (carefully selected for their righteous operations) and pitches in, unpretentiously teaching viewers where their food comes from and showing tasty ways to cook it. She’s quick-witted, funny, passionate and up for anything—even sticking her arm into a cow to feel its unborn calf—and her respect for the people she encounters is obvious. The shimmering beauty of a haul of Oregon shrimp brings tears to her eyes. When a sheep farmer is amazed by the flavour of the lamb she has cooked for his family, she’s embarrassed by his gratitude. There’s a streak of shyness beneath Crawford’s generally boisterous enthusiasm. Pay her restaurant a compliment and she immediately deflects it onto Stinson or Kirk.

Both Ruby Watchco and Pitchin’ In are dramatic departures from Crawford’s career path. Aside from a brief stint as chef at Messis and Peter Oliver’s Paramount in the mid-’90s, she spent the past 24 years with Four Seasons, in Nevis, Vancouver and Montreal, but mostly in Toronto and New York. Her talent and ambition took her to the very top of the ladder as executive chef in both those cities, but there were obvious drawbacks. The job’s endless administrative demands denied her much contact with the customers in the dining room and also kept her away from the stoves. “The show lets her cook again, and it lets her connect with people,” explains Daniel Gelfant, the producer of Pitchin’ In. “And so does the restaurant. But making the leap wasn’t easy. It took a lot for her to leave the Four Seasons after so long. She got cold feet during the last month, anxious about turning her back on that security. For her, it was as traumatic as a teenager leaving home.”

“Lynn constantly challenged me. She’d say, ‘Is that the best you can do? Here’s a tomato, and all you can give me is two dishes? I want seven—all fantastic’ ”

Crawford prefers to dwell on the positives. “I had a total of eight years in New York, and it was great,” she says, “but Toronto is home, and it was always a big dream of mine to come back here and have my own restaurant.” She’s nursed that dream since the beginning of her career, when she graduated from George Brown College and headed to California to work a month-long stage at Alice Waters’s iconic restaurant, Chez Panisse. Watching the pioneer of farm-to-table cooking provided indelible inspiration. “She didn’t do it because she wanted to be world famous,” says Crawford. “She did it because she wanted to cook and because she loved food. I’ve always thought that’s how a kitchen should be run.”

That passion for ingredients was very much in evidence during Crawford’s time as executive chef of the Toronto Four Seasons, from 2002 to 2006. Jonathan Gushue, now at Langdon Hall, was chef at the hotel’s signature restaurant, Truffles, for much of that time. “She taught me to cook with your heart, not your head, but she’s a perfectionist, too,” he says. “She was a bit of a mother hen, but she also pushed me, constantly challenging. She’d say, ‘Is that the best you can do? Here’s a beautiful heirloom tomato, and all you can give me is two dishes? I want seven—all equally fantastic.’ ”

Lora Kirk was another Crawford protégé who came to the Four Seasons in 2005 after two years at the Connaught hotel in London, England, under chef Angela Hartnett. A thorough professional with an extraordinary memory for flavours, she replaced Gushue as Truffles’ chef and performed brilliantly before leaving for New York. For the past two years, she worked there with chef Neil Ferguson, first at Allen and Delancey, then at Soho House. “Both places did well,” murmurs Kirk.

“Oh God, she’s so modest,” interrupts Crawford. “Lora ran that kitchen! It got a Michelin star!”

“Does that mean I’m getting a raise today?” deadpans Kirk.

“It means no one who comes here has to worry about the food.”

Or the ingredients. Both chefs are amazed at how much locally sourced produce is now available in Toronto. Establishing new contacts with farmers has been easy thanks to helpful, like-minded chefs and entrepreneurs such as Brent Germin of 100 Mile Market. And as anyone who has watched Pitchin’ In knows, Crawford relishes her relationships with suppliers.

The creation of Ruby Watchco has been equally hands-on—with everybody helping to renovate according to Stinson’s plans. She and Skeir used to dine here when it was The Citizen, and she remembers thinking of ways she could improve it if it were hers—fill in the front patio to give more tables and a view from the street, warm up the room with glowing Edison bulbs. She already knew what her fantasy restaurant would be called. Three years ago, she and Skeir were combing vintage stores in the Junction when they found an old 13-foot commercial sign made of mirror mosaic on a scarlet background that read “Ruby Watch Co.” It was expensive ($5,000) but irresistible, and from then on it sat in their living room until the day Skeir finished cleaning the restaurant’s interior brick wall with his grinder and the sign was hung.

Stinson’s appealing design for the room straddles the divide between casual and chic. A wall of vintage file cabinets stand by the old school desk where Skeir greets customers. The food, plated at a well-lit table outside the kitchen, is served family-style in red Le Creuset casseroles—simultaneously design-conscious and domestic. The room can seat 72, including 10 at the white marble bar, but it has an infectiously friendly vibe, especially when strangers start turning to the tables beside them and discussing the food they’re all enjoying.

On opening night, the four servers were word perfect—but then they only had four dishes to remember. Dinner began with a salad of confited chicken leg, the tender, flavourful meat chopped up with croutons, red lettuce leaves, shaved radish, a quartered soft-boiled egg and some shaved pecorino. Two excellent chive buttermilk biscuits, like crusty scones with soft, warm hearts, were served alongside with house-churned butter, but the amount of salad seemed small for two eager appetites.

The main course was reassuringly generous: a grilled flank steak, sliced thickly on the bias, a puck of herbed cabernet franc butter melting over the meat, licking the watercress beneath it. Smoked button mushrooms, sautéed with baby creminis and caramelized onion petals, nestled in one Le Creuset ramekin. Another held chopped leeks and spinach, both braised in cream. A third was filled with buttery roast parsnips, cut like plump frites.

The cheese course starred a bold 10-year-old Ottawa Valley cheddar, accompanied by unctuous balsamic onion chutney, some local honey and toasted walnut bread from nearby St. John’s Bakery. A superb lemon tart finished the meal, the intensely citric curd swelling up inside pastry, its surface still trembling from the hot kiss of a blow torch. Lora Kirk practised the difficult recipe every day for two months while working at the Connaught as a way of proving to Angela Hartnett that she was serious about cooking. It’s the best lemon tart I’ve ever had, especially with the quiet enhancement of whipped cream scented with thyme and vanilla to soothe the piercing acidity.

Stinson and Skeir were warm hosts, and Crawford and Kirk were much in evidence, plating in the dining room and occasionally bringing dishes to the table. From the smiles on their faces, they seemed to be having as good a time as their customers.

It must be said, both chefs are working well within their capabilities. One simple meal a night is hardly a stretch for such accomplished chefs and their kitchen brigade of three. But this sort of cooking, without high-end bells and whistles, presents its own challenges. However righteous the local, seasonal ingredients, they must still be prepared perfectly and balanced impeccably or that charming simplicity can quickly become boring. I like Ruby Watchco’s style. The restaurant has substance but also a discreet glitter of star quality that brings focus and credibility to this emerging Queen East strip. Like Crawford herself, it’s unpretentious, full of energy and passionate about good food.