Meathead: Grant van Gameren is Toronto’s hottest chef, and he’s about to prove it again

Meathead: Grant van Gameren is Toronto’s hottest chef, and he’s about to prove it again

At the Black Hoof and Bar Isabel, the neurotic, self-taught Grant van Gameren made offal sexy and became an unlikely celebrity chef. Bar Raval, his new restaurant on a prime Little Italy corner, is the most hyped opening of the year. Too bad he loathes the spotlight

Grant van Gameren
(Image: Dave Gillespie)

Bar Raval, Grant van Gameren’s latest project, is named after a seedy neighbourhood in Barcelona. You wouldn’t know it from his elaborate plans for the place. He and his two partners, Robin Goodfellow and Mike Webster, are investing somewhere around half a million dollars to renovate the building at the corner of College and Palmerston, where Teatro used to be—a preposterous sum for a 40-seat restaurant that will serve finger food and cocktails. Everything, absolutely everything at Bar Raval, will be custom made: the tamper for the espresso bar, the foot rests, the drip tray with the Wu-Tang logo. The South American mahogany for the walls is being machine-carved and hand-oiled at a millworks in North York. The panels, designed by the boutique architecture firm Partisans, will have swooping rounded contours that replicate the three partners’ bodies. The design was so novel, so complex, that the manufacturers had to develop new algorithms for the software that guides the drill bits over the wood.

The project would seem hubristic if van Gameren had ever failed at a restaurant. But he hasn’t. The man’s sense of what Toronto craves has been impeccable. His food manages to fit the moment and the city with perfect accord.

Van Gameren, only 33 years old, has become synonymous with Toronto culinary trends. Charcuterie was the theme of his first big restaurant, the Black Hoof on Dundas West near ­Trinity Bellwoods, where he enjoyed instant, massive, four-hour-wait-times-for-a-table success. If you’ve eaten blood sausage in this city, it’s been either his or an imitator’s. When celebrity chefs visit Toronto, they are now inevitably taken to his second restaurant, Bar Isabel, on College near Ossington—the innermost node of the city’s Young Cool Food Scene.

His inspiration for Bar Raval is the pinchos bars of Spain, neighbourhood joints with local followings that often do just one finger food very well—mushrooms on a stick, say, or ­mussels served three ways. He told me Bar Raval will be a “mature snack bar” where you will be able to eat dinner, a beachhead of aperitivo culture, a coffee bar without Wi-Fi so it won’t be full of glassy-eyed freelancers staring into a desperate middle distance, a brunch spot that won’t serve eggs Benny but maybe seafood or a bit of ham. Webster and Goodfellow, who are in charge of Raval’s bar, have been collecting rare vermouths and amari for low-alcohol cocktails intended to be sipped over the course of an afternoon. Van Gameren’s pinchos will focus on the sardines and cockles and scallops from the Galician coast of Spain in particular. Bar Raval, at least at first, will be the Spanish seafood place, like the Black Hoof was the ­charcuterie place.

His world can seem, at times, like a scene from Portlandia—the highly specialized artisans, the neuroticism being played out through the aestheticization of food and drink, the lives lived in the pursuit of cool. For Bar Raval, van Gameren hired a barista named Chris Tellez, whom he describes as a “superstar” and a “young Sam James.” (Sam James, proprietor of Sam James coffee bars, is 31.) Mike Webster has “Howard Roark Laughed” tattooed on his upper arm; Goodfellow’s tattoos literally run up into his beard. Van Gameren has double sleeves, though the badass effect is tempered by his choice of wheels: a Mercedes SUV.

“Bar Raval will be as much an art piece as a restaurant,” van Gameren insists. And this pricy piece of art, like any other, reflects the psychology of its maker—the highly produced organic interior a metaphor for the tortured but easy, obsessive but casual, high-strung but laid-back van Gameren himself.

Grant van Gameren
Top (from left): His artisanal charcuterie, made from boar, venison and other game meats, inspired a city-wide craze; He took nose-to-tail principles to the extreme, creating unlikely hits like a brioche tongue sandwich; (Images by Raina and Wilson) Bottom (from left): At Bar Isabel, he made tapas cool again; He’s sold $900,000 worth of his signature octopus (Images by Dave Gillespie)

Van Gameren smokes a pack of Benson and Hedges a day—three packs a day when he’s in Spain researching restaurants—but he is developing the sheepish excuses of a man who knows he must quit. He worries that the dulled palate he possesses as a smoker, and which he believes made him successful as a chef, will disappear when he quits.

He owns a house on Bellwoods near Dundas with his ­fiancée, Sunny Stone. They met when she was working as a line cook at the Hoof, and started dating after he left. They’re getting ­married in September, and she is about to undertake a year-long course to become the in-house tradesperson for all the van ­Gameren businesses, present and future, that need fixing or building. Van Gameren already talks about planning the upbringing of the children he does not yet have. So he is in between two phases of life—he still takes his staff to BYOB Chinese places in the suburbs for nights of karaoke and debauchery, after which the bill for the lobster alone comes to a couple of grand. And yet he knows the intricacies of the Canadian small business loan program and why it’s important to input your invoices on the last possible day. (That’s when you start owing your lender money.)

Bar Isabel and Bar Raval are technically Spanish restaurants, but van Gameren is pure Toronto. In a sense, Toronto is all he really knows—he barely set foot on a plane until he was 30. He was “a bad kid” by his own admission. His Jamaican-Cuban mother, Evelyn, died of colon cancer when he was 11. That was the year he started smoking. His father, John, a telecommunications consultant, raised Grant and his two older sisters, Carlie and Julie, first in east Mississauga and then at Dufferin and Bloor. Van Gameren can remember what his father cooked for the family, although it was nothing special. Pork chops or steamed salmon. He cannot remember what his mother cooked for him. That is a blank.

The chaos of his childhood spilled over into early adulthood. He dropped out of Ursula Franklin Academy during his last year to bum around, and completed his diploma at ­Central Tech in 1999. Pizza Pizza at Ontario Place was the first kitchen he worked in, but he made more money breeding snakes. Blood pythons were his specialty. Breeding blood pythons is an exacting business that involves feeding them live rats and simulating monsoon conditions. One day, at age 22, he found himself living in an apartment with 50 rare snakes. This made having women over complicated, especially in the mornings when a snake would occasionally escape. Eventually he sold the pythons and put a down payment on a loft in Parkdale with the proceeds.

After Pizza Pizza, he moved up to a better class of pizza place, Ciccio Sanwiccio, then Il Fornello, and then, in 2005, a big jump to Canoe. By his own telling, he just needed the work. “I guarantee you that a first-year chef at George Brown will know more about technique than I do,” he says. In 2008 he met the restaurateur Jen Agg through an ad she’d placed on Craigslist. At first van Gameren was convinced that the ad was a scam put out by his colleagues at Lucien, where he worked from 2006 to 2007. The fit was just too perfect—­someone, out of the blue, looking for a chef who specialized in charcuterie? Really? But it was real enough. Together Agg and van Gameren invested $60,000 (van Gameren put his share on credit cards) in a small space in what was then an emerging neighborhood, and the Black Hoof exploded. The city was ready—as unlikely as it sounded—for a restaurant specializing in artisanal cocktails and a menu of high-quality charcuterie and offal.

Grant van Gameren fan club
From left: With Alain Ducasse, Mario Batali, Giada De Laurentiis, Daniel Boulud, Gordon Ramsay

Like many relationships that begin with passionate enthusiasm, van Gameren and Agg’s devolved, over time, into constant bickering over every aspect of the restaurant. In the middle of one of their many arguments, she told him he needed help, that he should go to therapy to work through his issues around his dead mother. Van Gameren had never tried therapy. He thought: why not? It might help with the restaurant. So he came up with a plan. He hired two therapists—one he paid for himself, the other covered by OHIP—so that he could compare and contrast their styles and methodologies. His therapy was figuring out how therapy works. One shrink was more passive than the other; one listened in silence while the other offered advice; one lay back, the other pushed. Van Gameren would tell both therapists an identical story to see how their answers lined up. He went with the less pushy therapist. But by then he’d realized that his struggles at work had little to do with his dead mother. He wanted out of the Black Hoof.

In 2011, he left—Agg bought out his share—and partnered with Max Rimaldi, the co-owner with Rocco Agostino of ­Enoteca Sociale and Pizzeria Libretto. Rimaldi, almost as a public service to the city, sent van Gameren on an eating tour of Europe. There, van Gameren found that he much preferred the $20 meals to the $1,000 ones, the holes in the wall to the brilliant avant-garde palaces. Back in Toronto, Rimaldi and van ­Gameren took over the lease at Grappa, a venerable College Street wine bar where van Gameren’s family used to go for special occasions, and turned it into Bar Isabel.

Bar Isabel has the odd effect of being a new place that feels not just familiar but old. Van Gameren wanted it that way. The tiles on the floor were deliberately mismatched. “My health inspector was like ‘Where did you get these tiles, ­Honest Ed’s?’ and I was like ‘Dude, these tiles cost $25,000.’ ” They were shipped from Mexico—all 10,000 pounds of them. It took 18 people to unload them. He got the light fixtures from an ancient hardware store a block away and threw some randomly coloured bulbs in them. He made the mosaics himself, working late into the night with Sunny Stone. For two years, on and off, an artist has been coming in to paint the ceilings with shifting curlicues of colour—a changing organic work of art that one in a thousand customers will notice.

Bar Isabel is crowded at all hours. It’s crowded half an hour after it opens. It’s crowded at 1:30 in the morning. The clientele is composed of the coolest people at the banks, women in media who are coming to the end of their fifth or sixth internships and really can’t afford the meal but YOLO, youth marketers who are occasional CBC commentators, polished men and women on the cusp of vice-presidency on the date they have managed to insert into their 60-hour workweeks, with that kind of distracted look driven people possess when they are forced into a momentary pause: is this what I sold my soul to the pharmaceutical company for? The octopus everybody talks about had better be delicious.

The creatives are also there, like Kevin Drew, the singer from Broken Social Scene who helped found the Arts and Crafts label. He eats there several nights a week. Regulars form a huge portion of Bar Isabel’s business. Van Gameren is in the middle of deciding what Christmas presents to give his top clients.

In the Bar Isabel kitchen, there are the chefs and sous-chefs and apprentices, moving over their labours with devotion, discipline, energy and self-conscious authenticity. Forty-five people work for van Gameren at Bar Isabel; in his apprenticeship program, he trains inexperienced chefs, sometimes students from culinary schools, sometimes kids with no kitchen experience whatsoever, and they work for six months unpaid just to be there. The impression of the staff at work is of the furious beauty of mutual concentration, like a soul band in the pocket.

My favourite dish at Bar Isabel is the one everyone talks about: the whole octopus, flown in from Morocco or Spain, grilled perfectly, over potatoes and greens. It’s extremely difficult to prepare an octopus that’s perfectly balanced between over-tenderness and rubbery chewiness, and van Gameren nails it every time. He hates the octopus now. He wants to get rid of it, partly because he’s bored of serving it, but also, in some sense, because he can’t stand that people make a fuss about it. Bar Isabel first grew famous for its fried chicken, but van ­Gameren moved it to the after-midnight menu. Obviously this makes no business sense. He’s sold $900,000 worth of octopus and $170,000 worth of chicken. People like these dishes. But Hemingway’s advice to writers was, when you find a good sentence, cut it, and when van Gameren finds a popular dish, he pulls it off the menu.

Van Gameren isn’t the typical celebrity chef who gladhands through his restaurants and spends more time on branding campaigns than in a kitchen. He hated working at the Black Hoof for many reasons, but the open kitchen was the most unendurable thing: to be exposed, to be forced to witness the people eating his food. If van Gameren emerges from the Bar Isabel kitchen to see you at your table, you are the heaviest of the heavy. He came out for Albert Adriá, pastry chef of El Bulli; Mario Batali had to go back to the kitchen.

And why will he not walk among the people who are eating his food? He cannot bear to witness anyone displeased. “At least one person in the room doesn’t like the experience. And that drives me nuts,” he tells me. I inform him that he is running a successful restaurant, at which many eaters derive a significant amount of pleasure, but he shakes his head. It can’t be more than four out of five people who are enjoying the food. “I can’t be in the room,” he says. “Fucked up, right?” He reads his reviews on Yelp, that never-ending chronicle of spoiled diners kvetching about the world’s mildest disappointments. People online say the room is loud, or it’s expensive, or it’s crowded.

The underlying beauty of van Gameren’s cooking is that the composition is within the dish, within the flavour of the dish, within the texture of the dish. You cut it and it looks perfect. There is no decoration. At Bar Isabel, restraint is the mode of cool. And it is a hard-working, unironic cool. The effort is on the food’s “emotional experience”—a phrase van Gameren frequently uses—rather than how it looks. Which may explain the conviviality of his place. It’s the only restaurant in Toronto where I have found myself sharing plates of food with strangers at other tables.

There has always been something deliberately understated in van Gameren’s cooking—when he serves an unusual dish like pig’s ear, he’s not competing with the diners’ memories of the best steak they’ve ever eaten, or the best piece of grilled bluefish. Eating Daniel Boulud’s veal three ways, at Daniel in New York, is an encounter with a statement of defiant, calm arrogance and technical mastery. The chef is declaring that he can take an ideal ingredient and serve it better than anybody else, three times over. Van Gameren subverts and deflects his own arrogance and mastery. There is no element of fantasy or even of play to his food. But he is absolutely as serious and as dedicated as any avant-garde chef.

By stripping away everything but the pure excellence of the food, van Gameren creates intimacy. And intimacy is what people crave. An American friend who moved to Toronto once asked me, “Why don’t the people talk in the elevators here?” Bar Isabel is the opposite of the elevators where nobody talks to each other. The cooks make exotic comfort food, dishes you feel you’ve been eating your whole life, composed from ingredients you’ve never eaten before—pig’s blood, whole octopus, canned Galician cockles. Van Gameren takes strange dishes and makes them taste just like Mother made, in a city filled with people whose mothers are elsewhere, in Pakistan or the ­Philippines or North Bay or Halifax, or dead.

Grant van Gameren
Top: Van Gameren hated working in the Black Hoof’s open kitchen, which put him in close contact with customers (Image by Raina and Wilson) Bottom: He designed Bar Isabel to look old and tattered, with mismatched tiles and tobacco-stained walls (Image by Dave Gillespie)

Bar Raval will be more casual than Bar Isabel—a feeling that is carefully orchestrated in the decor. It took several meetings with his partners to pick the coffee cups. “I don’t want people to be looking at our coffee cups,” he tells me. “I don’t want them to over-think the cup. If you make someone notice something, all of a sudden it turns into a judgment.” If people are judging the coffee cup, they aren’t noticing the coffee. Ideally they should forget about the coffee, too, and just notice the pleasure. (He eventually settled on a five-ounce glass tumbler with an octagonal base.)

When van Gameren ate at Alinea in Chicago a few years ago—a 30-course tasting menu—he was less impressed by the food than by the fact that servers changed the water glasses during the meal so no one ever had to put lips to a smudge. Every decision in a Grant van Gameren restaurant—the plates, the wine glasses, the chairs, the food—drives toward the same ultimate goal: “How do we get people to notice nothing?” Somebody at Bar Isabel is tasked with turning down the lights every 15 minutes so that no one will notice them being dimmed over the course of an evening. Van Gameren’s Bar Raval partner Mike Webster told me that the triumph of a cocktail bar is not necessarily the presentation of a delicious new drink—although he has many; try his Jack Lemmon—but the moment when customers are so involved in the experience of drinking their drink that they forget about their phones.

In the lead-up to the opening of Bar Raval, van Gameren is racing between the shell of the restaurant and the fabrication plant, making stops to file his invoices and pick up hog casings at a suburban wholesaler. He is moving all over town, neither giddy nor anxious, just calm and determined. Bar Raval will be the latest place van Gameren fills with the convivial sense of the familiar, a small space where people forget about their phones in a city where nobody forgets about their phones. Van Gameren himself will be unable to walk through the restaurant. He won’t join in the celebration of fellow feeling on the bar floor. That would be unbearable.