“I love the entrepreneur life and it’s nice feeling like I’m in charge”: Chef Brandon Olsen on his new in-home restaurant experience

“I love the entrepreneur life and it’s nice feeling like I’m in charge”: Chef Brandon Olsen on his new in-home restaurant experience

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For more than a decade, Brandon Olsen has been the culinary brain behind some of the city’s most beloved dishes: The sweet breads and tuna at The Black Hoof, the Basque cake at Bar Isabel, the Euro sea bass en croute at La Banane and those frame-worthy chocolates at CXBO. One pandemic, a career implosion and a sojourn into carpentry later, and Olsen is back with Restaurant Le Melon, a mobile restaurant concept. For $250 a head, Olsen and his wife, Brittany, bring a full-service dining experience into your home. Here’s how it works and why being in a kitchen is something Olsen just can’t quit.

—As told to Courtney Shea

“In June of 2020, the career I spent more than a decade building imploded. I lost both of my restaurants and my chocolate company when I cut ties with King Street Food Company. It was incredibly difficult to walk away, but it felt like the only option. In the weeks that followed it was a lot of figuring things out with my lawyers. I went to Parry Sound to work on my grandfather’s cottage—refinishing the dock, doing some landscaping—just to get away from everything. Later in the summer I ended up falling into a gig working as a private chef in Muskoka, which was pretty awesome. I wasn’t really ready to think about my next move yet, and Covid meant that restaurants weren’t hiring. By the fall, I was back in the city and everything was in lockdown mode again. I’m not a guy who can sit around doing nothing, plus I needed to make money, so I took a job at the LCBO working as a cashier. People who knew me from the restaurant would come in and be like, “Brandon? Is that you?” I guess you could say it was humbling—it was not where I would have imagined myself a couple of years ago when I was running the kitchen at one of the top-rated restaurants in the city. But you know, it was a steady income at a time when so many of my colleagues didn’t have one. I was grateful. And it was fun to have a job that didn’t go home with you.

“I’ve been working in the restaurant industry since I was a teenager. My first job was as a dishwasher in an East Side Mario’s in Burlington, where I’m from. Early on I knew I wanted to spend my career in kitchens, and it has been a joy and an honour to work with so many great people at so many amazing locations. But it has also been hard. La Banane was like my baby and losing it was a blow. A blessing, ultimately, but with Covid and everything else, I started thinking maybe there was something else I could be doing? Maybe I don’t have to be the guy who makes the best tuna or fried chicken. I’ve always loved building things, so a friend put me in touch with a carpenter last summer—Dylan Barlow who runs Barlow Cabinet Works in Barrie—and I started as an apprentice. I was doing everything from sweeping the floors to simple wood cutting. It was great, but at the same time, I was getting more and more requests to do private dinners in people’s homes. I probably did about 10 over the spring and summer—mostly regulars from La Banane. It was all very under the radar, no social media. Last fall, I started working with a large hospitality group doing restaurant concept development, but I kept growing the side hustle. I loved the idea of bringing a restaurant into people’s homes. I know, I know, I’m like Al Pacino in The Godfather: Every time I think I’m out…

Olsen and his wife, Brittany, who manages Le Melon’s front-of-house operations

“My wife, Brittany, and I officially launched Restaurant Le Melon in January. The name actually goes back to my time at La Banane—the space above the restaurant used to be a strip club and then later a burlesque bar, so we always joked that if we opened a place upstairs, we would call it Les Melons. Brittany is a producer and photographer, so she has been spreading the word on social media. When we do dinners, she does the “front of the house” and I do the cooking. The food is French in the loosest sense, just because that’s my background. The way it works is, I will talk to a client about what they want to eat and what the vibe of the event is going to be like. If it’s a business dinner, well that’s probably going to be different from a birthday celebration. For first-timers I try to steer them towards one of my classic dishes: my tuna crudo, salmon and caviar with aji amarillo, fried chicken, chicken liver mousse, Basque cake. These dishes trace my history in the Toronto food scene, from The Black Hoof to Bar Isabel to La Banane. I had a new client the other day who told me he had eaten every single dish on the original menu at every restaurant I had ever worked at. I guess that’s what it feels like to have a groupie—ha! Once I’ve consulted with the client, I go shopping, and sometimes that will affect what I decide to serve. Last month I found langostinos at Diana’s Seafood, which is pretty rare, so I did those a few times, just classic butter-poached.

“One of the things I love most about this new concept is that it really is a fresh start every time. We’re not a catering business; I don’t have a menu that I send to prospective clients. It’s a lot looser and, a lot more fun and interactive. We don’t provide alcohol because getting a licence for that is a whole other thing—but we will make recommendations for pairings based on the menu. And we don’t provide glassware because some of these parties go late and I don’t want to be that guy asking for my wine glasses back when the party is still in full swing. Other than that, it’s full five-star food and service. We set everything up, clean before we leave and I think we bring a certain vibe to the whole experience. I don’t do playlists though—unless anyone wants to listen to three hours of Grateful Dead.

“I’m still with the hospitality group. It’s been incredibly busy working nine-to-five and then also doing dinners every weekend. But it’s also been so great to be back in a kitchen—in a whole lot of kitchens, actually. I love the entrepreneur life, and it’s nice feeling like I’m in charge of what happens with this venture. So far we’re doing pretty well. It’s not like quit-your-day-job money, but word is definitely getting around. I’m currently booked through mid-April.

“Last weekend, I did private dinners on Friday and Saturday and then a Super Bowl party on Sunday for one of my regulars. He wanted a high-low mix: pub classics with a twist. The menu included fried chicken sandwiches with caviar and cheddar-stuffed corndogs with ballpark mustard. I did mac and cheese gratin for the kids, but then covered the same dish in heaps of shaved truffle for the adults. His place is open concept with the kitchen attached to the living room, so I was definitely part of the action. I did a little chirping about the game—it’s a good thing the Rams won. With restaurants reopening, I’m not sure what the future looks like. Personally, I think there is a market for bringing the restaurant experience into your own space—especially after Covid But who knows? Maybe this will be a moment in time thing, or maybe it will be a brick and mortar operation one day. I honestly have no idea, but we’re having fun and looking forward to the future.”