Q&A: Nathan Isberg, the Toronto restaurateur who doesn’t really believe in menus, set prices or restaurants
Around four years ago, Nathan Isberg opened The Atlantic, a stark, uncompromising seafood spot on Dundas West, near Brock Avenue. The cerebral chef has always had a soft spot for experimentation: he likes cooking with crickets (his latest invention: cricket charcuterie) and prefers to serve diners himself, rather than hire a formal waitstaff. Earlier this month, he took his knack for defying convention one step further by ditching the concept of the menu altogether. Now, Isberg cooks whatever he feels like cooking, and he requests that diners pay whatever they feel like paying in return—whether it’s cash, a piece of art or a great massage. We met with Isberg to chat about the business of dining out, his radical new restaurant model and why he doesn’t really like restaurants.
I saw on your website that you’ve abandoned the concept of a menu. What does that mean, exactly?
People come in, and I just explain to them, “I’m going to cook some food for you.” I buy stuff every day, so I’ll have sort of a rough sense of what I’m going to cook. And if people have dietary preferences, then I’ll work around that. Some of it might be a refinement of a dish that I’ve worked on in the past, or it might be completely new based on the ingredients. If you just want a little snack, I can do that, but usually it’s a series of courses. The wine and stuff, there’s a menu for that. That’s a legal requirement. At the end, people pay what they like.
Do you get ripped off?
Generally speaking, no. There have been a couple people who aren’t making a lot of money, and they leave less than most people would, but at the same time, a guy came in a few days ago and he left considerably more than most people would. So the funny thing is, it averages out pretty nicely.
Your sign outside says that you accept bartering. For some reason, I don’t think that’s a joke.
It’s not. I’ve accepted various things. Sometimes it’s art, and there’s a massage therapist that I’ve been going to for quite a while who trades that.
Is this sustainable from a business perspective?
I think the idea of a business model for a restaurant is laughable at times. This, as far as sustainability goes, is excellent, because restaurants are based a lot on interpersonal relations as opposed to business models. A lot of a restaurant’s success comes from how people feel and how they interact with the place.
So is it just a matter of building a loyal customer base and knowing that they’ll pay you what you deserve?
Over the last three months, at least half the clientele have been new. They’re all referred by word of mouth. A culture has been developed because people who like this place will tell their friends, so it’s going to be the same sorts of people to a certain degree. I think if I just dropped a restaurant in the middle of a different city and did the same thing, perhaps it wouldn’t work the same. But I would still do it.
I get the idea sometimes that this less of a business for you, and more of a lab to entertain ideas.
I think it is, to a certain degree. I went to U of T for anthropology, and one of the things I’ve equated this restaurant to is a practical thesis. It’s also a sustained discussion. It’s been an opportunity to have some theories about what defines a restaurant and how to get away from that, because I don’t like restaurants a whole lot. I’ve been in restaurants long enough to have developed a healthy cynicism for them, and for some of those annoyances and clichés.
At most restaurants, you’re paying a lot more because of wasted time, energy and food. I was helping out at a restaurant last year, and it was infuriating. I had to stop, because the amount of time people wasted just basically wandering around, not paying attention, and the amount of food that wasn’t conserved because it was ordered on such a large scale, and all that money, and it’s like, that’s why you’re charging too much for salad.
So you must run a pretty efficient staff.
I don’t really have staff. I have someone who helps with prep work and washing the dishes. I do all the serving and all the cooking. Throughout the night, I engage — it’s like having a dinner party, where you see who you’re cooking for. It also means I don’t have a server, except on the weekends, when I’m really busy. I took out a couple seats so I can do this room basically by myself.
Do you have your ingredients for today?
Yeah, I have most of them. I’m going to go up to Dufferin Grove again today. They’ll have some white fish or trout, and there will be fiddleheads and wild leeks. There might be something different today that they didn’t have last week. I find that this keeps me engaged with cooking.
What are some dishes you’re thinking of cooking tonight?
I did a series of dishes the other day where everything had asparagus in it. So the salad, for instance, is dry-roasted asparagus with some seedlings from Kind Organics. Last night I did ricotta gnocchi with stinging nettle curry. I had pickerel, and it was cooked over spices and tea. A soup to start; parsley root with some floral spices. The dessert is generally always crème brûlée.
Are you still doing insects?
I do them less now, because it takes some time to actually raise them. And I don’t want to become the place that does bugs. There are a lot of really good reasons to serve and eat insects, but that’s not necessarily going to be promoted through serving them as a novelty. But I do make dishes with them, and I actually made some charcuterie with them, which turned out well. So it’s something that I’m still working on, but—
You have to tell me about this bug charcuterie.
I basically treated crickets like you would pork. I chopped them up, added some paprika and pepper and olive oil. I made a puree. And I added some transglutaminase and then made a torchon—a round thing. Then I poached it, then I dried it for a few days. It actually had really good flavour. It was one of the best things I’ve made with crickets.
Do you eat out much in Toronto?
There are certain places that I enjoy and I have a lot of respect for. I went to Ursa when it first opened, and I was really impressed. At Ortolan, the people there are great. But mostly I’ll go to like, King’s Noodle, or Indian food. It’s something different from what I could normally do.
What do you see as the future of The Atlantic?
It’s funny—I keep removing parts of it. The logical extension of everything I’m doing is not going to be a restaurant. Maybe dinner parties or dinner events. Then there’s doing what the St. Christopher House has been doing for the past 20 years, which is serving meals for $2, but making it proper. Restaurants have had their time. They started in the late 1700s, and they came out of a bourgeois fascination with the self and creating personal space and being able to identify through conspicuous consumption. And I don’t see any reason to perpetuate that.