a memoir from Toronto’s top chef

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Twenty-twenty started off great. January is usually the toughest month in the restaurant business, with everyone hiding from the cold and saving money after Christmas. But every table was taken at Alo, my flagship restaurant at Queen and Spadina. Same story at my two Alo spinoffs: my diner-inspired spot, Aloette, and my Yorkville steak house, Alobar. We’d just opened our fourth location, a private event space in Yorkville named Salon, and we were already booking weddings into the summer.

After five years in business, we’d matured as a company—we could better predict what customers would want with each season, and we could plan. I believed both Alobar and Aloette could be replicated in new neighbourhoods, maybe even in new cities. I started to look forward to every report from Olga Novokchanova, our accountant. I was feeling so good about things that I booked a spring vacation.

I’m rarely able to take time off—my wife, Donna, has gotten used to this. We were going to take our eight-year-old son, William, to Miami for a week, stay in South Beach, swim in the ocean and eat out. On March 11, the day before we were supposed to leave, Tom Hanks announced he had the virus. The NBA suspended its season. We cancelled the trip. And yet three days later, our restaurants were still fully booked.

I stood near the bar at Alo and watched people arrive. I felt total disbelief—were we really going to close down? That night, the crowd at Alobar was out of its mind, partying like it was the last night on earth. It was the same for the private event booked into Salon that night—we received noise complaints.

That Monday, we closed all our restaurants, which meant cancelling three months of reservations at Alo. That was complicated, since we take a deposit to hold a reservation. Some customers moved their reservations forward a few months. (Today, nearly a year after we closed Alo, some of those same people are still pushing their reservations forward—it means a lot to me that they have such confidence in us.)

I had to lay off 130 people—all but 20 of our staff—which was heartbreaking. Chefs, servers, managers, admin staff, just about everyone. I’d never had to let so many people go at once, but I had to face reality: there wasn’t any money coming in. We’d been running full-steam for five years, and the idea of not being open for service for the next month—and most likely much longer—was surreal.

Before lockdown, we were spending $80,000 a month on leases for our four spaces and had a biweekly payroll of $130,000 for our 150 staff. Every week, we’d buy $100,000 in food, wine and drink from suppliers. I still had those leases to pay, and some salaries, but our one source of income had vanished.

Even though we were closed, I kept going into the restaurants, looking for something to do. I had to, or else I’d lose my mind. Every morning, I’d drive west from our home in the Distillery to Queen and Spadina. In those first weeks of the lockdown, it was like travelling through a ghost town. I’d walk into Alo and the first thing that would hit me was the dead quiet, where usually I’d find my staff racing around, prepping for that night’s service. The empty kitchen was deeply depressing. But I couldn’t stop working and I couldn’t feel sorry for myself. I had to figure this motherfucker out. I had to keep moving, keep coming up with ideas. I kept telling myself: failure is not an option.

My first cooking job was at age 14 at the burger chain Lick’s. I grew up in Scarborough with my mom, my older brother, Matthew, and my younger sister, Katherine. Matthew worked at the Kingston Road and Midland Lick’s, and I asked him to get me a job. I learned how to use the deep fryer and the grill. I liked the long hours and the late nights. It was exciting when the place filled up and I had to finish dozens of orders under pressure. We had to sing goofy songs to entertain customers. I’d never had so much fun in my life.

Even though I was a lacklustre student, I got into York and majored in history. Whenever I wasn’t on campus, I spent my time at the Rosedale Golf Club, where I’d landed a job as a waiter and bartender. I graduated from university but didn’t see myself doing anything with my degree. Instead, I asked Ken Boyd, the chef at Rosedale, if I could cook in his kitchen. He told me to go away. (We laugh about this today.) Eventually, he agreed to hire me if I took the six-month chef apprenticeship program at George Brown. So I did.

I decided to take cooking seriously. I realized I was good at it—that I picked up techniques quickly, that I could make something that made people happy to eat. Even if I wasn’t scheduled to work, I’d show up. I didn’t want to miss a chance to learn something new. I was only 22 years old but I stopped going out, stopped partying, stopped playing sports (I was into tae kwon do). My life became 100 per cent about the kitchen.

At first, Ken only let me make salads and simple stuff. But from my station, I’d watch how the chefs worked in sync. I’d hear them talking worshipfully about restaurants called French Laundry and Daniel. I asked what French Laundry was, and they ignored me. So I bought myself a copy of Thomas Keller’s cookbook. I was fascinated by how precisely Keller plated food, by how he obsessed over the best ingredients, by how detail-oriented everything was. I’d never seen such crisp chef’s jackets. That’s when I got it in my head that cooking could be a profession, not just a part-time job. I wanted to work in a proper French restaurant.

I’d also overhear members of the golf club talking about the expensive dinners at the O&B restaurant Auberge du Pommier, which was just up the street. After three years at Rosedale, I managed to get a job there as a garde manger—the guy who manages the pantry. I saw it as a stepping stone.

By the spring of 2007, Donna and I had been together for three years. I told her that I had a plan: I would get hired by Keller or by Daniel Boulud, the famous French chef who I’d learned ran an international group of restaurants. Daniel, in New York City, was his best. She told me to go for it.

 


I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d be spending on Alo. Construction lasted eight months and cost me more than a million dollars. Now, it’s been sitting empty since March

 

I cold-called both restaurants and lucked out with Daniel—they gave me an appointment with HR. I suspected they got the sense I wouldn’t give up. I’d been to New York just once before, on a school trip, and had no idea where I was going or what I’d say when I got there. I booked a plane ticket—it cost me $256 return, which was a fortune.

When I got to Manhattan, I walked to the Daniel office, not realizing it was 40 blocks uptown. By the time I arrived, I was sweaty and out of breath. But I must have been persuasive, because Cynthia, the head of HR, told me to head to Daniel right away and start a two-day stage—an unpaid internship that’s also a chance to earn a real job. After my two days, they told me I could start work on September 10—six months later. I called Donna and told her I’d accepted the job. She said, “Great, how much are you making?” I realized I’d been so excited I hadn’t thought to ask. She and I applied for work visas and, the month before we moved down, got married. Living in New York would be our honeymoon.

Daniel ended up being my true cooking school. I started in the sub-basement, in the kitchen that handles Daniel’s catering operation. Three months later, they asked me to cook hot appetizers for the main restaurant. I was pretty arrogant: I told my boss, Daniel’s executive chef, Jean-François Bruel, that I would be his sous chef within a year and a half. I was wrong: it took me two years. At first, I didn’t interact with Boulud much, but after I’d been around long enough, he brought me to help at cooking events in Toronto and Germany.

When the restaurant closed for a month for renos, Boulud called up some friends in France and sent me to cook and learn in their kitchens. I tried to emulate his work ethic. He has a huge staff and doesn’t really need to do anything specific for service, but he’s in his restaurants every day, cooking and checking on things, circulating around the tables and greeting all his guests, treating everyone with the same respect. He impressed upon me that the customer is always right.

When our visas expired in 2010, Donna and I returned to Toronto. I worked for a split second at Luma, the restaurant in the TIFF building, and then was happy to get hired by Victor Barry, then the chef and owner of Splendido. From there I went to Acadia on College West. At the time, it was a high-profile restaurant and packed every night. The menu was French, but through the lens of the American South. It was my first time being in charge of a kitchen. I was moving up.

Then, one day in the fall of 2013, I started feeling a pain in my gut. Some days, it was like I’d been stabbed in the stomach. A urologist suspected I had bladder cancer, put me on a series of medications, and scheduled surgery. The timing didn’t make any sense to me. I was too young to die from cancer. And I had a young family. William, our son, was only a year old. Plus, I was just starting to establish myself in Toronto restaurants.

My surgery was booked for April. They removed a portion of my bladder and thankfully found that it wasn’t cancerous. But I developed a blood clot from the first surgery and had to go under the knife again—at one point, they were preparing to give me a blood transfusion. Although they’d ruled out cancer, they couldn’t figure out what was actually wrong with me, which left me frustrated and annoyed. Five weeks after the surgery, I returned to work at Acadia. I couldn’t keep away—I had menus to figure out and a kitchen to run. But I was still in pain from the surgery—I couldn’t even pick up my son. I finally admitted I needed to take care of myself, so I ended up quitting.

While I was recovering, I debated what to do next. I’d proven I could lead a kitchen, but that restaurant was someone else’s vision. I was 34 and ready to run my own place.

By the mid-2010s, it seemed tasting menus had come and gone in Toronto. They’d been briefly trendy, but from what I could see, the focus had been only on the food, not on the comfort of the room and in delighting guests. Still, everything I’d cooked at Daniel and all my instincts were pushing me to do a tasting menu restaurant. My version would be relatively simple: only five courses, not some over-the-top 30-course meal. When other chefs and people in the industry heard that’s what I was working on, they said, “What are you, crazy?” One person said my place would last six months, max.

But I thought I knew better. I borrowed money from family and friends and signed a lease for a third-floor space in a red-brick Victorian building at Queen and Spadina. A restaurant without a streetfront space was also considered a bad idea. But it was the second place I saw, and I knew immediately it was perfect. The front part had been a modelling agency and the back was a dressmaker’s studio. I mapped my restaurant out in my head, knew exactly where the hostess stand would be and the kitchen and the best tables with a view over the city. I told myself this was my plan A and there was no plan B.

For all my confidence, I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d be spending on the place. Construction on the restaurant lasted eight months and cost me more than a million dollars. I hired the design firm Commute—I liked them as people, and it was clear they loved the building and space as much as I did. Since there hadn’t been a restaurant there before, we had to build a full kitchen and retrofit the building with HVAC and upgraded electrical and plumbing. We installed four bathrooms and a bar area in the back, near the elevator entrance. There was seating for 42 people plus 20 in the bar. I wanted the restaurant to be high-end and polished like Daniel, but also fun. We had custom-made banquettes and brass-inlaid tables, but no stuffy white tablecloths. Anyone else opening a restaurant there would have made the bar space into a private dining room, but I wanted a place for people to meet and talk and have a good time.

I was naïve about a lot of things—no one had trained me on how to build a restaurant from scratch. But sometimes naïveté can work out. One day, I learned we’d get reimbursed for the HST on construction. I had no clue—I was over the moon.

I kept my nerves under control by distracting myself with meticulous planning. I hired Amanda Bradley, then the general manager at the restaurant George, to be my GM. She recruited pro servers through industry friends. I asked John Bunner, whom I’d met when he was at the Ossington restaurant Yours Truly, to run the bar. I filled my kitchen with talented men and women I’d met at Splendido, Acadia, O&B restaurants and around town. The chefs Matthew Betsch and Nick Bentley kept me anchored from day one and now oversee my kitchens.

We did two weeks of a soft opening, and I’m glad we did. We got fanatical about every detail, and spent hours figuring out what worked and what didn’t—stuff like where servers should put trays after they’ve replaced cutlery on tables, how to deliver completed plates to large tables and how to explain what’s on those plates without boring everyone. We invited our friends and family as a trial run, which was a mistake: they wandered around from table to table, chatting and hanging out, which completely threw us off. But at least they liked what we served.

I told people I named my restaurant Alo because I liked the Latin meaning: to cherish and nurture, which is what we wanted to do for the customer. The real reason was that I wanted to always be at the top of the list in restaurant guides.

The first couple of months were slow. On our worst day, we served only 16 people. I focused my energy on what I could control, like the quality of the food and the service. We’d serve foie gras and passion fruit meringue canapé, trout with caviar, a humble potato soup dusted with shavings of black truffle. Between courses, we’d serve a plate of milkbread rolls and salted butter—our bread was so good even someone on a carb-free diet would make an exception. My one rule was that everything would be delicious and leave you wanting to come back.

The reservations gradually started coming in, but not enough to prove everyone wrong and let us live longer than six measly months. I went into my restaurant with a goal and wouldn’t let myself veer from it, even if we were bleeding money. I kept buying the best products to cook with. When the bar traffic was slow, we didn’t get rid of the serving staff. In a sense, we were always prepared to be extremely busy.

Maybe because I held Boulud’s empire up as my ideal, I always expected to grow. Alo was never meant to be a small operation: we had to be ready to have 150 staff. I hired John six months before we opened. I used a recruiting company to find me an in-house accountant, Olga, before I needed her. I made a point of investing in people. I don’t like to scramble, I don’t like to look unprepared. You can only expect staff to do well if they’ve got the tools to succeed. If you don’t, the restaurant will fail.

Alo wasn’t yet two years old when my landlord asked if I’d like to look at the space on the ground floor. It had been a nail salon, and was available if I wanted it. Yes, of course I did. Alo was finally profitable—every time slot was booked months in advance, and we often had a waiting list for cancellations. I trusted my team could handle the growth. And if we were going to grow, there was no point hesitating. The nail salon was long and narrow—only 1,400 square feet if you included the basement. I consulted with the Commute designers, who said the only thing they could fit was a diner. That settled it: we’d open a diner, but the Alo version of a diner. We’d call it Aloette.

My original idea was to do classic bistro—very simple, roast chicken and steak frites. But it wasn’t making sense. In October 2017, only a week before we were scheduled to open, I was in the Aloette kitchen until four in the morning, trying to figure out what bothered me about the menu. I realized it wasn’t fun, that the food was held back by the bistro concept and we weren’t staying true to what we like to cook. I called Matthew, who is now our corporate chef. I told him, “Why don’t we do what we’re doing up at Alo, but more approachable?” Instead of bistro classics, we’d do our versions of Greek, of Japanese, of whatever flavour combinations obsessed us that week. Matthew had worked hard on the menu, so I could tell he was frustrated. But he agreed with me. I knew he’d figured it out when he created a dish for Aloette that was just sea urchin on toast with the Japanese chili-citrus paste yuzu kosho. It was as good as anything at Alo, but less precious.

 


Takeout just wasn’t in our DNA. But as the weeks went by, the demand kept building. By the end of that first month, we’d bagged 4,500 orders. I saw a glimmer of light. We may have something here

 

Aloette was busy right from the start—we were on a roll. Within 12 months, we opened our third restaurant, Alobar. It was our Yorkville take on a steak house. A bit closer to Alo in the price of a dinner, but a lot faster and louder. I thought Alobar would be a destination restaurant just like Alo. I was surprised when it turned out to be more of a neighbourhood place—a lot of people who live in Yorkville go there a couple of times a week. We don’t change the menu that often, because they have their favourite things and they want to be able to get them any time. That’s how neighbourhood restaurants succeed: you want the comfort of seeing the same thing.

We were doing so well and fielding so many requests to book our entire restaurants for weddings and corporate parties that we decided we needed a dedicated private event space. We found another spot in Yorkville, and finally opened Salon at the end of last year. The Alo Food Group—that’s what we started calling it—had real momentum. I had dreams of opening more Aloettes all across town, maybe across the country. We started looking into other ways we could expand the brand, like selling our products in stores or direct to consumers. We were thinking bigger and bigger.

But even a perfectionist planner can’t plan for everything falling apart all at once.

The Friday before last spring’s lockdown, I cornered Matthew Betsch and John Bunner, whom I’d promoted to operations manager, in the kitchen to hash out a survival plan. We’d never done takeout—we’ve always been about the experience of dining in, of getting food served to you the minute it’s ready, of the curated experience of the music and being with other people. We weren’t set up for takeout. It just wasn’t part of our DNA. But the Aloette menu, which has fried chicken with yuzu honey and a cheeseburger with fries, was the most compatible. We immediately sourced takeout containers and set ourselves up on Uber Eats and Ritual. The very next morning, we held a dry run to figure out how we could make it work. The tiny Aloette kitchens didn’t give us much space for assembling takeout bags, but we kept at it. The first night, we sold only 15 orders.

Four days later, I texted one of my staff to ask how the night had gone. He wrote back that it was the hardest service of his life. They couldn’t keep up. And as the weeks went by, the demand kept building. By the end of the first month, we’d bagged 4,500 orders. I saw a glimmer of light: we may have something here.

Every night last spring, I was packing takeout bags alongside John. Torontonians were stuck in their homes and clearly starved for something other than what they could cook for themselves. But the pressure quickly overwhelmed us. When you have a restaurant, you’re limited by capacity—it can’t get any worse for the cooks until someone leaves. But when people are ordering food on an app anywhere in a five-kilometre radius, it can get worse and worse—and even worse. Because of the small space, we could only have so much food pre-prepped. We had to strategically turn off the apps so we could catch up, get the orders out, then turn on the apps again.

The economics of running a restaurant during a pandemic are harsh. We sell our Aloette burgers for $20. In the past, after food, labour and other costs, we’d make $10 on each one. But Uber Eats takes around 30 per cent on every order we bag and send out the door with them. So now we’re making around $5 a burger. That puts us in the volume game. We’re going through three times the amount of food we went through pre-pandemic. On the plus side, Uber Eats covers the cost of the order if they mess up, plus a lot of people have found out about us through their marketplace who probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

We were lucky that, for a few months during both lockdowns, our landlord participated in the government program that brought our lease down to a quarter of the usual rate (the government covered 50 per cent and the landlord ate the other 25).

Over the summer, as other restaurants were able to open patios, the Aloette orders slowed a bit. While we aren’t making as much per customer as we did in normal times, we’re doing okay. One big difference is that our earnings split used to be about 60-40 for food and booze, and the margins for alcohol were a lot larger. Now we’re doing about 95 per cent food and trying to compete with the LCBO on booze, which is impossible.

Throughout all this, I’ve been staying in touch with other restaurateurs. I’ve compared notes on the new takeout reality with Adrian Niman, who runs Food Dudes, and Janet Zuccarini, who has Gusto 54. I’ve commiserated with Victor Barry, who now runs Piano Piano, about the challenges of getting the ingredients we need. For the first couple of months, it was difficult to find yeast for our milkbread rolls. Our suppliers told us that luxury ingredients like tuna and white asparagus weren’t available—no one was bringing them into Canada because no one was buying. No one, that is, except us. One of our veg suppliers went out of business, so no more microgreens or baby veg. The migrant workers who usually travel to Ontario to work on the farms through the summer and fall weren’t allowed to cross the border, so even if our specialized suppliers were still in business, it was a struggle to produce what we needed.

What people want to eat has changed, too. No one was ordering the Aloette sashimi, but they were ordering the fried chicken and the burger, the mac and cheese and the short rib—comfort food. Usually, we’d introduce a new dish into the Aloette menu and give it a couple of months to see how it worked, talk to the servers, let it evolve. During Covid, we can give it a week. The margins are smaller, and there’s little room for experimentation.

Every week brought a new challenge. We also put Alobar, with its $85 rib-eye and $50 rack of lamb, on Uber Eats, but it flopped. That menu didn’t make sense on an app. Plus, the regulars at Alobar didn’t seem to be into delivery. Once summer arrived, we opened the Alobar patio and all the regulars returned.

Alo was a completely different story. There’s no patio, so I thought, Why not see if people will buy our five-course tasting menu for takeout? We offered that four days a week through Tock, the same app we’d used to book reservations. You’d think people wouldn’t want takeout tasting menus, since so much of the appeal is in the presentation and the pacing. But pretty soon we were selling dinners for 600 people a week. A few customers order from Alo nearly every day. My theory: some people like having someone else decide what they’re going to eat, especially when the world is as stressful as it is right now.

I felt awful about being able to bring back our cooking crew but not our servers or bartenders or other staff. Some of them didn’t see a future in restaurants and left for good. One of our front-of-house managers went back to school. Others looked for work in other industries. Then I had an idea to hire more of my staff back. The five-year anniversary of Alo was coming up—we’d run an outdoor Alo pop-up. It was one way to bring staff and our customers back, at least for the short term. Where and how, though: I wasn’t sure. This was late June, and we realized we had to get a pop-up going immediately if we wanted to break even. We went into planning overdrive.

We leased a parking lot on Wellington just east of Portland and got access to the adjacent building to set up a temp kitchen. We arranged for permits, then rented a wedding tent, built a kitchen from scratch and trucked over Alo’s dining room furniture for 14 tables. It looked great at night, with string lights hanging from the tent roof. Two weeks later, on July 23, we were open. We called it Alo Midsummer. We hosted 40 customers, five nights a week. Each night, we served a $250, 10-course tasting menu. I wanted it to be over-the-top, so we did caviar and foie gras, and the servers pushed around a champagne trolley and an aperitif trolley. I brought my charcoal barbecue from home and set it up nearby so we could grill Wagyu.

Our two-month pop-up ended up running for nearly four. It was great to get back to something like normal, even if it was outside. I’d forgotten how much I looked forward to writing menus, to doing the pre-shift briefing, to working with premium products, to having little conversations with somms and servers, asking them how table one is doing. At the start of November, we struck the tent and hauled the leased propane heaters to Alobar’s patio. There was no way we were going to lose those heaters—with every restaurant and bar trying to run an outdoor space, it’s become impossible to find them. Some weeks, we’ve had to search for propane, which was also selling out everywhere.

 


It took me a while to admit that I’ve turned from a guy who runs restaurants into a businessman who develops products. Right now, the traditional restaurant model feels like a thing of the past

 

I tried to keep the pop-up going as long as possible, mainly because I didn’t want to lay off our staff again. But once winter and the second full lockdown arrived, takeout and delivery became the only ways to keep the business going. It’s a cliché to describe my workmates as my family, but that’s truly how we see each other. When a restaurant is run well, you feel like a family—that’s how it was for me at Daniel. At Alo, we all take care of each other, we check in with each other. The nature of our work means we’re in each other’s bubble.

The stress, the constant pivoting and the worrying about new instructions from the city and the government haven’t been easy. The shutting down and reopening and watching the numbers rise—it’s a mindfuck. It’s difficult to keep coming up with new ideas. It’s totally exhausting.

It took me a while to admit that I’ve turned from a guy who runs restaurants into a businessman who develops products. At the moment, the traditional restaurant model feels like a thing of the past. What I’m focused on today is building a brand, whatever that involves. As impossible as it sounds, we’re growing again. We’re starting to talk about making and selling Alo products like ready-frozen Alo milkbread. For the holidays, we sold 1,000 gift baskets of cocktails, Alo bar snacks and Alo coasters. We now have our own wine: a California winery produced a 2013 cabernet sauvignon and a 2016 chardonnay for us.

I just signed a lease for a 1,000-square-foot space in Liberty Village. We’ll install a kitchen and sell Aloette takeout—it’ll hopefully open this spring. And I’m looking at other spots for another Aloette takeout. If we do it right, there will be Aloettes right across the country.

We’re only doing as well as we are because we reacted quickly and kept pressing the initiative. There are days when I ask myself, Do I really have to pack another takeout bag? But I signed up to own a business, and when you’re in business, anything can happen. I keep reassuring my staff that one of these ideas we come up with will be the thing that keeps Alo going after Covid is done with.

I also keep telling myself that restaurants aren’t going anywhere. At the same time, even now that vaccines have arrived, I’ll be surprised if any of us are able to have customers dine indoors again for a long time. Which is why it’s so amazing that restaurant workers keep going, and keep smiling under their masks.

In the meantime, people need to try new food, eat out, get a burger. Look at our amazing customers, sitting out there in two-degree weather. They want some version of their regular routine—a date night, a beer with a friend. You could see during the first lockdown what it would be like if the city lost its restaurants: streets and sidewalks empty, the city shut down at nine. The pandemic is proving just how important restaurants really are.


This story appears in the February 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.