Get to Know a Chef: Geoff Hopgood, Hopgood's Foodliner
It's all about the ingredients, chef Geoff Hopgood says throughout our conversation. The Nova Scotia native, who recently opened Hopgood's Foodliner on Roncevalles, is a stickler for this basic principle that makes his East Coast fare anything but standard. Hopgood, who draws much inspiration from his Maritime roots, is also quick to cite mentors from the West who have helped shaped his craft. And of course, the ex Black-Hoofer praises his former team and remains an avid fan of their product. Even the Food Network, he says, helped develop his interest as a young chef. But don't expect him to be on Top Chef Canada anytime soon.
Did you always want to be a chef?
No, I don't think so. I thought about being an architect for a bit, and just funny sort of dreams: pro-skier, pro-skateboarder...
How did you develop a passion for food?
It's kind of one of those things that sticks with you, and when you look back you notice it was there your whole life. It starts with the ingredients; just trying really good seafood was definitely something that peaked my interest and started making me want to cook it. My dad used to get a box of super sweet, beautiful shrimps, and one of my first times cooking was just cooking those in garlic butter. And then I moved to Toronto, was a bartender for a bit and kind of liked the kitchen better. I was checking out what they were doing in the kitchen a lot, and then I started to figure out that I should go to culinary school.
What was your first restaurant job?
How did growing up in the Maritimes influence your cooking style?
My mom's cooking in the winter was terrible. Sometimes she would make these wicked chicken wings, but the ground beef or dry lasagna...it just wasn't good. But in the summer when we were at our cottage close to Digby, which is famous for scallops, famous for clams (we'd dig our own clams), lobster...eating that in the summer with fresh vegetables was like day and night difference. So I look back on those ingredients now, and it's kind of fun that we had this place to do that, and we're looking to the Maritimes for some sort of inspiration as far as ingredients go.
What do you miss most about the cuisine there, and what are you most eager to introduce to Toronto diners?
The food of the Maritimes is really very basic. It's all about getting fresh fish and fresh seafood. The thing I miss there is pulling up to a fish and chip wagon and getting fried clams in a hot dog bun with tartar sauce. I miss that freshness.
What I'm having fun with is actually taking my Nova Scotian roots and ingredients and being able to do them in a way that no one is really doing them in Toronto. It's very humble cuisine, but we're putting it on an elevated level. It's more about the idea of representing the type of food I want to make out of that inspiration.
What are the challenges from owning your own restaurant compared to working as a chef for someone else?
Every day is a challenge. It's all very gratifying in a certain way. You have to really want to do it. It's those things on your day off when you have to go all the way around and do everything. If a toilet clogs up, or the sinks back up, or an oven for some reason goes down, or a circulator...it's just a constant thing. I'm very lucky that I have a good manager in the front of the house that takes care of a lot. I think the real challenge is trying to be a firm boss but at the same time keep people happy. It's kind of a balance.
How did your stint at the Hoof Cafe improve your skills as a chef?
It was very fast-paced cooking brunch, so it made me very quick. You always had to think on your feet about new dishes and new things to do. I think it improved how I could conceptualize dishes to a certain point, and it kind of prepared me for this because it was a very difficult job as well. From a chef's perspective, it was always a very busy restaurant and there were always things going on.
What's the secret to cooking fish/seafood?
One secret to cooking fish is to not cook it. We serve a bunch of things raw here: of course oysters, we do a raw halibut dish, we've done a tuna crudo. And we get this beautiful ivory salmon where we do the belly like sashimi. I think that's one thing, to look at it and see if you can eat it raw first and try things like that. And cooking it, I think it depends on the fish...don't overcook it.
What are some of your favourite places to source ingredients?
I like to forage for ingredients. I actually picked wild leeks at a spot just west of the city. I get my fish from a couple places, mostly Hooked and Organic Ocean, which is from the west coast. They're both sustainably farmed, good fish. But we're still playing with it. I still have to look into a lobster source as well.
What do you do for fun when you're not in the kitchen?
I just hang out with my wife, really. We go out for dinner and just try to get away or do something together. We're newly married in the summer, so I like to spend a lot of time with her. Or, just go biking and hang out with friends. It's nice to visit other restaurants and see colleagues out there doing cool stuff. There's lots to do in Toronto and lots of fun to have.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Most underrated ingredient? Carrots
Best culinary tool? Microplane
David Chang or Daniel Boulud? David Chang
Jen Agg or Grant Van Gameran? You can't expect me to answer that...
What would people be surprised to find in your fridge? Spam
What's one dish you can't live without? Lobster roll with a bunch of potato chips
What's one food trend that needs to end? Pop up restaurants
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Photos by Natta Summerky