Get to know a Chef: Rod Bowers, Hey Meatball!
Chef Rod Bowers is certainly no stranger to the industry, having established a few restaurants in the city and being mentored by some serious culinary heavyweights. Now, he's translated it all to his new restaurant, Hey Meatball!, in Little Italy, which serves the humble dish in both traditional and novel renditions. We talked about the secrets to staying in the business, what he's witnessed in the kitchen over the years, and what restaurants might look like in the future (hint: they've got wheels).
What's the secret to a good meatball?
Aside from love, time and care, I think it's the ratio of meat to fat to what we call "panade." It's having a proper ratio of all things that go into a meatball; so you don't have too much meat so it's not tough, you don't have too much fat so it's greasy, or too much breadcrumb where it doesn't seem like a good meatball. I think it's figuring out the balance.
You've created butter chicken meatball and a salt cod one. Are there any meats or proteins that don't make a good meatball?
I don't think so. I think if it's out there, we've ground it up, turned it into a ball and cooked it. We have fish balls and all kinds of wild game balls. I think it's great, I mean here we have two veggie balls, mushroom eggplant and we also have legume balls with lentils and peas and sweet potato. It's just a great medium for anything. And the great thing with a meatball is that you can still use really high quality meat but use different cuts of it, normally ones the might be a little bit tough.
How is operating this restaurant different than your previous ventures?
It's just the whole setup of this one. It's set up more like a grab-and-go, and it's just more of a relaxed atmosphere. We've never had any pretension at the restaurants that I've ever owned. The serving has always been very laid back, but we're also at a price point here where a lot of it happens behind, and it seems very close-knit and everyone really helps out with prep and everyone does a little bit, so it's different that way.
And just the crowd that we're getting in here; we're getting a lot of families and a more varied spectrum. And I think people are starting to come here just because it's easy and very affordable.
You've worked your way up from roles as a saucier and sous-chef. What did you learn from working under all those other chefs?
Every chef is different; sometimes you learn things to do, sometimes you learn things not to do. One of the great things about getting into this industry is that you can get into a restaurant, and what I did was work in a place until I thought I learned it, knew it, and then could move on. Your palette changes and you want to learn different techniques, and that's the great thing about being in this industry is that you have a chance to learn so much.
And the chefs I worked with, from Thomas Henkelmann who taught me discipline and utilizing every single bit of product, to Massimo Capra, to Lynn Crawford who was more about passion...you get a little bit from everyone.
What's the worst experience you've ever had working in the restaurant business?
The worst experience for me was grabbing a cast-iron pan that just came out of a 600 degree oven that literally singed my hand. Being on a kitchen line is very intense so I've seen guys get into a fight; I saw the dishwasher bite the saucier's cheek and draw blood enough for nine stitches because the saucier had thrown a pot at him, I've seen a guy cleaning a hood filter and put his foot in hot oil...so that stuff's the worst.
But in owning my own restaurants, I've had the hood go out on a Saturday night of service with a full restaurant, we were cooking during the blackout a few years ago, we've had floods...you just deal with it. You take the good with the bad and there's been a lot of great moments too.
What are the keys to having longevity in the restaurant business?
You have to be able to learn from your mistakes. As a restaurant owner, I'm not perfect, and you go from being a chef to actually owning a restaurant and then dealing with staff and just trying to be the best manager you can be. In the restaurant business, you have to work hard to keep people, because people are learning, it's an evolving business and it's high stress.
It helps to treat people right when it comes to longevity. And also, understanding your customers; you have to understand what you're putting out. I've learned to never make it about me, it's always what your guests want. You're there for your guests, and I think with that and being able to manage a restaurant properly, you have longevity. And you've got to know how to work hard.
What's your take on food trucks? Any plans to launch a Hey Meatball! one?
I actually have a truck and a trailer, and the truck has literally been sitting at the shop for six months. When I opened this restaurant, I didn't have any money so it just got put on hold. I'd love to open a Hey Meatball! truck tomorrow, but it's all a money thing. I think food trucks are great, if they're done properly. It's another medium to expose good food to people. It's literally a restaurant on wheels, so why not? Why not be able to bring down anywhere you want to be, like in a wedding up in Wasaga beach, how cool is that? So I think they're not bad. I can't wait to have one.
Other than Hey Meatball!, what restaurant in Toronto makes the best sandwich?
A new restaurant that just opened called This End Up makes a really good sandwich. It's a chicken-thigh sandwich which is awesome, and I've tried a few chicken-thigh sandwiches. I love sandwiches, and I think Aaron at This End Up is doing a really good job. The Croatian burger up at Hrvati (Editor's note: Bowers consulted on the menu) is a really good sandwich; the bread is great, the meat is good. And Russ at Aunties and Uncles: that breakfast pocket is awesome, it's good eating for sure.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Most underrated ingredient? Garlic
Best culinary tool? Oven
David Chang or Daniel Boulud? Daniel Boulud
Favourite Toronto restaurant? Parts & Labour
What would people be surprised to find in your fridge? Our little compost
What's one food you can't live without? Ice cream, sweets
What's one food trend that needs to end? Fast-food
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Photos by Natta Summerky