Get to Know a Chef: Rory McGouran, 416 Snack Bar
Like many others, chef Rory McGouran's first experience at 416 Snack Bar was a late night ordeal. The unique dining experience ultimately brought the fine-dining chef back to the Queen West hotspot, where he now showcases a diverse menu wonderfully lacking in pretense. Here McGouran talks about switching gears in the industry, developing new items, and some of his favourite places to snack in Toronto.
Did you always want to be a chef?
No, I didn't start professionally cooking until my early 20s. I didn't know what I wanted to be. If you asked my parents, the chef thing would have been the last thing they would have said. Growing up, all I wanted to eat was ham sandwiches and dill pickle chips. But I was always a creative person; I liked to work with my hands, so when I was young, I did all sorts of construction projects like woodworking.
As I started to find what I wanted to do, I started working casually in restaurants. I was 19 when I started working at The Sultan's Tent. And then the garde manger didn't show up to work one day. The chef was freaking out because we were 200 booked and super busy, but I had been watching his job for about eight months and I told him I could do it. So he stuck me back there and I haven't left the kitchen since.
Was that when you decided to embrace the profession?
That wasn't really when I figured it out, no. That was when I realized I had some natural abilities and skills within a kitchen. I started working at The Keg and Moxies and that fostered a little more interest and I wanted to see how far I could really take it. And then I started working at the Drake Hotel and that got me to see a little of the finer side and it was something I wanted to get a little more versed in so I went to Stratford Chef's School.
After I finished, I got the apprenticeship at Scaramouche where I met Keith Froggett. He was a very instrumental mentor, teaching me about personal standards and how this profession is more than just a passion. A passion is a quick flash in the pan while if you really care about it it's about dedication and technique in the day-to-day routine. It's about the real craft of what we do.
What's the biggest lesson you learned from Keith Froggett?
I came from casual dining where it was all about food costs and making sure you use every possible scrap, and when I got to Scaramouche, it was about putting the best product out. I made risotto one day, and I had a little bit left over from the day before, and I started to use the old stuff first. Keith saw me doing that and he just pulled me aside and looked at me and said, 'We are better than this. You are better than this.' That was something I really took to heart and that was when I decided that I always wanted to have that standard and strive to be the best that I could be.
What brought you to 416 Snack Bar?
A lot of things bring everybody to Snack Bar. My first experience here was late night after work, hearing the buzz about it inside the industry — about the unique style of service and food. I actually found the owners on Craigslist. They needed to fill the position pretty quick and it seemed like a pretty good fit.
I love the casual atmosphere and how we get kind of back to basics, away from the pretentious big white plates with lots of garnishes. Not that that doesn't have its place, but substance rather than presentation is the thing. The diversity of cuisines that I get to learn about and experience is great. We go out on field trips and eat the most random stuff we can find and figure out how it relates to Toronto, and we really try to capture on the menu the multicultural diversity of the city. That's why we call ourselves 416.
Was there anything you had to relearn by transitioning from fine dining to a more casual post?
Probably humility; never thinking you're above and beyond something. Taking that step back... There was this big dividing line of being a casual chef or a fine dining chef where there were certain things I want to work with. When I came here, I decided I wanted to let all of that go and see that I still have to work under the food costs and constraints that any chef has.
And when your items only cost $3-4 you have to be very selective of what you want to purchase and order. And I don't have have a lot of space to keep things. It wasn't so much a transition as having a different point of view. Just because it doesn't look like sex on a plate, doesn't mean there's not a lot of hard work or innovation and creativity involved in it.
What cuisine did you like learning about the most?
Our Trini double, which is Trinidadian street food, is a totally vegan dish and it's definitely very popular. It was interesting to learn about how they make food in such poverty; they're able to create substance and great flavours out of very raw products like chickpeas and tumeric and cumin. It's basically a fried poolish with tamarind sauce, and has been a staple on our menu since I put it on. I don't see it coming off any time.
Where do you like to source your ingredients?
Local as much as I can. I use Hooked for all my sustainable seafood. The closer I can get it from, the better. I use Off the Bone for all my meats, even though we're not a huge, high-protein restaurant. A lot of stuff that I use is more tertiary cuts that's more available to me.
What's your favourite thing to cook on the menu and the most tedious thing?
My favourite thing is probably my favourite thing to eat: steak tartare. Whenever I go to a restaurant and see it on the menu, I just have to order it. Sometimes I wish restaurants don't have it so I can order something else. The most tedious thing we do is definitely our steam bun.
A lot of people would outsource it and buy it from a bakery, but I make all of the steam buns here in house. We make the dough, we roll them out, we proof them, steam them, freeze them, and it is a bit of a tedious process, but it's a very rewarding one at the same time. You put in all the hours of hard work in shaping and nurturing these little buns, and when they turn out nice and perfect it's a very rewarding feeling.
Where do you like to snack in Toronto?
I snack here. I eat way too much here. I'm definitely infamous for finishing my shift and sitting at the bar, gobbling down a few reubens. Outside of that, I like Oddseoul, Kinton for ramen, and there are a few places along [Queen West].
Where would you like the see the restaurant go?
I've only been here for the last nine months, but since I've come here the diversity of our food has changed. I think we provide a more significant meal. When we started, it was a lot more of just snacking, and now people are considering this a dining experience and will come with three other people and sit down at a table and spend two hours here and order the entire menu. I'd like to see the brand of 416 expand. We're kind of limited in our space here, and we can't really get any busier, but I'd love to see the company expand to whatever it may mean: a deli, bistro, catering. I think there are a lot of places we could go with it.
What's next for you as a chef?
I come from a background of really fine dining. This has been a great casual change for me. One day I would like to transition back to having some of that. I don't really want to ever leave Snack Bar, but everyone has to evolve and change. I wouldn't say I want to limit myself to go back to fine dining, or being a catering chef, or focusing on pastry. I want to focus on being better as a chef from top to bottom. I love baking bread, I love making dessert, I love butchery and I love working the line. I became a chef because I enjoy being a chef and I never wanted to take the knife out of my hands.
What do you like to do for fun when you're not in the kitchen?
I'm a big sports fan. I live across the street from the Rogers Centre so I'm an avid Jays fan. I also golf twice a week with my father. And I eat out with my girlfriend, but we usually stay at home with the dog and make soup.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Most underrated ingredient? Butter
Best culinary tool? Knife
A chef that inspires you? Michael Wilson
Favourite Toronto restaurant? Scaramouche
What's one dish you can't live without? Steak tartare
What would people be surprised to find in your fridge? Nutella. It's better cold.
What's one food trend that needs to end? Foam
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Photos by Morris Lum
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