Get to Know a Chef: Grant van Gameren, Bar Isabel
Chef Grant van Gameren, founding co-owner at Black Hoof and now Bar Isabel apparently didn't grow up eating adventurous cuisine. I caught up with the chef in advance of his upcoming role as judge for Chef's Challenge: The Ultimate Battle for a Cure to chat about how he got into the business and how he keeps himself challenged in the kitchen these days.
You'll be a judge at the Chef's Challenge, tell us about why this cause is close to your heart?
Someone reached out and asked if I would consider being a judge, and it definitely had some personal interest to me because of my mother who died of cancer when I was fairly young. So I jumped at the chance to participate for a great cause.
Of course you have to remain impartial, but do you have any predictions as to which chef-led team will win?
Chef Derek Dammann is a good friend of mine who is participating, but I'm interested to see how Vikram Vij does cooking Italian, and I think Mark McEwan has a great chance because his roots are in Italian cooking.
You've been involved in a number of top Toronto kitchens. Did you know you always wanted to be a chef?
No, I definitely didn't grow up in a household that revolved around cooking and eating together. It was really just a job out of necessity from the beginning. Eventually I found myself in my early twenties without any post high school education, and I took a serious job at Canoe... that opened by eyes to the world of cuisine and from that moment on it was, "this is all I know so I better be the best I can be at it." I put all my effort into learning how to cook and reading up on the craft...that was when I decided this was going to be my career.
What kind of food did you eat growing up?
My family growing up were typical Canadians... we didn't have too much food culture. Typical iceberg lettuce, steamed salmon and rice, or a pork chop and potatoes. Not cultural food.
You've become known for some pretty adventurous things on your menu. How have you fostered that curiosity as a chef?
I'm driven by things I don't know much about, and I like challenges. Cooking offcuts is challenging and it's very hard to make someone eat part of an animal that they're not used to. The whole charcuterie thing is to take stuff that people would generally throw out, or give to the dog, or never consider buying.
I spend a lot of time and put a lot of effort and expertise to prepare something super tasty. Showing people that this stuff can taste good and can be prepared well and encouraging people to be adventurous is really appealing to me. When I started Black Hoof I worked with a chef who taught me about curing meats and really making something from nothing.
What's the most challenging or most rewarding thing for you to cook these days?
Something completely vegan. My sister is vegan, and she doesn't get to eat much of the food I cook. It's very easy to be inspired by a nice piece of meat, but when I experiment with new ingredients and come up with delicious salads and interesting dishes that are completely vegan, fresh and tasty, that's a really rewarding way to cook because it's out of my typical style or realm.
Is there any ingredient you won't cook with?
I hate kidneys, and probably won't ever eat them or cook with them again just because I think they're gross tasting. I believe you should cook what you like to eat.
What are some of your current favourite hangouts or restaurants in Toronto?
I love eating at Grand Electric and Electric Mud. I go to Chantecler a lot and Campagnolo. I like going to Momofuku and Chinatown's Taste of China... you'll find me there pretty often, but its hard to get out when you run a successful kitchen.
What is an average day like for you?
My day consists of two hours driving around in the morning picking up things from the market that can't normally be ordered. I drive to Kensington, Koreatown and then to miscellaneous places like Home Depot and Canadian Tire to pick up smoking chips, road salts, plumbing supplies -- all that less-glamorous stuff that goes along with being a restaurant owner.
At about 3pm I'm in the kitchen prepping for the night service. 5pm is our staff meal, and at 5:15pm we do line-up for 45 minutes where we brief all of our servers on specials, menus changes and ways to improve service. Then from 6pm to 1am or 2am in the morning I'll be calling the line, plating food and making sure every guest is happy. I generally get home at about 2am or 3am.
You posted a defence to criticisms about menu prices in the comments section of our Bar Isabel profile. Where do you think there is a disconnect between diner expectations and what restaurants are able to deliver?
The reality I've learned is that you can't please every single customer. People have different tastes and expectations. People who like my food, like my palate and our clientele know more about food than ever so it's up to us to create better food.
Great food, service and hospitality are no longer exclusive to fine dining, and prices for ingredients continue to increase. Supply and demand has made typically cheap cuts and offals like sweetbreads as expensive as prime rib. You can't expect to pay the same cheap prices your grandma did.
What's next for you as a chef or restaurateur?
I have a couple ideas for eating establishments. No TV in my future.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Most underrated ingredient? Celery
Best culinary tool? Mandolin
A chef that inspires you? Rob Gentile
Favourite Toronto restaurant? Grand Electric
What's one dish you can't live without? Smoked Sweet Breads
What would people be surprised to find in your fridge? A whole lot of expired food
What's one food trend that needs to end? Burgers
What chef would you most like to collaborate with? David McMillan of Joe Beef
For more chef profiles, visit our Toronto Chefs Pinterest board.