Chef Bran­don Olsen and his new res­tau­rant La Banane

Bran­don Olsen grad­u­ates from choco­lates to La Banane

Midtown Post - - Con­tents - by An­drea Yu

Bran­don Olsen is a man ob­sessed with process. Prior to open­ing of his French res­tau­rant on Oss­ing­ton, La Banane, the chef spent hours in the kitchen break­ing down ev­ery el­e­ment of his menu in progress.

“To make a per­fect omelette — nice, medium rare, still soft, no brown on the out­side, not spongy, creamy — it’s a hard thing to do,” he says.

In his re­search, Olsen pored over vin­tage cook­books from the ’60s and ’70s. Like a mad sci­en­tist in a lab­o­ra­tory, he ex­per­i­mented with ev­ery pos­si­ble vari­able — from the heat of the pan to the way the but­ter melts in it.

“Don’t for­get about the car­ry­over. Eggs carry over with the cook­ing time. It’s per­fect when it goes out of the kitchen, but it has to go all the way down here,” Olsen says, point­ing to the ta­ble furthest from the kitchen by the front win­dow.

But this ob­ses­sion and need for per­fec­tion sets Olsen apart from the av­er­age chef, and it’s also why La Banane has been so suc­cess­ful since its Jan­uary open­ing.

“We’re booked solid for the next four or six weeks,” he says, humbly. “It’s pretty re­mark­able, I would say. But there are a lot of eyes on us.”

With some­one of Olsen’s pedi­gree, the ex­pec­ta­tions are un­der­stand­ably high. Orig­i­nally from Burling­ton, the bud­ding chef cut his teeth at var­i­ous Toronto kitchens in his early 20s. He then moved to Cal­i­for­nia’s Napa Val­ley in 2006 to work for Thomas Keller’s famed restau­rants: the French Laun­dry (ranked the world’s best res­tau­rant dur­ing Olsen’s stint) and Ad Hoc.

Olsen was cap­ti­vated by the tech­niques and method­olo­gies in Keller’s choco­late pro­gram, teach­ing him­self how to make choco­lates. But in 2008, the re­ces­sion hit and Olsen’s U.S. work visa ex­pired, so he re­turned to T.O.

Ea­ger to put his learn­ings into prac­tise, Olsen put ev­ery­thing he had into start­ing his own choco­late com­pany, Neslo, in 2009.

“I pulled the trig­ger too early,” Olsen says, of the two month-long op­er­a­tion, “but I sunk it at the right mo­ment.”

Knee-deep in debt, Olsen went look­ing for work. Not a week later, he found him­self in Grant van Gameren’s kitchen at the newly opened Black Hoof. Van Gameren’s in-house char­cu­terie pro­gram sa­ti­ated Olsen’s in­ter­est in pro­ce­dure, and the two de­vel­oped a close bond. When van Gameren left in 2011 to start Bar Is­abel, Olsen be­came the Hoof’s chef de cui­sine. Two years later, van Gameren brought Olsen to Is­abel as its chef de cui­sine.

Olsen left Is­abel in 2014 to start a res­tau­rant. The part­ner­ship col­lapsed within two months, so he re­fo­cused on his pas­sion for sweets and made a sec­ond at­tempt at a busi­ness: Choco­lates by Bran­don Olsen (CXBO). This one stuck.

“I showed up with a set of keys in my hands and said to my fi­ancée, ‘ To­mor­row I’m open­ing up a choco­late com­pany,’” he re­calls. “She looked at me like I was on some kind of ma­jor acid trip.”

Olsen’s fi­ancée, Sarah Keenly­side, an artist and film­maker, ended up be­com­ing a ma­jor fig­ure in CXBO. Although Olsen crafted choco­lates with nu­anced flavours, he, along with Keenly­side and graphic de­signer Ryan Crouch­man, helped con­ceive CXBO’s mod­ern es­thetic. The re­sult? Those eye-catch­ing splat­tered de­signs that have be­come the com­pany’s trade­mark.

The in­de­pen­dent choco­latier’s suc­cess helped him earn the trust of the King Street Food Com­pany, the res­tau­rant group be­hind Buca, Ja­cob’s and Co. and more. Prior to the shut­ter­ing of the Saint Tav­ern, King Street of­fered Olsen the Oss­ing­ton spot. With the goal of a conceptual re­fresh, Olsen was given carte blanche to re­al­ize his vi­sion of a clas­sic French res­tau­rant. Back in the kitchen, Olsen tin­kered with age-old recipes and re­fined his take on the tra­di­tional cui­sine.

“What can we do to ref­er­ence a clas­sic dish but play with it a lit­tle bit?” Olsen thought. “What can we do to el­e­vate it to 2017’s palate?”

The an­swer is light­ened and play­fully reimag­ined ren­di­tions of French stan­dards. In­stead of liver and onions, a mousse is cre­ated from chicken liv­ers and cipollini onions are roasted with hen-ofthe-woods mush­rooms. His Euro­pean sea bass en croûte is wrapped in a lighter, lat­ticed pas­try as op­posed to the full par­cel.

In­spired by his love of disco mu­sic, Olsen wanted a sim­i­lar clas­sic-con­tem­po­rary vibe for La Banane’s in­te­rior. For this, he turned to Keenly­side, who worked with Ma­son Stu­dio.

“The Banana is her and me,” Olsen says. “Her art meets my food meets our en­vi­ron­ment.” A vin­tage es­thetic of brass rails and mar­ble coun­ter­tops is up­dated with a bold mu­ral com­mis­sioned to lo­cal graphic de­signer Barr Gil­more and pieces from the cou­ple’s per­sonal art col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing works from Dou­glas Cou­p­land.

In the long-term, Olsen plans for La Banane to be­come more than just a res­tau­rant.

“I want to be an in­sti­tu­tion in 30 years,” he says. “I’ve al­ways en­vi­sioned the res­tau­rant to be an oc­to­pus where it has eight ten­ta­cles, and each ten­ta­cle is its own sus­tain­able, prof­itable en­tity,” chef says.

But un­til then, Olsen is up at 7:30 a.m. and doesn’t head home un­til 3:30 a.m. If he’s lucky, he’ll sneak in a 20-minute nap on one of the vel­vet ban­quettes.

The weari­ness shows in Olsen’s eyes, but the ex­cite­ment shines through. To Olsen, the marathon days and nights are a fair trade-off to see his vi­sion come to fruition.

“I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Clock­wise from left: Chef Bran­don Olsen; Al­ba­core tuna with brown but­ter, dill and capers; Euro­pean sea bass en croûte with yuzu beurre blanc

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