Dudes will be dudes

How the Food Dudes, Adrian Ni­man and Brent McCle­na­han, put their mul­ti­fac­eted stamp on Toronto’s din­ing scene

Thornhill Post - - Food - by An­drea Yu

It’s a sunny Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon and 50-odd mem­bers of the Food Dudes cater­ing staff are gath­ered in the of­fices of their east end fa­cil­ity for a team meet­ing. Among the crowd are event plan­ners and ad­min­is­tra­tion staff, plus chefs and cooks in logo-em­broi­dered jack­ets dec­o­rated with rem­nants of the morn­ing’s work. Food Dudes co­founder Adrian Ni­man in­structs on new pro­ce­dures to im­prove the com­pany’s cater­ing op­er­a­tion.

Just half of the Food Dudes’ 100 plus staff are rep­re­sented here. And al­though Ni­man, who started the busi­ness out of his mom’s kitchen, may be lead­ing the agenda, he’s not the only one hold­ing the prover­bial mi­cro­phone. A chef sug­gests ways to im­prove food stor­age prac­tices; a staff mem­ber pro­poses how to ef­fec­tively tweak trans­porta­tion to events.

A key mem­ber of the crowd is Brent McCle­na­han. As the op­er­a­tion’s cre­ative di­rec­tor and busi­ness de­vel­op­ment lead, he’s more than Ni­man’s right-hand man. To­gether, they’re the of­fi­cial co-own­ers of the Food Dudes, over­see­ing two ac­claimed restau­rants — Rasa and Omaw — two grab-and-go Pantry eater­ies and two food trucks. Oh, and they cater over 1,500 events a year.

De­spite this sound­ing like an over­flow­ing plat­ter of projects, the Food Dudes shows no signs of slow­ing down. Come June 23, the dudes are throw­ing their Block Party IV at Toronto Event Cen­tre — an epic food-meets-art-meetsmu­sic event with over 3,000 at­ten­dees ex­pected. Also on deck is a sis­ter res­tau­rant for Rasa on King West, a third Pantry slated to open in PATH in ad­di­tion to an ex­panded Pantry prep space. There’s also a ca­sual Ital­ian eatery des­tined for the east end of the city.

The most enig­matic of the up­com­ing projects would have to be one headed by Omaw chef and Food Dudes part­ner Matt Blondin. He’s cur­rently work­ing on a new ticket-based res­tau­rant (think theatre!) set to launch next spring.

“It’s an ex­per­i­men­tal for­mat I’ve been work­ing with lately and am re­ally look­ing for­ward to launch­ing,” Blondin says. With a ca­pac­ity of 12 seats, the res­tau­rant will of­fer din­ers a mul­ti­ple-tier, tast­ing menu–only con­cept. Al­though more de­tails on the new projects re­main hush-hush, the Toronto food­erati are surely gear­ing up to pounce. It’s safe to say the Food Dudes is keep­ing busy.

But be­fore Ni­man and McCle­na­han launched one of the top food op­er­a­tions in town, their pro­fes­sional part­ner­ship got off to an ex­plo­sive start. It was 2009, and McCle­na­han was help­ing Ni­man out with a cater­ing gig at a pri­vate Lawrence Park home — one of Ni­man’s most im­por­tant clients. All was go­ing well un­til McCle­na­han at­tempted to pop the cork off a bot­tle of red wine.

“For some rea­son, there was a lot of pres­sure in the bot­tle,” McCle­na­han says. “The wine ex­ploded all over their crown mould­ing and ceil­ing.”

Hop­ing to even­tu­ally join the Food Dudes, McCle­na­han was wor­ried about the im­pres­sion he left on Ni­man.

Ni­man grew up at Yonge and Eg, stud­ied hospi­tal­ity and tourism in Guelph prior to gain­ing ex­pe­ri­ence at Mark McEwan’s North 44 and the Miche­lin-starred Reads Ho­tel in Ma­jorca. McCle­na­han, hail­ing from ru­ral Ot­tawa, stud­ied ki­ne­si­ol­ogy and pre-med at U of T be­fore shift­ing gears.

At the time of the wine in­ci­dent, the pair had been friends for just over two years. De­spite McCle­na­han’s con­cerns, Ni­man saw through the flub, trust­ing that his work ethic and de­sign-fo­cused mind­set could give the fledg­ling op­er­a­tion just the right boost. So the fol­low­ing year, Ni­man made McCle­na­han a part­ner.

From there on, the Food Dudes flour­ished. Ni­man was in the kitchen craft­ing his sig­na­ture global fare.

“We like bold flavours,” Ni­man says. “We don’t stick to one re­gion; we’re very di­verse.”

Mean­while, McCle­na­han honed the op­er­a­tion’s brand and iden­tity. As the busi­ness grew, Lind­say Klein (now a part­ner) took over ad­min­is­tra­tion du­ties.

The next turn­ing point came when the Food Dudes moved into a 2,500-square-foot kitchen at the back of a club. This was Ni­man’s first taste of run­ning a res­tau­rant, op­er­at­ing Bloke & 4th’s three-daya-week sup­per club pro­gram.

“It was great prac­tise,” Ni­man says, “but it wasn’t how I en­vi­sioned my first res­tau­rant to be.”

So af­ter two years of bach­e­lorettes and b-day par­ties, it was exit time. Nab­bing a 10,000-square-foot fa­cil­ity at Lakeshore and Car­law al­lowed the pair to fo­cus on both the cater­ing and the food trucks, the lat­ter of which had been draw­ing crowds as they worked through the fes­ti­val cir­cuit.

But the drive to open a res­tau­rant was still there, so in 2014 Rasa ar­rived on Har­bord. Dish­ing out its sig­na­ture in­ter­na­tional cui­sine (both Ni­man and McCle­na­han have done their fair share of trav­el­ling), it quickly earned spots on “best of” lists. Omaw soon fol­lowed, with Blondin and his re­fined south­ern fare steer­ing the ship.

Pantry came about as a way to make use of sur­plus items from cater­ing gigs, us­ing a pro­tein plus two sides as their busi­ness model. With a re­tail space built into their east end cater­ing fa­cil­ity, it made sense to open a place for grab-andgo meals. A se­cond Pantry opened in Rosedale last fall, and the cater­ing arm con­tin­ues to grow.

“Food Dudes does over 175 wed­dings a year,” says Ni­man. “We do more than 10 events on ev­ery sin­gle Satur­day. What re­ally drives us is cre­at­ing. I never get more excited than when we get a new space.”

L–R: Ni­man and McCle­na­han yukking it up at their res­tau­rant Rasa

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