| The Critic Doug Pen­fold’s new Moroc­can spot, At­las, proves his globe-span­ning met­tle

Doug Pen­fold has mas­tered Span­ish, French and now Moroc­can cui­sine. How the mid­dle-school dropout qui­etly be­came one of Toronto’s most inim­itable tal­ents

Toronto Life - - Contents - By mark pupo

D

oug Pen­fold has a real-life rags-to-riches story. First, the riches: he’s the chef-pro­pri­etor of Cava, the mid­town Span­ish spot where, af­ter 11 years, it’s still tough to get a reser­va­tion; Chabrol, the Yorkville bistro with a card ded­i­cated to cham­pagne and caviar; and At­las, a spec­tac­u­lar new Morocco-in­spired kitchen he opened last spring on Dupont. Now, the rags: as a kid in Van­cou­ver, Pen­fold didn’t pass Grade 8 be­cause he was too busy wash­ing dishes in restau­rants to help his strug­gling sin­gle mom and younger sis­ter. He later cooked at fis­hand-chips shops and fancy, white-linen French ho­tel restau­rants. In 1993, with $1,000 in sav­ings and his en­tire life in a back­pack, he took the train to Toronto, where he knew ex­actly no one. So he knocked on res­tau­rant de­liv­ery doors, of­fer­ing to work for free, un­til he met Martin Kou­prie, who hired him as a prep cook at the Fi­nan­cial Dis­trict hot spot Jump. From there, he climbed to the cen­tre of the city’s food scene, cook­ing for Jamie Kennedy, Di­dier Leroy and An­thony Walsh. He was the dy­namo be­hind those fa­mous names. In 2001, Chris McDon­ald asked him to join the kitchen at Avalon, then the city’s top res­tau­rant. They got along, shared a love for the pres­sures and the­atri­cal­ity of fine din­ing, and later part­nered to open Cava.

Pen­fold is now 43, and has an elfin squint, a long, back­woods beard and the thick limbs of a pub arm wrestler. He talks in a rush, swear­ing up a storm when he’s ex­cited, which is pretty much all the time. You won’t find him do­ing ca­ble TV cook-offs or pro­mot­ing him­self much on so­cial me­dia (he’s com­posed four tweets in the past three years). In­stead, he’ll proudly tell you, he’s a “fuck­ing hard worker” who ar­rives be­fore dawn and some­times works straight through to the fol­low­ing morn­ing. I’ve spot­ted him scrub­bing pots at Chabrol like he’s still that kid in Van­cou­ver. He took full own­er­ship of Cava in 2014. He makes a ter­rific paella and whole roasted fish, but my de­fault or­der is one of each of the pin­chos, es­pe­cially a lit­tle toast of blue valdeón cheese and sherry-roasted figs; the foie gras– chicken liver mousse with gherkins and but­tery toasts; and the slow-roasted pork shoul­der, crispy but still rip­pling with fatty de­li­cious­ness and quite pos­si­bly the best pig you’ll get any­where in town. And don’t pass up the pa­pas fritas with sage, served in a cone that’s sus­pended at face height from a ringed stand a server screws into a hole fit­ted into the ta­ble. Those fries, and that silly stand, are the ob­ject of se­ri­ous de­vo­tion among Cava-philes, who’d re­volt if they dis­ap­peared.

A more pre­dictable en­tre­pre­neur would spot a for­mula worth repli­cat­ing in a chain of Cavas. In­stead, a cou­ple of years ago, Pen­fold and his busi­ness part­ner, Niall McCot­ter, chose to open a bistro in Yorkville, which is like in­tro­duc­ing an­other bar into King West. But Chabrol stood out, mostly be­cause Pen­fold is a whiz at French clas­sics—he learned un­der his men­tor, the late Claude Bouil­let, at Pastis. He de­vised a menu that’s equal parts light and rich, both guilt­less and guilty treat. I’ve had a steam­ing stew of tur­bot, red snap­per and cod in a golden saf­fron broth that’d lift the most dour mood, and a tar­ragon-laced quiche with a porce­lain-thin crust. And he’s per­fected a gratin that’s seem­ingly equal parts po­tato and gooey can­tal. I some­times go just for a cor­rectly chilled glass of wine, and a tart of puff pas­try and caramelized ap­ples served with a pitcher­ful of whipped-to-afroth sabayon. What I like most, though, is how se­cluded and spe­cial Chabrol feels, the en­tire place just a hand­ful of ta­bles and a mi­nus­cule open kitchen. The clincher is the al­ley­way

pa­tio where there’s ivy climb­ing the walls and a gen­eral sense that you’re wel­come to linger, ex­cept for one night last sum­mer when a sur­prise storm hit and ev­ery­one hud­dled un­der a sag­ging awning, more amused than damp, wish­ing cig­a­rettes were still a thing. While no one would ever mis­take Yorkville for Paris, Chabrol has the right ac­cent.

The at­mos­phere at At­las—Pen­fold’s new­est ef­fort—is sim­i­larly cal­i­brated. The res­tau­rant is also small—just 28 seats—with hur­ri­cane lamps greet­ing you at the door, fret­work pan­els run­ning up the two-storey-high walls, hard­wood ta­bles re­cy­cled from Cava’s old bar, and Paul Si­mon and Grace Jones jock­ey­ing on the stereo. It’s brand new but al­ready feels like it’s al­ways been here. Many chefs spend an en­tire ca­reer fail­ing at one style of cook­ing—Pen­fold has mas­tered three. Morocco hooked him when he took the ferry to Tang­ier from Spain dur­ing one of his fre­quent re­search trips and fell in love with ev­ery­thing he ate. At At­las, named for the moun­tain range that forms a jagged wall be­tween Morocco and the Sa­hara, the menu, much like at Cava, is split be­tween snacks, sal­ads and larger plates, ev­ery­thing in­tended to be shared. My favourites of the smaller plates are a sweet, sticky dip of ground toasted al­monds, honey and ar­gan oil, to be spread on a chunk of pan-fried semolina cake; a golden phyllo cigar stuffed with braised hen-of-the-woods or king oys­ter mush­rooms, with a green, tongue-tin­gling harissa made from spinach, pars­ley and ser­rano pep­per; the jben, a tangy fresh cheese that Pen­fold makes with but­ter­milk in­stead of the more tra­di­tional goat’s milk; and springy, Ping-Pong-ball-size kofta of hand-chopped sar­dines, their supreme fishi­ness mel­low­ing in a broth of stewed toma­toes and cel­ery. The cock­tails and wine list are over­seen by Chloe Lord, At­las’s GM, with a tilt to­ward Span­ish sher­ries, ver­mouths and bigchar­ac­ter wines that can stand up to bright Moroc­can spices and stews.

The most di­vi­sive op­tion at my ta­ble was a tagine of bone-in goat. Goat is a rar­ity in Toronto, out­side of roti shops, curry houses and home kitchens. Most I’ve had has been tough, gamey and about as ap­peal­ing as chew­ing on a mop. But Pen­fold’s ver­sion cor­rects mat­ters: he slow-roasts it for four hours in a hefty clay Römer­topf— which traps the steam and trans­forms the meat into pure ten­der­ness—and serves it in a cumin- and co­rian­der-laced stew of okra, squash and chick­peas.

This sum­mer, Pen­fold cooked at some of Brazil’s Miche­lin-starred restau­rants as a culi­nary am­bas­sador. He was stunned by Rio’s trop­i­cal, tor­ren­tial rains and im­pressed by the cooks he met, whose hard­ships re­minded him of his past. He couldn’t be­lieve how, the week be­fore he ar­rived, one of his Rio friends was mugged for her knives in front of the res­tau­rant.

He called me from Rio be­fore leav­ing for more ad­ven­tures in São Paulo, and shared his be­lief that North Amer­i­cans, and Toron­to­ni­ans es­pe­cially, don’t place enough value in the ri­tual of stop­ping ev­ery­thing and shar­ing a meal. We eat at our desks, in front of our TVs, thumb­ing our phones in­stead of fac­ing one an­other. “There’d be so many fewer prob­lems in the world if ev­ery­one took the time to talk dur­ing din­ner,” he told me. That’s the notso-se­cret agenda of his trans­portive restau­rants and their menus of shar­ing plates. The chat­ter in the din­ing rooms sug­gests he has three rea­sons to be op­ti­mistic.

pho­tog­ra­phy by dave gille­spie

The tiny, per­fect Chabrol, hid­den down a Yorkville al­ley, feels quintessen­tially Parisian

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