Work­ing the pass with pas­sion

How to en­sure the mae­stro is in the kitchen when you eat out

Richmond Hill Post - - Food - by Ben Ka­plan

In this new restau­rant re­nais­sance, chefs are no longer sim­ply the peo­ple in the back of the kitchen, turn­ing out dishes –– now, they are name brands and en­trepreneur­s. They’re busi­ness own­ers, Instagram in­flu­encers, celebri­ties. Among the most well-known chefs of the Toronto din­ing scene, only some of them still work their kitchens. The oth­ers are busy film­ing tele­vi­sion shows, writ­ing cook­books or man­ag­ing restau­rant em­pires from afar.

Work­ing the pass –– kitchen lingo for stand­ing at the counter to check that each dish is per­fect, touch up each plate be­fore it goes out to the diner and call out or­ders –– is be­com­ing a skill that’s not as im­por­tant, for some, as Instagram feeds and off­shoot restau­rants. But here are three vet­eran high-pro­file chefs and one re­cent ad­di­tion to their ranks who still show up to work ev­ery night.

Keith Froggett, the chef-owner of Scaramouch­e, has spent 25 years at the pass. As the last line of qual­ity as­sur­ance be­tween chefs on the line and the diner, he doesn’t in­tend to give it up any time soon.

“Af­ter so many years of work­ing the pass, I still get a big knot in my stom­ach when ser­vice isn’t good, and it hasn’t got­ten any eas­ier, but you know what to ex­pect,” says Froggett, whose restau­rant rou­tinely winds up on lists of Canada’s best restau­rants, with accolades in places like Condé Nast Traveler and the Globe and Mail.

“It’s what I do. I like tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Re­cently, Grant van Gameren has been con­fronted with this is­sue of re­spon­si­bil­ity. Af­ter years float­ing in and out of his kitchens while si­mul­ta­ne­ously run­ning his ex­pan­sive restau­rant em­pire and rais­ing a child, he can lately be found work­ing the pass at Quet­zal, a Mex­i­can restau­rant he owns on College Street. This past Jan­uary, he had a fall­ing out with his found­ing chefs and part­ners, which re­sulted in them leav­ing the restau­rant.

“It didn’t work out, but at the end of the day, I have all of my life sav­ings in­vested into this restau­rant that took three years to build — we spent dou­ble the bud­get, so I have to take ac­count­abil­ity and make it work,” says van Gameren, who owns eight restau­rants with a com­bined 350 em­ploy­ees. Van Gameren, 37, is a fa­ther of a young son and his sec­ond child is a few weeks from be­ing born. He has been work­ing the pass at Quet­zal seven days a week.

“It’s my mess to clean up,” he says, adding that work­ing the pass re­minds him of his first big restau­rant, the Black Hoof, which he co-founded in 2008 with Jen Agg.

“Work­ing the pass now and cook­ing the food brings me back to where I started, and it’s in­vig­o­rat­ing,” he says. “It’s like the last five years never hap­pened. It feels like good mus­cle mem­ory, like I’ve been in the kitchen my whole life.”

Van Gameren doesn’t in­tend to work the pass at Quet­zal for­ever. He es­ti­mates that he’ll be back to his other projects by the sum­mer. But un­til then, he’ll be at the pass. “It’s clar­i­fy­ing,” he said. “Friends know not to call or email, and my at­ten­tion isn’t di­vided — ev­ery­one knows I am in the kitchen.”

Nuit Reg­u­lar co-owns seven restau­rants, in­clud­ing the pop­u­lar Pai North­ern Thai Kitchen, Kiin and Sukhothai, over­see­ing a few hun­dred em­ploy­ees. Over the last five years, she has be­come one of the most well-known chefs in Canada and one of the most pro­lific restau­ra­teurs. But be­fore moving to Canada, she worked as a nurse in north­ern Thai­land. Well af­ter chang­ing the Thai food land­scape here in Toronto, she still leans on her hos­pi­tal’s or­ga­ni­za­tional skills.

“At the hos­pi­tal, ev­ery­one has spe­cial­ized jobs and works in dif­fer­ent de­part­ments,” she says. “We have that in our restau­rants — dif­fer­ent de­part­ments for dif­fer­ent spe­cial­i­ties — com­ing to­gether to make some­thing great.”

Reg­u­lar spends most of her time in the kitchens of Kiin and Pai and can’t imag­ine a time when she wouldn’t work the pass. For her, it’s more than just food on a plate.

“Ev­ery time I miss home, I go back into the kitchen, and be­fore I send out the food, I look at the food. It feels like my love and care, and I want to send it to the din­ing room, to be shared,” she says. Most of her team aren’t even hired as trained chefs. She takes home chefs, trains them for a pro­fes­sional kitchen and in­cor­po­rates them into her line.

“I feel in­spired by chef [Froggett],” she says. “Twenty-five years from now, I’ll be work­ing the pass. I don’t know what else I would do.”

Bran­don Olsen worked in the kitchens of the Black Hoof and Bar Is­abel be­fore strik­ing out on his own with La Banane and CXBO Choco­lates. Last year, he com­peted on Iron Chef Canada, and now he finds him­self con­flicted: at 36, he yearns to both be in his kitchen and grow his em­pire.

“If I take eight hours of my day to call ser­vice, those are hours I can spend do­ing some­thing else in terms of grow­ing busi­ness con­cepts. But I don’t ever want to not call ser­vice,” says Olsen. “I have to make some choices in the near fu­ture be­cause I need to have a healthy life­style. Maybe that’s my dilemma right now.”

Mean­while, Olsen, who owns one of the most ac­claimed restau­rants on the Ossington strip, con­tin­ues to show up at his restau­rant and ex­am­ine each plate that ex­its his kitchen.

It seems like each restau­ra­teur has their own recipe for not only a suc­cess­ful bot­tom line, but for the very no­tion of what suc­cess means to them. Keith Froggett mea­sures his suc­cess one plate at a time. For him, staffing the pass at Scaramouch­e and its ca­sual sis­ter restau­rant, the Pasta Bar & Grill, is enough.

“I think it’s im­por­tant. To me, it makes me proud to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for ev­ery dish,” he says.

Clock­wise from left: Chef Keith Froggett be­hind the scenes at Scaramouch­e; Nuit Reg­u­lar (right) says she’s in­spired by chefs like Keith Froggett; Grant van Gameren now spends seven days a week at Quet­zal

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