Little Kitchen

Onward and upward

In case you missed the memo, I’m no longer at bero restaurant, and am no longer involved in any capacity.

I’m very excited about some new stuff I’m working on. But for now, I’ll keep that to myself. I’m still having fun catering weddings for a select few – those who want a more adventurous experience.

Stay tuned…

Substitutions politely declined

In recent years, a number of restaurants have begun adding a clause to their menu which might read something like “Substitutions or modifications politely declined”. Phrases like these often irk diners, who expect that business who claim to be all about hospitality are being inhospitable. We have recently added this policy to our menu at Bero, and as expected, it irks some people. I want to discuss why we operate this way.

I wish we could accommodate every single request and make the dishes remain really tasty. But there are many things I just cannot do. I cannot have a pony, or a ferrari, or be prime minister of Canada. Maybe someday, but not right now. And at Bero, it’s sort of the same.

We operate in a tiny kitchen. We can just about fit our three person team in there comfortably, and they work pretty hard to make our plates come out perfectly every single time. If we WERE to let people re-arrange ingredients on our dishes, our service would suffer, and plates would come out slower or less than perfect, which is unacceptable for us. You might think “well, it’s just one little change”. But remember that we have to write the policy as if EVERYONE can or cannot do it.

We spend a lot of time on our plates. When they are conceptualized and finally created and served, they are good. Really good. Each dish is a balance of many things – texture, acidity and fat, salt and sweet. Leaving out a component on our dishes make them incomplete. They don’t taste quite right. Some might say “flat” or maybe “unbalanced”. Or mushy. And the end result is that you get what you asked for, but you may not get something that’s really delicious. And you wind up being happy with getting what you want, but unhappy that it’s not amazing. We make our food to be eaten a certain way – it’s just that kind of food.

There are plenty of other places that will make a hamburger with no meat, or no bun, or neither. They are the kind of places that don’t care if you have a tasty burger, or that you have a burger at all, as long as you pay them $12 and walk away getting what you asked for. If you are the kind of person that want’s to tell me how you would cook it differently and that we should too, there is plenty of real estate still available – open a restaurant and put us out of business.

We are specialists in making a particular type of food. You don’t ask the surgeon to use a different kind of retractor or closing stitch because you prefer it. In the same way, when you come to Bero, you come for a dining experience that we build for you. Or don’t. That’s the beauty of freedom.

This is not to say that we don’t deal with food allergies or dietary restrictions. We do the best we can to accommodate people. If we have notice, we have been known to custom tailor menus for people. This is not always possible, but we do our best. We have a range of gluten and nut free dishes already. We have prepared seven course dinners for people with dairy allergies, we’ve occasionally even done kosher dinners. All we ask is that you give us some notice to plan out a really amazing dish for you. You won’t regret it.

Working with Lincoln

The basis of inspiration isn’t always obvious.

A couple of people have referred to my restaurant, Bero as “our very own Eleven Madison Park“. This reference, I’m guessing, stems from not only our style of food, but also from our grid-based menu layout. Our original layout, which still exists, is a 3×4 matrix of dishes spanning cold, warm, savory and sweet preparations. The idea here is that our guest gets to enjoy a tasting menu, but have the flexibility of choosing their preferred dishes. Eleven Madison has a similar menu, which is a 4×6 grid of dishes, and ordering happens in a similar fashion (albeit for a lot more money). Eleven Madison is an exceptional restaurant. Bero is a small, new restaurant in East Toronto, trying to make some really tasty food.

Despite having dined at Eleven Madison on multiple occasions, their menu is not the inspiration for ours. Our menu was inspired by Steve Jobs.

I’ve been an Apple user since 1980, which I got my first computer – an Apple][. I was pretty young at the time, but I got a lot out of that machine. I used them in college and a bit in industry, and finally stopped using Windows altogether in 2005 when I got a high-end MacBookPro. All my devices are made by Apple. Bero restaurant, both dining room and kitchen, is powered by Apple iPads.

I've been a big fan of Steve's for a while, enamoured with his ability to communicate and his focus on simplicity and saying "no" to things. As a former software architect and designer, I've always found Apple's approach to making stuff made sense to me.

In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to Apple, after being ousted years earlier. He initially took a survey of all the products at Apple, and promptly killed off underperformers and non-core segments. He them organized the core, remaining products into a grid based on product type and user type.

The famous Apple four-quadrant grid

The famous Apple four-quadrant grid

The idea behind this grid is the same idea that drives us at Bero. It’s the answer to the question “How to we give people a great dining experience while providing options based on what they like to eat?” It is also the answer to the question “How do we, as an organization, focus on delivering a high quality dining experience without it becoming a nightmare to manage?”. This menu allows us to focus on doing a few things really really well. It gives us a way to provide each guest with a great experience, but an experience that they can help shape. We have a small kitchen and not a lot of room for staff. So rather than offer the usual 10/10/6 menu, we decided to focus on just a few things. Just the right amount to give someone a nice experience, without overwhelming them. (Note: The choice to do four courses comes from eating in Italy, where many places offer a 4 course menu consisting of an appetizer, pasta, meat and pastry.) We have to say “no” to some things we want to cook. It can be difficult, because we come up with great ideas all the time. But in order for a dish to get on, it has to knock off something lesser. So dishes fight for their position. We could add a fourth column – it’s pretty easy using Apple Pages. But we choose not to for now, and focus on making our three columns excellent.

The vision of Bero was always that of a special place – one where we do things well, and do things differently. I like how our menu has evolved to deliver something that I’m proud of. Since launching Bero in July, we’ve adopted the menu to offer a seven course tasting menu, outside of the 4 course grid. We attempted to use the grid for this purpose, but it was immediately confusing for both us and our guests. We have retained what we had originally, but now offered a place to showcase a few other items without compromising our food quality or our guest experience. And we offer some chef menu items as additions to our four course – but within a specific structure and flow.

Simplicity is really one of the keys to quality and excellence. We may not be as good as Eleven Madison Park. At least not yet. We certainly appreciate the compliments, and we’ll work hard to get there.

Thanks for the inspiration, Steve.

AFTERNOTE: Menu item design is inspired by Alinea.

The New New Thing

It’s time. It’s been time for a while, but I haven’t been willing to admit it. I haven’t found the right place, the right concept or the right money. I’ve avoided facing it. But no more. It’s been fighting me for such a long time now. The new new thing is upon me. What took me so long?

Real estate gets gobbled up fast in the big city. You look at something, and it’s gone in an instant, likely a new “Blah Electric” serving $9 cans of beer and $6 entrees. More power to them. I won’t get into my thoughts on realtors and how the find me space. Use them to learn the ropes and find space yourself.

Finding the “right money” is tough too. It has to want to help, but not be bossy about things… like having it’s moms’ meatloaf recipe on the menu because “it is the best – ever.” You want win-win money – no regrets on the deal. Everyone being supportive about building something great. Nobody pushing for an liquidation-style exit strategy. Nobody looking for 25% profit margins after 3 months.

Concepts? Too many to list in my head. It’s been a bit of a struggle to get to the point where I’m at now. And it didn’t have to be. But it finally dawned on me. do what you’ve always wanted. Don’t worry about anything else. Focus on the passion. Who wants to open 5 Origin-style 300-seat restaurants, anyway? (Well, someone does).

Where does that leave me? I am going make the kind of food I best like. Food that makes you think. Food that challenges you. Food that tastes so amazing you can’t believe it can exist. Food that brings tears to your eyes. Food that deceives you and puzzles you. Food that you remember for years.

This is the new new thing.

Coming very very soon.

On deconstructing things into food.

I’m sitting on my couch listening to “The Wreckers”, one of the songs on the Rush’s new album, Clockwork Angels. I’ve listened to it about fifty times in the 36 hours since I got it. I have not found too many things in my 43 years on this planet that I’ve cared about enough to hang onto for more than a few months (my wife would not be thrilled to hear this if she didn’t understand the context). Rush, as it turns out, is one of the those things. Rarely do you find something that speaks to you both intellectually and emotionally – something that can touch your soul – throughout your whole adult life.

Taking on this passion project didn’t happen overnight. It has been brewing for a long time, although I probably didn’t realize it when it first came to me. Perhaps I was trying to redeem myself for being introduced to Geddy Lee at the opening of Splendido restaurant, and being so awestruck, and hammered that I couldn’t think of anything to do except stare as my friend Chuck went on bothering this nice guy trying to have his dinner.

I did a birthday dinner in late spring of 2011 for a friend, whose girlfriend organized it with me. She asked that the food be based on “Buddhism and the wheel of life”. Ok. So what do I know about Buddhism? Not much. I’m an atheist with little or no interest in Eastern-based religion. `It was like asking my cat about calculus. Except my cat has the good sense to just go and poop.

“Duck in the forest” photo by Renee Suen

A few conversations later, I knew one percent more about Buddhism than before. Understanding Buddhism, like any religion, doesn’t happen after a couple of conversations or reading a book. It’s a process that requires dedication to the belief and faith…two things I seem to have left in my other coat. But not wanting to back down from a challenge, I wrapped my head around each concept as best I could, and tried to come up with some dishes that closely approximated them. “The light and the dark” became a cold tuna tartare with red wine poached pears, opposite a roasted halibut loin with white asparagus, potato, lemon, and horseradish cream. “The three evil animals: the cock, the pig and the snake” was a tough one. But it just hit me: Carbonara. It’s close – cocks don’t lay eggs – but we’re splitting hairs now. I also introduced the concept of “Karma” as best I could – spring peas appearing in different forms throughout the meal – whole, puree, marshmallow. I think I got an A on the dinner, even if I still failed Buddhism.

Fast forward to the elBulli tribute dinners. After 3 nights and 23 courses, prepped mostly by myself and with a small service team of 3-4 people, it hit me. If I can deconstruct some ideas like religion, why not music, or fashion (keep your eyes open for this) or anything really – why not? I mentioned it to Alison Fryer at The Cookbook Store. Apparently Geddy Lee’s wife used to rent office space upstairs, so Alison was friendly with them.

“Alison, I want to do this – do you think it would be ok?”
“Probably, but if you want, I can ask him. Just write me an email with what you want to say”.

And there it really began.

I forgot about it for a little while, got busy trying to get a new restaurant open, and all that kind of life-gets-in-the-way stuff. But when I attended the screening of the new movie about how Mugaritz in Spain has a musician write music to describe the food, I got kicked back into gear.

Deconstructing music into food is hard. It’s not just about listening to the piece, or reading the lyrics. It’s much much more. Take a song like “La Villa Strangiato” – 9 minutes, 12 part instrumental based on a nightmare. How do you even begin? There aren’t lyrics. So it’s hard to know where to start. But you collect what you do know. Twelve parts – get the time codes. Read about where the inspiration comes from. Listen to the music. Find out what musicians influenced Rush ( in this case, Raymond Scott – Powerhouse). Try and get some ideas as to what each of the twelve parts mean – even if it’s only to you. It’s based on a nightmare, right? So should we make the dish in all black and white – limiting ourselves to black sesame, squid ink, ash and carbon? There’s a part called “Pape and Danforth” (an intersection in Greektown in Toronto) – so that’s maybe something of Hellenic origin, like lamb and yogurt? And the part called “Monsters” – what could that be? How about a sea creature, like squid tentacles, dyed with beet or spinach juice ? This continues for some time until the madness sets in and then passes.

Then you take a song like “AfterImage”, you find yourself doing something completely different to try and explain death and memory of someone without making the dish morbid or depressing.

Eventually, you settle on some ideas, then you hit the books to see if there are things you can do to further develop ideas. Then you refine a bunch of times. Start testing out concepts and recipes. Get a team together. Then try to pull it off, and hope everyone gets it.

Some great photos from the last year

Rockin the BBQ in the Hidden Kitchen

Photo by Ivy Knight/Swallow Food

I’ve been pretty thrilled to get involved up with Ivy Knight, Muskoka Brewery and The Grid to develop a new dinner series called “Hidden Kitchen. We’re hosting dinners once a month with various guest chefs, staff and ideas. Most recently, we did a BBQ dinner with Jason Rees of Pork Ninjas competitive BBQ team. His food is super great and it’s always a pleasure to cook with him. My team is pretty kick ass at all my events, and Esther and Kate (pictured above) were no exception, charming the crowd and delivering great service as always. In the end people had a great time and enjoyed some awesome food. More details can be found on Swallow Food.

Welcome to “Toronto : Down Under”, a celebration of Australian Cuisine.


We’re bringing yet another new dining experience to Toronto.

This year, Australia Day falls on Thursday January 26th. On this day in 1788, the First Fleet arrived from England at Sydney Cove to establish the first European Colony in what became New South Wales.

In the lead up to Australia Day 2012, we will be preparing an amazing meal : nine courses of food to celebrate the founding of our friends on the other side of the planet. We’ll be pairing the food with wine, beer, music and fun form Australia! Think Kangaroo. Wattleseed. Lemon Myrtle. Killer Seafood. Wine. Beer. Whiskey.

Luke Hayes-Alexander will be coming down from Kingston for THREE DAYS ONLY to cook some of the great cuisine he experienced on his two week trip to Australia, where he staged in some of the best restaurants in Sydney. Australian John Placko, one of the most knowledgable and skilled modernist chefs in the Toronto will be there. Rounding out the team will be Matt Kantor, of Secret Pickle, Little Kitchen and Ghost Chef.

Our hosts for the evening will be Alison Fryer of The Cookbook Store and Tony Briganti from Rosemill Development.

About Luke:

Luke Hayes-Alexander is the 21 year old Chef of Luke’s Gastronomy in Kingston. He began training himself at the age of 11 and became Chef the day after his 15th birthday. Since then, he has received an extraordinary amount of domestic and international press, including The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Citizen, Canada AM, Toronto Life, The Financial Times and Food and Wine Magazine. He was recently called ‘The Future of Fine Dining’ by Centurion Magazine.

This past September, Luke spent just over 2 weeks in Australia. He performed Stages in, and dined in, some of the country’s finest restaurants. He travelled through the Outback with 3 of Australia’s top Food Critics to be a judge at the legendary Blinman Camp Oven Cook-Off…he was the first Canadian to be invited to this event. CTV News wrote a great feature just before Luke left for ‘down under’.

Luke’s clients hail from all over the world. All comment on the playful, complex juxtapositions on his plates. Luke is just happy to be changing the way people look at food…one plate at a time.

About John:

John first came to Canada from his native country of Australia in 1985 for the “Taste of Canada” culinary competition. He also competed successfully in numerous culinary competitions in Australia, won gold at the Culinary Olympics in Germany as team captain of a regional team and was the first chef to represent Australia at the Bocuse D’Or competition in France.

He has worked for the Hilton hotel group, the Hyatt Hotel organization in Mexico as executive chef and opened two new restaurants in Sydney, Australia during his career.

John spent almost 10 years in menu development, as product development manager/executive chef at Cara Operations Ltd. and then as director of culinary development for Prime Restaurants Inc.

With the growing popularity of avant-garde (molecular gastronomy) cuisine, John has been demonstrating the techniques to numerous chef/culinology gatherings over the past 5 years and now runs hands-on workshops on selected weekends for professional chefs. His full time position is as director of culinary excellence at Maple Leaf Foods’ innovation and culinary centre, ThinkFOOD! His best dining experiences ever: El Bulli, Spain and Noma, Denmark.

A look back at elBulliTO

After 8 Greuling days of prepping, shopping, equipment gathering, service and teardown, I’m beyond thrilled at how well the elBulli tribute dinners went over. A number of people wrote nice articles about the experience which can be found here, here and here. But mostly I’m thrilled at the overwhelming positive feedback from the diners that came directly to me. That we could take on such a difficult task and have it turn into such a great experience is beyond my wildest imagination.

It certainly wouldn’t be possible without the incredible team around me. Most especially to Alison Fryer and Tony Brigante for the venue and support, and John Placko of Maple leaf for getting us all the equipment we needed to run this event, as well as just kicking ass in the kitchen and constantly perfecting the recipes. Michelle Rabin was not only a huge help in the dining room, but also in the kitchen, prep planning, errand running, recipe testing, ideation and general support. Michael Chartrand for showing up early every day and getting all the snacks ready, and Jacquie who, while despite her nagging me over not having liquid nitrogen, gave me ingredients and some helpful advice on pastry. My servers, Wade and Esther, you made a smooth evening possible. And James and Scott, you are the lifeblood of the kitchen. I cannot thank you all enough.

And now it’s time to move on and make some dinners that are even more outrageous and challenging. Stay tuned.