He has his hoof in the door and isn’t about to let up anytime soon.
maller, more specialized restaurants seem to be the popular choice these days, especially in Toronto. Along with the upward movement towards healthier sustainable menus, is the movement towards unconventional menus. Enter Grant van Gameren. He’s on the forefront of offal cuisine and charcuterie in Toronto with his two restaurants ‘Black Hoof’ and ‘Hoof Cafe’. He has garnered so many rave reviews that his place in culinary stardom may not be too far off. We spoke with Grant on his journey to opening up his restaurants, what keeps him going and why he has some haters.
Everyone knows you as the “new guy on the block” who’s changing Toronto’s food scene for the better. Give us an idea of what your cooking background is like.
Well, in terms of my cooking history, I’ve worked a lot with a chef by the name of Scott Woods and he is the executive chef and part owner at Lucien restaurant right now. I worked with him at Canoe, I worked with him at Habitat and then we opened up Lucien. Along his cooking path, he dived into molecular gastronomy which to most cooks is very intriguing at first and then you either – after a while, really enjoy it and you keep trying to exceed in it and learn new techniques…For me it got to a point where you’re manipulating food so much that, you know it’s just not cool any more, same reason you got into it is the same reason why it turns you off. So we were doing molecular gastronomy, tearing apart beautiful legs of lamb and gluing them back together. But we were also making house made charcuterie, go figure. And I was in charge of that, taking any meat scraps that we couldn’t glue back together and making salami, you know curing stuff like that, it was just something that really interested me the more I dived into it. I began to hate the manipulation of food and I really enjoyed the tradition and technique involved in taking raw pork, and then adding salt to it, hanging it and not knowing what the outcome’s gonna be for a minimum two months and prosciutto is up to over a year. That’s when I realized I really wanted to devote my life to that, so I decided to quit.
So you decided to leave an established restaurant and follow this new found love of cured meat. What were the key events leading up to Black Hoof’s creation?
I decided I wanted to open up a charcuterie bar eight months down the road with one of the servers I had previously worked with. So about a week before I left, I looked on Craigslist for jobs to hold me down and pay me cash. I came across a post that basically was in capital letters saying “CHARCUTERIE???” I opened the post and basically it said everything I was looking for; “looking for someone passionate who wants to open up a charcuterie bar”. At first I was like ok, this is like a fucking joke from my kitchen staff, ‘cause they all knew I wanted to do that and it was a little bit too odd that a week before I left theres a charcuterie posting which you almost never see. So I lined everyone up outside in the alley way and I was like “ok which one of you fuckers posted this?” They know I’m looking at Craigslist so obviously they’re waiting for me to reply so they could have a good laugh. No one ‘fessed up to it, and so I contacted the post – it ended up being Jen my business partner, and we met for brunch that week. She told me what she wanted to do and it was essentially the exact same thing I wanted to do but I had this somewhat commitment with this other guy. I had to make this decision and I didn’t completely trust the guy that I had initially planned to open with, I was still feeling him out and I asked myself do I wait, open up the charcuterie bar ten months after this woman does that I just met, or do I jump on the bandwagon, put my all into it rather than wait around for ten months?
So I decided to do it, and she already had the space and within two months of meeting each other we went 50/50, you know probably the worst business decision you can make is going in 50/50 with no contract, no nothing into a business with someone you don’t know.
And right from the get go I would get in early, I was pickling, preserving, curing meats till five in the morning. It was like a two month hustle, to cure meats its gotta be done quickly. So a week or so before we opened, most of the stuff was curing properly ‘cause I was curing it at higher temperatures than a typical fridge which is what you should be doing but you know its somewhat frowned upon by health inspectors etcetera but a nice eighteen degrees instead of four degrees to get them curing everything was going great, we opened the doors. A week before opening though we weren’t even gonna do hot food, just ‘cause we just put a fridge and tables behind a bar and all of a sudden a week before we had two feet of space enough for an electric stove. We didn’t have any money for a stove but we found one on the second floor, brought it down, plugged it in and designed a quick hot menu. When we opened, the first weekend was just charcuterie and cheese.
When it came down to it, we were like, how really are we gonna be making money if people are just coming in for charcuterie and cheese, you can only make so much. Sure we don’t have to be staffed as much, but people want to come back, they want to start with that(charcuterie) then they wanna have something else. So we designed a small hot menu that I could cook myself and that was it. The first few months it was just me and when we got reviews I was doing over a hundred customers a night by myself and I was fucking in the shits. Mind you, I was in there till five in the morning trying to get my mis en place ready for the next day. We started out small with a little fridge and a little vent that you would have at your house – We had that for like six months and at times we’d be searing portions of foie gras while the smoke just went out and filled the whole restaurant. Literally at certain points when we’re busy on a Saturday night, at two in the morning and all the chefs are there ordering four orders of foie gras, it’s just pure smoke. We end up opening the doors trying to get the smoke out and you could barely see anyone, but that was our thing. We’ve done pretty much everything, not ghetto but kinda rushed and we just took it as it came and we weren’t expecting to get as popular as we have been, you know.
Black Hoof was your first big jump into the world of charcuterie and cured meats. How was the learning curve for you?
I have never cooked a shitload of offal before opening this place so again, I’m self taught. I’m well rounded but I don’t have 15 years cooking under primo chefs. I didn’t want to be doing other peoples food, I wanted to be doing my own, creating my own. Bit by bit I’m learning and yeah sometimes I’ll fuck up. But my guys teach me and I teach them. Having the staff we have is great, were getting all the best cooks in the city that are tired of other restaurants and dont want to cook anywhere else, so they come here. It’s like a cemetary for hard ass cooks..thats the way I look at it. It’s the type of environment where we all learn from eachother.
Online there is a small group of individuals that aren’t taking too well to your cured meats. How do you respond to that?
Some people come in and they don’t appreciate the cured meats, and we see the comments all the time on the internet. They think they can buy them at Dominion (Metro), sure, its mass produced pork, everything is in there, there’s lots of chemicals, sure. We’re just doing what we’re doing so to any haters out there, and to those people that are jealous that they don’t get the recognition, I’ve been working my ass off because I’m truly passionate, so they can all suck it.
Aside from all the haters, who inspires you to do good food? Who do you like to go to for advice? Do you have any mentors in the industry?
Not really. I don’t mean that in like a cocky way, I mean, I think a lot of guys are doing solid things and I get inspired by various people’s concepts but I think I get more inspired by having bad experiences. Going out and dining and saying like, this service is shit or thats great. I feed off things, not that I’m a negative person but you start seeing whats wrong with people, what people aren’t offering, and then you kinda do the opposite you know. I don’t have a lot of time to go out and eat dinner, I don’t read a lot of cook books that have pictures and I don’t try to see what everyone else is doing all the time. Because then you just start copying people and you start becoming one of these chefs that are cookbook chefs that just look at Alain Ducasse’ books and fucking rip it off you know. I think my biggest inspiration is the cooks we have here because unlike most restaurants its not like I’m the Executive Chef, where these are my workers, I come in and design a menu, they execute it and I get all the credit for it. I’ve got solid ass cooks that are all the same age, some of them are older, and they’ve all worked at solid restaurants. They all have different skill sets and different weaknesses and together because everyone’s so passionate you know we feed off each other.
I’m not into baking and pastries, I don’t even touch it because it kinda scares me. All the measuring, the rising, the baking, that’s why I got guys that do that and then they teach me. So between the two restaurants and the eight guys we have its a huge information exchange on a daily basis. For example, we got Mike….. he’s Italian. He likes making pasta, he comes up with good stuff so that’s ‘his’ thing and I don’t even need to know what it really is ‘cause I know its gonna be good everytime. I also got Jeff who’s running the show over here (Hoof Cafe) so I don’t have to worry about things as much because he’s awesome and talented. Most people come in here and work on their days off, and they all have keys to the restaurant and they all know the code. They can come in and do whatever they want ‘cause we’re all about learning and you don’t find guys like that at all these other restaurants. For the most part they work the shift then they want to get the hell out of there. So I think my guys are my biggest inspiration. Mario Batali is another big inspiration for me. I love Mario and I think he’s dope. I’ve been in his restaurants…
Which Mario Batali restaurants have you dined at and how was the experience?
Babbo… and a couple others. you know the experience there is unlike any experience in Toronto. We’re so behind on everything. Service, it’s like, I was a walk-in, I got a beautiful table, I bought a glass of wine and they didn’t treat me like shit. It was fucking bang on. Their servers, their bus boys, everyone was spot on and you know the food was spot on and I admire him because I don’t wanna have a shit load of restaurants but I wanna have restaurants where everyone’s doing an amazing job and I don’t have to be there all the time.
Mario’s menu doesn’t change that much and I think people want to have menus like that. People coming in just trust us for the most part, while others come in and they’re like, I wish this or that was on there, so we have a couple signature dishes which to me I can’t stand cooking anymore but you know they’re good and people like them and it keeps them coming back, so its a little bit of a give and take…
You are getting alot of attention right now from different publications not just in Toronto but around the world. You even had famed chef Daniel Boulud in here trying your stuff out. How satisfying is it to know that you are getting this recognition? And why do you think you’ve been so successful while others have failed?
We’ve always tried to just keep it real, were not trying to impress anyone. We’re cooking the food we want to cook, we making the drinks we want to make. We’re passionate about it and trying to make everything in house. These other restaurants have gotten so big that no one is doing things artisinally any more. I think most restuarants, especially most of these big ones, not to trash talk them but there’s so many generic menus out there where you walk down the strip and everyone’s serving the same mussels dish. No one is trying to specialize in anything anymore. If you go to New York, you got the donut guy you got the pickles guy, you got all these diverse things and they’re doing it well. Here, no one is trying to do anything different, everyone is just trying to please everyone.
But then you got restaurants like Fresh that’s busy and is a niche. We’re busy because we are a niche and I’m sure we lose lots of business because we don’t have much vegetables but thats fine, go down to Fresh. We are creating an environment and we’re doing things the way we want to do them. For example if we run out of something we don’t give a shit, take it off the menu board, whatever. If we don’t have a garnish, no chef is going to yell, I’m not going to yell at anyone. And the fact that Jen and I as owners, are constantly here shows alot. Most people get comfortable; business is good so they hire someone to do their shit. I think anyone other than the owners, truly care as much about every single plate or every single drink. I know that we have employees that care 99% about them.
I know when I go out to eat I don’t want to go to these big fancy places, I know how much everything costs, I feel ripped off once and a while. But I’ll head over to Pizzeria Libretto or even Foxley on my way home. Although there’s alot of people doing great things in the city I also think alot of people could be doing things better. Not that we were the first ones serving sweet breads but we have people lining up just to have it. Sometimes we’ll have 20-30 people waiting outside, once we open the doors they start piling in, and its like wow, these people are lining up just to eat pig snout, sweet breads, heart or tripe. This stuff isn’t new to the cooking world, you have St. Johns, Incanto in San Francisco, theres places out there but no one was really doing it in Toronto.
Now that you have Black Hoof and Hoof Cafe under your belt. Are there any other ‘Hoof’ ventures in the works?
Absolutely. No one is really curing meats and selling it retail, and I think the city really needs that. We are making alot of cured meats and salami and we’re just stockpiling right now. A little hole in the wall retail space close by is in the works. Even a place where people can come see how meats get cured. Brandon and the guys are piling up and I think in the next two to three weeks we’re gonna start selling stuff in the restaurant. I’m trying to find a big cigar box to line in felt and just have like some rows of various things for sale. Its kind of illegal, you’re not supposed to be selling cured meats like that… but…
There’s a way around it no?…
Well its like take-out, take-out charcuterie. So that’s what I’ll do until I get everything else together, I’ll test it out and see how people react. We’re also importing big barrels of olive oil from Italy so people can come and do refilled olive oils. We’ll also have some tee shirts and hats but we’re not looking to be cheesy and like expand it like crazy. Overall, we dont want to get too big and sell out. We want to keep things artisinal.
Interview & Photography by Chuck Ortiz.
Transcribed & Edited by Arianne Persaud.