Grant van Gameren’s rise towards one of Canada’s most celebrated chefs began sizzling shortly after opening the black hoof in 2008. With personal memories of family dinners at the helm of his creative inspiration, he launched several ambitious and controversial menus at the hoof, inviting guests from all over the world to revel in a culinary world they either missed or were missing out on.
Van Gameren’s plight for continuous advancement as a visionary directed him away from the hoof, towards worldly travels, where he was heavily influenced by the convivial style of Spanish dining culture, eventually producing the desire to build the internationally recognized Bar Isabel. His objective personality, authenticity as a man built on noble virtues, as well as relentless work ethic has garnered much success at Bar Isabel, proudly expressed as 2013 en Route magazine’s best new Canadian restaurant.
GVG’s most recent display of a man destined to leave his mark in a city he loves, trusting others will travel to love it as well, is Bar Raval. His unmistakable duende is doing just that, allowing guests from all over the earth an opportunity to lose themselves in a space which is just as much an art piece as it is a vessel for his timeless respect for the art of enjoying delicious food and drink.
First off, tell us how you first got involved in the food industry. Around 16 years old, I started working at Pizza Pizza. That was my first job in a kitchen. I slowly worked my way to better restaurants. I didn’t want to be a chef ever. I never grew up around food, but I’m the type of person who does something and wants to do it better. I got a job at Canoe and I thought I knew everything about cooking. I quickly realized I knew nothing. It was then and there that I decided I was going to put my head down and dedicate all my efforts to becoming a chef. I never went to school, so it was more out of necessity.
All of your current restaurants are inspired by Spanish foods and culture. What is it about that culture that draws you to it? I love Spanish food but what I love more is the way Spaniards eat; the energy, the style and how they eat. It’s quick and social. That’s why Bar Raval has stood out predominantly. The act of standing and eating opens up your body to a more social environment. People can turn around and look around. It’s more about the body language and energy. The loud, late-night eating are all also the kinds of things that inspire me. A lot of people think we’re in the business of food and drink but what we’re really in the businesses of is creating an experience through food and drink.
What are some of the challenges you face working in the restaurant social media space? I can’t tell you how many Instagram accounts I have to look after. How do I concentrate on everything else I have to do? Whether it’s working in the kitchen or nurturing the personalities of 150 employees, it’s tough to balance. Social media has such an importance when it’s so invalid to our business, but you know, now everyone needs to be out there posting pictures. For me it’s difficult finding time and not necessarily have someone taking over. Developing content is the hardest thing for me. We do have in-house photographers who use cameras well but it’s such a beast now with high expectations and what it can do for your business. We don’t even concentrate on Twitter, just on Instagram. I think people’s attentions spans are getting shorter and shorter so it’s all about pictures.
What chef or chef(s) have been your biggest influence? When I was getting into cooking I was doing a lot of Italian, so Mario Batali. Back then, you saw him as the real deal/all-star chef but his food was simple. He made cooking look easy and fun, and he had an attitude and passion. There’s also Albert Adrià and Victor Arguinzoniz from Asador Etxebarri. That’s the kind of food I want to be cooking. Nowadays, I get inspired by the young chefs that work for me.
What do you think makes owning a restaurant in Toronto different?
What’s interesting about Toronto is that it’s a very large city with a large population so there’s lots of opportunity as a small owner. From a restaurant perspective, in a place like NYC, there’s so much more competition. In Montreal, although it has a lot of people, they complain that there’s not enough business. Toronto has that sweet middle ground of opportunity. The population is big, there’s great dining and it’s still affordable. I think more people are realizing how fantastic it is for opening up a small Business. We’re trying to start a not-for-profit restaurant mentoring program just for restaurateurs to help them. Stay tuned.
As a chef and restaurateur whose establishments have made top restaurant lists in publications such as enRoute Magazine & Canada’s 100 Best, what advice would you give to new chefs in this industry? I always tell people several key points if I’m looking to hire them. I tell them that if you look around in the kitchen, 80/90 percent of the people that you’re working with unfortunately are not going to become a chef. It’s unlike most trades where you can be a plumber or an electrician and work for 4 years, then you become an electrician. You have to really decide this is something you want to achieve and go for it. I had to sacrifice a lot of things in my life to get where I am.
They also have to understand that it’s all about the customer and their experience. You have to leave your ego at the door. I think one of the reasons why myself and the restaurants are successful is that I approach cooking as a job and my job is to satisfy the guest and make sure they’re the top priority, not your ego or your food. That’s huge.
Work ethic is also everything. Anything can be taught but a strong work ethic is key to making it up the ranks. In this industry you have to show that you deserve it before you get it.
Lastly, you have to put yourself in environments here you learn and that create opportunities. Sometimes that’s not always the number one restaurant in Canada, sometimes it’s better to surround yourself with a good group of individuals.
What’s one thing everyone should know about you? I used to be a snake breeder. At one time I had 50 pythons and boas constrictors in a bachelor apartment.
When you aren’t cooking or overseeing your popular kitchens, what do you like to do for fun? I have 3 restaurants that are open 7 days a week, I have 150 staff and I’m opening up 2 more restaurants. I just got a new puppy and now have 2 dogs, so my free time is dedicated to be in the park and trying not to do anything work related for an hour. If I can, I like to go to Mexico. I try to travel for like 2 days at time. But my whole life is dedicated pretty much my restaurants.