CHEF DE CUISINE - MAPLE LEAF TAVERN

 

Flashback to high school: when I wasn't loitering in parking lots or updating my MySpace page, I was hanging out at shows with my then-boyfriend's screamo band. At the time, I'd heard of Liferuiner and 'Jonny OC', a popular metal-core vocalist from Toronto, but never expected that years later I would come to meet the frontman under very unusual circumstances - in a running group. Our paths crossed thanks to The Food Runners, and while Jonny's career in music has never been short of successful, his accomplishments as a rising chef are undoubtedly taking the spotlight these days. Tenacious, skilled, and one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, he's spent the last decade successfully navigating two contrasting industries without missing a beat. We met up and he kindly shed some of his wisdom while baking an incredibly delicious gingerbread molasses bundt cake, no less (recipe at end of interview).


 
 

Describe what brought you to what you're doing now.
I'd been cooking with my mom, since I was a little kid. Cooking is the only job I've ever really had. The moment I was old enough to work, my mom said “you have been cooking with me for so long, now it's time for you to work”. My neighbour worked at East Side Mario’s and offered me a job washing dishes. I did dishes for about two weeks, and then a line cook called in sick on a Friday night, they couldn't get anyone and I was put on the fryers. That was it, that was when I started cooking. I learned how to put out 200 covers before I could hold a knife properly. A lot of people talk shit about people who work in corporate restaurants, and I get it. As a chef you take a lot pride in the ingredients you use and building the recipes, but I learned a lot working restaurants like that until I was 17. Then, I went to culinary school.

Where did you go to school?
Vancouver Culinary Arts Institute.

Are you from Toronto originally?
Yep, born and raised.

And so you moved to Vancouver temporarily?
When I was looking up schools, I kind of just wanted to get out of Toronto. I loved living here, but I've always had a weird bug for wanting to travel, so I took off when I was 17 to go cook. It was crazy and I remember thinking to myself, "I've been cooking since I was 14, I'll be able do this!" but my first day there I was like, “Ahh! I don't know shit!” For me cooking has always been a big grind and I started at the very bottom. When I graduated and returned to Toronto, I was thinking that I would be able to work at the best restaurants because of my degree and it was such a reality check. “What experience do you have out of culinary school? None? Cool. Here are the dishes, here's a bag of potatoes, start peeling." It was a very big eye-opener and I guess I got to where I was by wanting to work for really great chefs that gave me lots of great opportunities.

 
 

Where does music fit into everything?
Music was a fluke. I never in a million years thought I would be a musician, because I was never really good at any instruments. When I came home to Toronto from Vancouver, my friend John told me his friend was looking for a singer for his metal band. I'd never screamed in a band before and I didn't think I could do it. But I went and tried out for the band and they thought I was good at it - apparently I could scream. So I started singing in metal bands. In high school, I was really into the metal and punk rock scene. Being a cook in a kitchen, is literally punk rock in a way. All these people from different walks of life, but no matter where you come from, you're some how accepted if you cook food. It's the same thing with the punk rock scene. If you share the same ideals you're accepted.

How do you manage two very demanding industries, when you're successful in both of them? Do you sleep?
Do I sleep? Not very much. Music will always be my second thing, but we have been the luckiest band in the world. I'm not saying we don’t deserve what we've been given, but there are a lot of bands that work extremely hard that I wish could be able to do the things we've done and do. As far as cooking goes, I had the biggest reality check in my life last year while I was working at the The Beverly Hotel. I had been sick for about 5 or 6 months and wasn't really taking care of myself because I was so determined to be successful at that restaurant. One night, I finished inventory at the restaurant and went home and woke up in a pool of sweat but freezing. I fainted and hit my head off the sink, woke up in a pool of blood, went to the hospital, and they said I had a fever of 120°F. I had walking pneumonia. I had no idea that I was working 100-hour weeks with walking pneumonia. I didn't even think of it because I was so fascinated with this restaurant being successful. I take my health a lot more seriously now. I sleep a lot more now. With music, we put everything we do into our performance and writing but as far as bands that grind it out non-stop, which I respect more than anything in the world, we definitely don't do that the way other bands do. For us it's something that keeps us honest. We write songs about equality, women’s rights, gay rights, and it gives me a platform to talk about the things I care about. It gives me a healthy balance and makes me happy.

 
 

Talk about your cooking style and what about creating dishes excites you the most.
I wouldn't say that I have any sort of particular style of cooking. For a long time I was really into those perfect looking plates and felt they had to be super elegant and really different and challenge people, but for me it never really felt honest. Chefs that do it and do it well, people like René Redzepi from Noma and now Patrick Kriss from Alo, they see food so beautifully and I love seeing food through their eyes but for me it never made sense. I am this big dude who likes big food and food for me has always been about challenging someone with the culture of food, but in a way that isn't intimidating. For example, I'd rather make someone a fried baloney sandwich and make it the best fried baloney sandwich that they've ever had. I'll make the baloney in-house with venison. So you evoke the idea of familiarity and memory, but then you challenge them with little things but not in an intimidating way, so you are really teaching food culture in a way that will stick with people.


Such a unique approach. What inspired that?
I think for me, when I was starting out I found it was those chefs that really broke down the industry by saying they were going to do what they wanted to do that really inspired me. It was people like René Redzepi, Rob Gentile, Patrick Kriss, Matt Blondin, Coulson Armstrong, John Horne, Anthony Walsh...all these chefs from Toronto that were just like, "this is how I'm gonna serve food". It's crazy that Canoe, a restaurant that's been doing the craziest shit, has been running strong for twenty years. I can't even fathom that, but I think it's so cool. Things like that are what I find inspiring, and I always want to see food through my eyes but also take influence from people I really respect.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
Someone once told me that precision is obtainable, but perfection is an idea that will drive you crazy. I used to be very hard on myself and I still am but in a different way. I was so caught up with the idea of doing everything perfectly - my food, the restaurant, everything had to be perfect. But perfection is so relative that it doesn't even make sense. The idea of precision is that while you might not be perfect, you're doing something better every single time you do it. It's an idea of perfection that's actually obtainable.

 
 

Let's talk more about Maple Leaf Tavern.
Before I worked at The Beverly Hotel, I was going through such a weird time with food. I don't know what was going on or really remember why, but I was pissed off at the Toronto food industry and I had a weird chip on my shoulder. When I started working at The Beverly Hotel, I was forced to snap out of it. I was mentored and encouraged by a team that basically told me to step it up, grow up, and get better, because it's a waste not to. A few months ago, I was approached about being the chef de cuisine at Maple Leaf Tavern. The idea of what these guys want to bring to Toronto is pretty cool because I don't think it fully exists here yet. It's a restaurant that has delicious food, but is also very in-tune with the idea that the service side of the experience has to be as high-quality as the food. A lot of people will go to America, go to Europe, and return to Toronto and say that the service just isn't the same. There's Michelin star ratings in America and Europe and people are proud to serve at these restaurants because it's their lives. In Toronto it's a means to an end. People are either in university or have another job and are just saving money. So it's this idea that the owners are so focused on - having perfect service. Robin Kemp is the general manager and he's like a rock star. He's opened some amazing restaurants so when the opportunity came along and I saw who was involved, I felt so honoured to have this job. It's amazing to see what Robin and Todd [Morgan, owner of Maple Leaf Tavern] have developed because they're not doing anything half ass. I never payed as much attention to the service side of things like I probably should have throughout my career. Having them teaching me everything about service and what's right and what's wrong, and seeing them do it interactively at a restaurant, the things I notice now are insane. I'm stoked to be working with a team of people who really care.
 

What's something you've always wanted to do, but haven't?
My whole dream is to one day own a farm. Over the last four, five years I've been so caught up in the idea of farm-to-table and I know a lot of restaurants are saying they are a farm-to-table restaurant (even if they're not) so it sounds a little typical. I've had the opportunity to work with so many amazing people who really care about it and have connected me with programs and organizations that connect chefs with farmers. Owning a farm and creating something that someone else is then going to make something from is the most humble and sincere thing I could do. That would be the coolest thing ever. Besides that, I don't know, live in Iceland? *laughs* I've been there a couple of times, but never long enough. Their cultural food is the hot dog...how cool is that?


That's amazing. I had no idea. When you're not creating or working, what are you doing?
I work out a lot. I run now too, which is cool. I love going to the movies by myself. And everyone always bugs me about this, but there's this awesome cinema on Roncesvalles called The Revue and it plays random movies all the time, so sometimes I'll just go across the street and have a burger by myself at Rude Boy and it's cool to just sit and talk to the people serving and cooking. I think people are so afraid of being alone. We're in this weird generation where we have to be around people all the time, we have to be texting or on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook. We always have to be somehow connected with people that we end up being disconnected with ourselves. As much as I love hanging out with my friends and family, it's also nice to just see a movie by myself.

 
 

How do you feel about sharing your recipes?
I don't mind at all! I think chefs afraid of sharing their "secrets" are afraid of being one trick ponies. I have a million ideas flowing through my head at all times and take inspiration from so many things that I would never not tell someone a recipe especially if it inspired them to cook.

Gingerbread Molasses Cake

Ingredients
3 1/4 cups all purpose flour
5 teaspoons ground ginger
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup molasses
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup sour cream
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup boiling water
1 cup vegetable oil

Steps
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour bundt pan.
2. Sift dry ingredients.
3. Whisk sugar, molasses, sour cream, eggs, and vanilla together.
4. Whisk in water and oil, then add dry ingredients.
5. Pour batter into pan and bake until tester inserted into centre comes out clean.
6. Cool in pan on a rack for 20 minutes. Turn out onto plate and cool completely.
7. Serve with warm caramel sauce.


Last one. What advice would you give to others wanting to pursue this career?
Find someone that loves and supports you through the madness of the dreams you pursue. For me, I have my Natalie. She's been nothing but supportive and perfect. She is truly my better half. 

 

CONTACT JONNY
Email  |  Instagram  |  Maple Leaf Tavern  |  Liferuiner

CREDITS
Published on January 4, 2016
Interview & photography by Marlee Maclean
Transcribed by Robby Maclean
Thank you to Alina & Ben for letting us use their beautiful kitchen