The new restaurant, THR & Co., is just three doors down from The Harbord Room. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to expose another part of the city to your culinary charms?
Yeah, we thought about that, maybe somewhere west, but then this just sort of happened. We didn’t seek the new space out—the old owner approached us and it had everything we wanted: a great kitchen, great corner patio, and lots of space. The Harbord Room is a small restaurant, so we have to turn down about 80 per cent of the calls we get for reservations of groups larger than four.
So, THR & Co. is a great way to capitalize on your own overflow?
Right, and if we hadn’t taken it, someone else would have. The space was just too amazing to refuse.
The Harbord Room is a cozy neighbourhood haunt. How is the new place different?
The food philosophy will stay the same. Curt Martin, who is running the kitchen at THR & Co., has been with me for the last five years, so we really look at food in the exact same way, which is almost from a utilitarian standpoint. Everything we do has to have a purpose. There are no extraneous or finicky garnishes. I guess the main difference is that the new spot will focus more on Spanish and Italian. We inherited these great pizza ovens, so it just makes sense.
I read somewhere that you prefer making vegetables to meat. Isn’t that a sacrilegious statement for these hyper-carnivorous times?
I know, right? I guess for me, meat is meat—it’s unctuous, it’s delicious, it’s satisfying, but with vegetables there are just so many ways you can take it. If you look at our menu at The Harbord Room, you’ll notice that there’s a lot more focus on the vegetable preparations—more interesting combinations and components. That’s what gives each dish we make its creative signature.
I noticed the taco is no longer on The Harbord Room menu. Is that because everyone and their mother is doing Mexican?
Yeah, after we put that on our menu a few years ago and it became really popular we actually thought about taking it on the road. That was right around the time that La Carnita and Grand Electric opened and we just thought, “Let’s leave the tacos to the pros.”
Do you feel like the cooking style at your restaurants fits in with any greater trend?
I guess over the last few years our food has become a little lighter, and you’re seeing that in a lot of places. We’ve cut a lot of the cream and the butter and relied on natural vegetable purées to provide that texture.
It used to feel like the trendy restaurants were competing to create the dish most likely to cause a heart attack.
Right, everything was cheese and bacon, and I think everybody got a little overwhelmed and realized that we can’t keep eating like this, or at least not all the time.
There was a study that came out recently that claimed celebrity chefs were partly responsible for the obesity epidemic. Agree or disagree?
I think that’s pretty accurate. I’ve worked in restaurants where the chefs will go to great lengths to hide the exact ingredients they’re using. Customers are saying, “Oh it’s so silky and creamy,” and that’s because the dish has a quarter cup of butter and another of cream.
Pretty much anything is going to taste good with a quarter cup of butter.
Yeah. I think it’s our responsibility as chefs and cooks to put out a product that is healthy or, at least, honest. If someone’s ordering a risotto, they obviously know there’s butter and there’s cheese, but if they’re ordering a vegetable soup, they are probably thinking that’s a pretty healthy option, so I think there is a certain obligation on a chef’s part to make sure that it is.
Okay, on to more important matters—you recently appeared on Hello! Canada’s 50 Most Beautiful Stars list.
Yes, definitely more important. It’s fun to be on those lists, though it can be a bit much.
Whenever I see your name in print, the words “hunky” or “handsome” are always close at hand.
And you know I can still cook. I guess it’s the life that you choose when you agree to do interviews and media. I’m not complaining.
It’s better than being called heinous or hideous.
Right—there are definitely worse things to be called than handsome. And my mom loves it.
Why are you not starring in your own Food Network series yet?
I have done some TV work in the past and that’s something I could be open to. Having a larger staff means that I can have a little bit of time away from the restaurants now to pursue other opportunities. I’ve spent the last five years behind a stove, so we’ll see what happens.
Salt or pepper?
Martini or Manhattan?
Crocs or Birks?
Favourite ethnic cuisine?
Most hated food?
Favourite swear word?
THR & Co., 97 Harbord St., 647-748-7199.