Chef Eric Wood believes Toronto’s restaurant explosion is reducing the industry’s quality of service—and, with his new place, he’s going to do something about it.
With a seemingly endless line of restaurants opening in the next few months, it’ll be interesting to see if the city’s supply of experienced servers, cooks, and dishwashers is starting to run dry. Former Fabarnak chef Eric Wood thinks so, and it’s starting to show in service.
“No one has time to train people on proper table settings or making a proper drink,” says Wood, who left the Church-Wellesley restaurant in April. “I drink Manhattans and there are maybe six places where I’ll drink them. There’s a gap in how well people can serve. You need hands-on experience with the guest and know how to read them, chat with them.”
So Wood teamed up with hospitality service union Local 75 to open Hawthorne Food and Drink, a 40-something seat restaurant that will offer training programs for front- and back-of-house staff wanting to fine-tune their skills up to hotel standards. (There’s even a classroom in the back.) The restaurant is being built from scratch on the ground floor of 60 Richmond St. E., a mixed-use commercial and low-rent residential building. Slated for a late-August or early September-opening (the remaining to-do list mostly involves decor and hiring), the restaurant will serve an ever-changing menu that’ll play off the city’s various ethnic cuisines.
“I want it to be reflective of all the neighbourhoods in Toronto,” says Wood, 33, who’s currently planning out the menu. “Most people here like all kinds of cuisine and not just Italian food. Fabarnak was more locally focused and rustic. It needed to be that community food place but I’m trying to make this place more edgy and modern. The compass has swung back from where everything was rustic and sloppy.”
He’s also working with vegan and raw chefs to make a menu that’s more balanced for diners, though Hawthorne won’t be a health-centric restaurant; it just won’t be all butter and bacon. As for price, he’s thinking of $20 for lunch and then $35 to $40 for dinner. There will also be a version of the square-peg bento box he popularized at Fabarnak.
Aside from serving good food—for dinner, as well as eat-in and take-out lunches— the restaurant will have training programs for all sorts of restaurant positions: servers, cooks, baristas, bartenders, and even dishwashers who will learn about chemical safety and organization. It’s similar to the Culinary Academy program in Las Vegas.
“We felt chefs are struggling in hotels and we want to train chefs on how to make basic things like a mayonnaise,” Wood says. “This is a partnership between major hotel brands and the union, so every hotel pays in a bit into this training fund, which is our seed money.
“We’re not existing just to support the union. We are existing to support the entire business. There are a lot of cooking programs out there and I’m focussing more on service, barista, and bartending skills because that’s where there’s a lack. There are very few places doing service training and it’s starting to show. Getting those hardcore skills is important.”
Hawthorne isn’t the first restaurant to offer this type of training outside of a culinary school. Restaurant power couple Marc Thuet and Biana Zorich had Conviction, the short-lived restaurant (where WVRST now resides) that was staffed with ex-cons in an effort to give them a new set of skills both on the floor and in the kitchen. Fabarnak also offers training programs to people wanting to get into the business, but Hawthorne puts a bigger focus on the hotel industry.
Says Wood, “The idea is that I want people to get a great experience whether they’re eating here or working here.”