Keith Froggett has never tweeted. He has no tattoos. He’s been cooking at the same restaurant for 29 years. But in a city that venerates hot twentysomething chefs, his long-term, low-key success explodes the idea that no one over 30 is doing anything interesting in Toronto’s kitchens. Upstart chefs, it’s time to pay attention.
It was a busy Thursday night in the large, bright kitchen of Scaramouche, the upscale restaurant at Avenue Road and St. Clair, but not a voice was heard. There were no barked orders, no “fucks” or “shits,” no words at all, really, except a few commands spoken sotto voce. There was no music—no N.W.A. or Dylan or Pixies blaring from an iPod dock—just the symphony of the kitchen: the thwack of a cleaver separating a partridge leg, the shuffling of metal bristles scraping oysters, the clang of a baking tray entering the oven.
In the back, at the sink, his head bowed to his work, was Keith Froggett, pulling the pin bones out of a filleted sea bream with pliers. More than anything, Froggett hates pin bones, owing to a traumatic childhood incident in which a teacher dragged him onstage by his ear during a school supper and forced him to eat a bony fish in front of the whole school. Froggett, who is a tall, lean 53 years old, has been cooking at Scaramouche for 29 years; he’s been its executive chef for 27, and its co-owner for 17. Each day at the restaurant, he slices the meat and fillets the fish to be prepared that night—grunt work that most other head chefs would pass down the line. “I don’t need to do this,” he says, yanking out a few more bones, “but I thoroughly enjoy it.”
Toronto’s culinary scene is currently dominated by young ingenues (who you can meet right here). Most of the city’s experienced chefs, like Jamie Kennedy, Mark Thuet, Lynn Crawford, and Mark McEwan, hardly register among the foodie elite anymore, despite decades of hard-won accolades and success. We regard them now as business people, Food Network hosts, cookbook authors, empire builders, and public figures, but rarely do we discuss their actual cooking.
Thanks to the Food Network and shows like Top Chef, cooking has emerged as a desirable profession among middle-class youth, who have been sold the idea that you can largely skip the dues-paying and burst onto the scene as a celebrity chef if you’ve got a signature taste and a telegenic persona. The meteoric success of young chefs like New Yorker David Chang (now a venerable 35 years old) has set a powerful example. In a startup economy, where entrepreneurship defines Gen Y and the Millennials, setting out on your own as soon as possible is much more attractive than working your way up through the ranks of the restaurant world.
The boom in local restaurants driven by these twenty- something prodigies (Black Hoof, Grand Electric, Chantecler, and Yours Truly, to name just a few) now dominates our city’s conversations about dining. Hot young chefs have become akin to rock stars, complete with tattoos, devoted followers (both the diner and the Twitter varieties), and the attitude that nobody over 30 is doing anything interesting in this town. These restaurants are defined by a loud, rollicking atmosphere, casual service, big, bold flavours, and a degree of culinary risk-taking that promises diners they’re going to get something new and sexy—because, let’s face it, nothing has more sex appeal than youth.
Consequently, a chef’s career trajectory has accelerated. Gone are the days of long apprenticeships. Today, if you can wield a knife and make a great taco (or meatball sandwich, or whole roast pork), and have “staged” (interned, basically) with a big-name chef for a few weeks, you can open a small restaurant (or pop-up, food truck, pushcart), dazzle the blogs and media, and be hailed as the next great thing before your friends are out of law school.
In a market obsessed with young talent and bold experimentation, Scaramouche’s Froggett—a middle-aged chef cooking in the same kitchen for three decades, night in and night out—stands apart. Froggett has never seen a Food Network show and views them with suspicion. He lives on a farm in Caledon with his wife and children, and practices woodworking for fun. He doesn’t tweet (and has no tattoos), yet he is one of the best-respected chefs in this city, admired by the old guard and the young upstarts alike as a mentor, challenging leader, and one hell of a cook. Froggett’s cooking is classical, his clientele mainly old and rich. But his long-term, low-key success, and the sheer quality and consistency of his kitchen, make a strong case for the virtues of experience and longevity over flash-in-the-pan talent, and provides a career model that today’s rising stars would be well-advised to heed.
Froggett rarely mentions flavours or inspiration when he talks about food. What he loves more than anything is technique, execution, and consistency, three of the attributes many young chefs helming their own restaurants often lack. “It’s really easy to fast-track your career now,” says Cory Vitiello, chef and co-owner at the Harbord Room, who worked under Froggett for three and a half years at the beginning of his career. Though Vitiello, who is 33, could be regarded as a young upstart himself, he already sees himself a little differently than the generation of twentysomething cooks now entering the business. “They come out of chef school, bump around a few hot kitchens, and then expect to get a sous-chef job,” he says. “They have the knowledge and ideas, but not the skills and experience to back it up.”
Young cooks are great at inventing bold new dishes and unleashing cool techniques, but they too seldom have the patience to properly execute them night after night. “They want to sprint before they can walk,” says Vitiello, who recalls a young chef at the Harbord Room eager to employ a complicated molecular spherification trick before he could make a proper pie crust. “Food still has to have some structure, and that comes from old-school training and fundamentals, which are being lost and not talked about anymore.”
Froggett is perhaps the city’s best product of this type of training. He was raised in Westgate-on-Sea, a southeastern English coastal town, and entered chef’s college at 16, before he’d boiled an egg. There, he trained in the classical French system developed by the famed French chef Escoffier*, with its military-style hierarchy and strict adherence to proven technique. Froggett ended up in London working in the giant kitchen of the grand old Claridge’s Hotel—an all-male, working class, overly aggressive environment he despised.
Looking to travel, he came to Toronto in 1979 with his wife, Belinda, and worked at a number of kitchens until he landed at the door of Scaramouche in 1983, at 24 years old. The restaurant had opened to great acclaim two years earlier, though the room itself had been a dining destination since the 1950s. Situated on a leafy street off Avenue Road, tucked underneath a high-end condominium largely inhabited by wealthy dowagers, the low-slung dining room is perched above the city’s skyline like a luxury liner with an understated, modern interior. Then, as now, Scaramouche served updated continental cuisine (French with an Italian touch).
“It was ridiculous here,” recalls Froggett, of his first eye-opening months at the restaurant. “It was the first time I paid attention to food. I mean, I could cook, but Jesus!” Russell Cottam, then the head chef, cultivated an atmosphere where everyone in the kitchen was allowed enough freedom to take risks, but only if their skills were sufficient. “That’s when you really grow,” says Froggett. “When you have the technique, then you let your imagination go.” He rose quickly in the kitchen (which, at one time, had seen the likes of Michael Stadtländer and Jamie Kennedy), becoming close to Cottam. However, after two years he missed England, and he returned to cook at a small two-chef restaurant in Bath. After just a few months, Scaramouche’s owner called with news that Cottam had been killed in a motorcycle accident. Froggett returned for the funeral, stayed to help out in the kitchen and, at just 26, was offered the reins of the restaurant, which he’s held ever since.
Though you wouldn’t know it by the scant coverage it receives in the local food press these days, Scaramouche is packed most nights, and this summer was the busiest on record, which is impressive considering its isolated, almost hidden location and its price point (among the most expensive in town). Consistency is the key to its success. “People know what they’re going to get here, and they can trust us,” says Carl Korte, Scaramouche’s co-owner, who manages the front of house. “We mind our business and guests, and stay close to home [with the cooking].” Korte admires many inventive, youth-driven restaurants, but many upstart chefs burn out after the initial hype wears off. “You can keep your foot on the accelerator when you’re young, but for how long?”
A meal at Scaramouche is a superbly executed and enjoyable dining experience, end to end. While the food is not avant-garde, there are enough creative touches to keep you interested, such as a manchego cheese panna cotta anchoring an heirloom tomato salad, but the core of Froggett’s cooking remains impeccable ingredients—Perigold truffles shaved atop seared, quivering foie gras; airy French-style gnocchi mixed with tender butter-poached lobster meat; a perfectly cooked piece of halibut, flaky and moist, executed with the utmost precision.
“This restaurant, and my career, have been built on hiring the right people and keeping them,” says Froggett, who has sought to cultivate a work environment that’s the exact opposite of the mercurial kitchen of his youth. Only four of Scaramouche’s 22 cooks have been with Froggett for fewer than two years, and several have been cooking there a decade or more, an unusually high retention rate for an industry where fly-by-night chefs are the norm. The staff at Scaramouche receive full benefits, allowances for dining out, and job security if they wish to travel and learn. But much of their loyalty rests in Froggett’s management style. “It is a love,” Froggett says of the kitchen, where he never yells, swears, or berates his staff. “I never think of these people as employees. We’re colleagues, and I mean that sincerely.”
“I grew up in that kitchen,” says Nick Liu, who worked at Scaramouche for nine years, and will soon open the much-anticipated Asian brasserie restaurant GwaiLo, which will have a pop-up in November at the SoHo Metropolitan. “Keith was like a father to me. It goes past cooking sometimes. I’d sit down and chat about things that were bugging me in my life. I had a broken heart when I was there and Keith was there for me when it happened. When my grandmother and aunt died [on consecutive days], Keith was there for that. When I was travelling, Keith was the first person I’d call for advice.”
Scaramouche is essentially a teaching kitchen, in the way that Mount Sinai and Sick Kids are teaching hospitals, and Froggett works with schools such as George Brown, Stratford, and Humber to regularly feed apprentices into his kitchen, some of whom he hires. “I’ve never hired anyone above chef de partie [basically a line cook],” says Froggett. “Everyone here got hired as cooks, paid their dues, and worked their way up.”
He runs a tight ship, and a strict hierarchy is apparent. Orders filter up the chain of command, and Froggett, who has a wickedly sarcastic sense of humour, never goes out and drinks with the young chefs or horses around with new hires. He intervenes minimally, mostly keeping an eye on the small details. His chefs cook most dishes à la minute, and are expected to bring creative ideas to the table, within the confines of the menu. During dinner service on that busy Thursday night, one of his young chef de parties, Nick Papadatos, who’d spent three months at the cutting edge Copenhagen restaurant Noma, assembled a special he’d been allowed to create for the tasting menu: a seared medallion of venison with deep-fried foraged mushrooms, dehydrated foie gras powder, and little round poached carrots. The dish looked like an edible forest tableau, and though it’s not Froggett’s style (“It’s presentation, not cooking”), he wants to let Papadatos flex his muscles. As Froggett inspected the plate, wiping the rim with a towel and dabbing sauces here and there, Papadatos looked on nervously.
“Nice plate, Nick,” Froggett said, as the waiter carried it into the dining room.
“Thank you, chef,” Papadatos replied, smiling as he turned back to his station.
“I was 26 when I started running this place,” Froggett says later, looking back at an aged photograph of the kitchen staff from the early 1990s that hangs over his desk. “For the most part, it’s a young man’s field.” He feels the physical strain of the job more than ever before, and when the lease is up in nine years, he will step back to play a more hands-off role. To Froggett, continuity and tradition are more important than passion.
“I detest that word: passion,” he says. “Passion doesn’t last.”
Related reading: Meet Toronto’s current crop of under-30 culinary phenoms
CORRECTION, NOVEMBER 6, 2012: The original version of this article—as it appeared here and in the Nov. 1, 2012 print edition of The Grid—mistakenly stated Escoffier was Swiss; he is, in fact, French.