At the Monday’s Dinner series, young chefs run their own kitchen for one evening—and diners get one heck of a meal.
Every second Monday night, the dimly lit Bellevue diner in Kensington Market becomes a fantasy camp for the restaurant industry. During the dinner services for about 30 guests, a baker is transformed into a sommelier, a server acts as the manager and 25-year-old cook Jonathan Poon is an executive chef.
Poon started Monday’s Dinner four months ago as a way to develop his culinary creativity. He’d been cooking the same thing day in, day out on the line at Woodlot, a restaurant and bakery at College and Palmerston. “I started to feel like a robot,” he says. “I’d start work at 8 a.m. and leave at 2 a.m. The restaurant doesn’t have a lot of storage space, so everything had to be made from scratch daily.” He developed carpal tunnel syndrome from lifting dozens of heavy pans each day.
At Monday’s Dinner, Poon creates the menu while his close friend Jacob Wharton-Shukster, a server at Origin, runs the front-of-house. Longtime wine aficionado Jeff Connell, whose day job is baking Woodlot’s excellent breads, comes up with pairings (he plans to bring bottles from his own collection to an upcoming dinner). Guests are a mix of industry types, older neighbourhood residents and leggings-clad twentysomethings.
Word about Poon’s pop-up restaurant spread quickly and others wanted in, so now each event features a guest chef. At $60 per head, including wine, the goal isn’t to make money, but to give chefs the chance to execute their vision. The Black Hoof’s Brandon Olsen served a pig’s head at one. At another, two young Filipino chefs (one from a fine-dining restaurant in the financial district, the other in the midst of opening a spot on Queen West) introduced diners to the food they grew up eating. In October, Poon and Dustin Gallagher, the executive chef at Grace, cooked a six-course Chinese meal with soft-poached quail eggs marinated in black tea, winter melon with homemade XO sauce, Peking duck and a black sesame soup with peanut butter–filled dumplings. “A lot of these guys don’t have the venue to do their own cooking,” says Poon. “They’re cooking someone else’s menu and vision. This night, the restaurant is yours. You decide the menu, the service, the decor, the music, everything.”
There are scores of similar events in Toronto that are giving cooks more creative freedom than they have in their regular gigs. At 86’d Mondays at The Drake, chefs compete in weekly cook-offs and tastings. On Wednesday evenings at Cocktail Bar, owner Jen Agg has a chef play bartender and come up with an original mixed drink and snack. Recently, Marben restaurant hosted a series of sausage cook-offs.
But Poon’s dinners serve another purpose. He and Wharton-Shukster recently secured a spot at Brock and Queen in Parkdale to open a restaurant. They’re calling it Chantecler, after a Canadian breed of chicken, and hope to open the 24-seat dining room at the end of February. They’ll serve “progressive Canadian food or, to put it simply, fusion,” with influences from other cultures, including Poon’s Chinese heritage. Monday’s Dinner is practice for running their own place.
The pair hopes to continue the series at Chantecler, but in the meantime, their next event will be held on Nov. 14 at a vineyard in Prince Edward County (they’re chartering a bus for diners). Poon, along with his boss at Woodlot, David Haman, will cook a fall harvest menu over an open fire. “He’s been my mentor since I met him at 17,” says Poon of Haman. “But now we’re more like peers, which is what these dinners are about.”
The day after each Monday’s Dinner, tickets for the following event go on sale at 5 p.m. at Bellevue Café (61A Bellevue Ave., 647-340-8224).