Chef of the Year: O&B’s Anthony Walsh on his 25-year Culinary Journey

0
1287
Photo By Nick Wong

One of Canada’s most revered and highly respected chefs, Anthony Walsh has spent the past 25 years since graduating from culinary school at Toronto’s George Brown College establishing a reputation as a great chef and mentor. And, he says, it’s all thanks to his mother. “My mother taught me the importance of the table and being together as a family,” he says. “I come from a big Irish-Catholic Montreal family. The food I grew up on as a youngster and adolescent was never fancy but it was always very good — I was really lucky that way.”

Walsh was also lucky to find a mentor in chef Jamie Kennedy. “Jamie Kennedy was the first chef I worked for who was truly nurturing,” Walsh says. “There is a specific type of attitude towards cooking that I’ve developed from him. Whereas my mother influenced the emotional side of my cooking, [Kennedy] influenced the technical side. His philosophy really resonated with me. I remember going up to the Timber Hill Farm with Jamie, bagging pheasants and learning how to pluck them and going to Cookstown Greens and doing this whole farm-to-table thing. We literally did that before it was a thing; we put things in mason jars because we were using them. We weren’t being hipsters and laying them all through the restaurant and not ever using the stuff. This is the way Jamie Kennedy worked. There is a reason why he was always revered.”
Now, as Oliver & Bonacini’s corporate executive chef, Walsh oversees the company’s 14 restaurants, 10 event venues, catering arm and more than 480 back-of-house employees. His culinary journey, he shares, can be divided into two parts: the first half is defined by his mother and professional mentors under whom he started his career, the second half by his wife and mother-in-law — to whom his latest restaurant, Leña, pays homage. “[My wife] grew up in Argentina. You always have this idea of Latinos having everybody around the table, but that’s not how she grew up,” Walsh says. “Her parents were working-class parents who worked all the time. I was the opposite. I came from a more privileged family and we always had everybody around the table, so we came from two very different worlds.” In the second half of his life, Walsh has learned to “dial it back” — as he puts it — and truly embrace simplicity in his cooking. The tortilla — which Leña has a reputation for crafting with the authenticity of a seasoned Argentine cook — is a reoccurring anecdote in Walsh’s arguments on what it means to be a great chef. “It’s one of the simplest and most beautiful dishes in Spain and parts of the Americas,” Walsh argues. “The flavours that come out can be so complex but it’s three ingredients. Unless you know how to do it, it’s just potato, egg and onion.” He explains that his tortilla is the outcome of endless thinking, debating, trying and retrying with his mother-in-law — and it’s just “a wedge of potato, egg and onion” he emphasizes.

Despite his success in an industry often fraught with pretension, it’s evident Walsh harbours a strong disapproval of ostentation in professional cooking. He’s truly a humble guy who repeatedly stresses the importance of not taking oneself too seriously. “I’m not perfect,” he says. “But I stand by my actions. I look myself in the mirror every day and try to be a decent person.” In place of reputation and ego, he places special emphasis on honing skills through hard work and tireless practice — and offers that advice to young chefs and veterans alike. “Just because you’re a veteran doesn’t mean you’re relevant,” Walsh argues.

In his current role, Walsh imparts his “work-hard” philosophy onto the many young O&B chefs he’s mentored over the years. “I’ve got so many young cooks and I try to do my due diligence and impart things into their culinary DNA that are appropriate,” Walsh says. Those close to him consider Walsh an enlightened leader who’s empowered countless budding chefs by fostering their strengths and awakening their innate abilities. In fact, the Toronto Star recently celebrated Walsh’s contributions to the future of foodservice by featuring 10 current chefs who started their careers under Walsh’s wing — praising Walsh as “The godfather to many of the finest cooks in the city.” One of those chefs is Blackbird Baking Co. owner, Simon Blackwell. “Anthony’s work ethic really rubbed off on me,” says Blackwell. “It’s part of why I’m successful. If you worked with him, you showed up to work early because you wanted to be there and were excited to work with him. He’s probably one of the hardest-working guys in the city. He’s underappreciated. [Canoe] is still on the map even after 20 years.”

Walsh joined Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants in 1996 as a saucier at Canoe and worked his way up to executive chef. The iconic restaurant celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, thanks in large part to Walsh’s strong leadership and commitment to the company. His unrivaled vision for haute-Canadian cuisine made Canoe Canada’s quintessential fine-dining establishment, placing the country on the international culinary stage. Walsh’s accomplishments continue outside of the O&B kitchens. In 2000, Walsh became the first chef to represent Canada at the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore. In 2004, he received the Ontario Hostelry’s Institute Culinary Gold Award and in both 2005 and 2007, he was awarded the Olympic Gold Medal Plates honour for Ontario. Beyond his ground-breaking work at Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants, Walsh has donated his time to a variety of foodservice and hospitality organizations across Canada, including the B.C. Spot Prawn Festival, the Hawksworth Young Chefs Scholarship Foundation, The Hunters Feast, Chefs for Change, the Evergreen Asado BBQ Fundraiser and Le Festival Yul Eat.

Currently, Walsh has two projects in the works, which he speaks about passionately. “I’m super excited that we’re opening our brewery in Liberty Common [in Toronto],” Walsh mentions. “It’s all live fuel and I’m a huge proponent of cooking on wood. We’re working with Big Rock [brewery], who we’ve got a great relationship with. I’m also very excited [about] going back home to Montreal to open Bar George.”

Bar George will be located in the old George Stephen House on Drummond Street in downtown Montreal. “It’s an incredible building and an incredible story about George Stephens, who came here in the late 1800s and became one of the founding fathers of the Canadian National Railway (CNR). It’s a celebration and expose on Anglo-centric cooking in Quebec. There’ll be a fantastic, unapologetic Quebecois pulse and humour — because Quebecers are some of the funniest people in the country.”

In 2017, Walsh will turn his focus to Edmonton. “With the new arena opening, we’ve got quite a few projects going on. Edmonton is a terrific city that’s young and full of beans and they really want to do something.”

For the future generation of chefs aspiring to achieve Chef of the Year status, Walsh’s advice is to “practice, practice, practice — and then practice some more. We’re living in a time where information is right in your face and learning is exponential, but you have to couple that theoretical learning with absolute maniacal practice. If you want to learn how to make something, read about it and then do it. Don’t do it once, do it 15 times.”

Volume 49, Number 9
Written By Eric Alister