Chase Hospitality Wins Independent Restaurateur of the Year

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Volume 47, Number 9

By: Laura Pratt

New restaurants often open with an obvious focus on food, but, for the Chase Hospitality Group, success means focusing on more than that; it means honing in on how a customer feels.

With that in mind, before the Toronto opening of The Chase in August 2013, the leadership team gathered around a white board to identify how to “redefine hospitality in North America.” Steven Salm, company president, acknowledges this ambition was “bold,” and wasn’t likely achievable in a year, or even five. But he was keen to set a goal that over-delivered on the fundamental emotions a guest expects from a restaurant experience.

Salm, a born-and-bred New Yorker, was managing the Manhattan operations of BLT Restaurants when Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment tapped him to come to Toronto to become a senior F&B executive. He arrived in spring 2010 but left the company two years later to take advantage of the “unbelievable expansion” his adopted city was enjoying. In December 2012, Salm, in conjunction with Michael Kimel, fellow founding partner and director of New Business Development, launched the Chase Hospitality Group and signed a lease for what would become a double-barreled operation. The focus would be on fresh fish, an acknowledgment of the healthier lifestyle it promotes and an answer to the absence of quality seafood options in Toronto restaurants. Wherever possible, the fish would be sustainable.

Chase Hospitality’s initial setting, which houses the 132-seat Chase and 83-seat Chase Fish & Oyster on Temperance Street in Toronto, is a fully restored downtown heritage building. It’s a financial district beauty transformed by Gianpiero Pugliese, principal of Audax Architecture in Toronto. It took five months to build The Chase and its main-floor fellow tenant, The Chase Fish & Oyster, a five-storey elevator ride below. The latter celebrates fresh, seasonal seafood offered in creatively presented hot and cold dishes. A lobster hot pot features scallops, clams and mussels ($38); a crab-and-avocado roll is served with sweet corn and braised leeks ($23). And, as for the featured player, the restaurant serves 40,000 oysters per month. “We wanted to completely redefine oyster bars in the city,” says executive chef Michael Steh. Meanwhile, The Chase is an upscale resto with rooftop patio known for its flavour-filled small plates (snow crab, $27), adventurous entrées (big eye tuna, $42) and the spirited interaction in which staffers engage patrons. The results have attracted the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal and Isabella Rossellini.

But it’s the “extremely loyal” regulars who give the restaurant its success, says Steh. “I’m not talking about 10 couples who come in every week; I’m talking about hundreds upon hundreds who [eat at] our restaurants for lunch and dinner. It’s a lifestyle for them.” It’s in great part thanks to this allegiance that The Chase’s sales have increased five
per cent since opening (exact sales figures were undisclosed).

The partners hope this tradition continues at the company’s new 4,500-sq.-ft., 119-seat Colette Grand Café, which opened at Toronto’s Thompson Hotel in July. The design, which was also overseen by Audax Architecture, features barrel-vaulted ceilings, hand-painted tiles and the traditional Parisian colours of blue, yellow and white. The palatial newcomer offers breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner with a focus on French seaside cuisine, alongside a quick-service dine-in bakery and a retail counter selling artisanal baked goods.

It’s been a busy year for the Chase Hospitality team, who recently opened the much-anticipated Little Fin. This quick-service seafood diner, a neighbour to The Chase and The Chase Fish & Oyster on Temperance Street in Toronto, was created to focus on quality fresh seafood, available to eat on premise or take away. Its signature dish
comprises cooked-to-order fish rolls prepared on sesame buns stained black with bamboo charcoal.

It’s that idea of simple food made and sourced well that leads the company’s food philosophy. “We’re not trying to overcomplicate things,” says Steh. “People want food that makes them feel good. They don’t want to be overwhelmed.” As such, the two Chase restaurant menus feature simple, vibrant ingredients that are responsibly sourced and presented in unexpected ways. To wit, an appetizer simply labelled Avocado at The Chase is served in paper-thin slices that have been placed in a vacuum sealer then rolled with a mixture of crab, smoked onion and smoked coconut ($23).

At Colette, food prep is a bit more challenging due to the precision required in French cuisine. “There are so many variables that need to go into a recipe for goat cheese soufflé that you have to follow the same [method] every time,” says Steh. “It’s that attention to detail that’s so challenging but [also] so rewarding.” Soufflé au Chèvre ($16), Entrecôte and Frites ($38) and Trio de Foie Gras ($34) are Colette’s most popular dishes.

Up next in Chase Hospitality’s pursuit of redefined hospitality comes personal service, which embraces the singled-out corporate value to “care for our ladies and gentlemen with empathy and sincerity,” says Salm. For example, Chase restaurant servers can name all of a dish’s ingredients, identify who took the photos on the wall, provide a history of a spirit in a cocktail and name the flowers arranged in the centrepiece. Also, off-menu dishes are specially prepared, and returning guests will find their favourite drink at the table when they arrive. “When these people come in, it’s smiles, hugs and handshakes. It’s welcoming people into your home rather than greeting someone coming into a restaurant,” notes Steh.

This type of service leadership is nurtured at the company. “Finding people to lead, work and inspire is difficult in this city,” says Salm. “So we’re creating our own farm team.” That’s facilitated through the Chase Elite Program, which plucks “high potentials and promotables” from the part-time level and ushers them through a 16-week leadership-development program. Of the 92 employees who applied to be part of Chase Elite this year, an interview process identified 16 to join. At the program’s conclusion, 12 were promoted. “The same way you would raise a family is how we raise our staff,” says Salm.

Salm considers the question of hospitality’s next incarnation as fascinating as it is unknown. “We’re plotting our direction as we go,” he says. And, along the way, they’re not forgetting to give back, supporting Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and Toronto’s Baycrest Hospital Foundation. Chase Hospitality gifts each beneficiary between $1,000 and $5,000 a year.

From food to hospitality and community outreach, the Chase Hospitality empire never slows. The Chase restaurant alone feeds a legion of hungry devotees inside a bustling 6,000-sq.-ft. restaurant that includes an 800-sq.-ft. kitchen overseen by three chefs and sous chefs and 15 line cooks per service. “Some people will call us crazy,” says Steh of the flurry. “But this is how you reset the bar of Toronto’s hospitality scene.”

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