Chef of the Year: Grant van Gameren

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Grant van Gameren might be the perfect restaurateur for millennials. His entrepreneurial sixth sense has allowed him to follow his intuition and passion into business relationships, special nooks of the Toronto market and forays into quirky properties — such as Cressy House in Prince Edward County — that no other business owner would have viewed as an opportunity.
Perhaps the best example of his millennial touch is the purchase of Harry’s Char-Broiled Dining Lounge in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. The greasy spoon, originally built in 1968, featured outdated booths and faux-wood tables — and van Gameren didn’t change a thing. Instead he swapped out the old staff for the talented Nate Young of Bar Isabel fame. You can guess what kind of hipster clientele are patrons.
But Harry’s Char-Broiled Dining Lounge is just one in a series of stylized, über-cool restaurant digs owned and run by van Gameren (and his friends/partners). He also operates Bar Isabel, Bar Raval, Pretty Ugly, the Tennessee Tavern, the El Ray, Rosalinda (a vegan restaurant), Quetzal and the catering company Victor Dries. But don’t let the decor from Harry’s fool you — the Globe & Mail actually called Bar Raval “the most beautiful bar in Toronto” and it’s won several design awards. More than anything, this wide range of concepts showcases the business acuity and diversity of product van Gameren can balance.
It’s a portfolio that was just a seed in the mind of 16-year old van Gameren when he worked at Pizza Pizza. “I had dropped out of high school,” he says. “And then I did a bit of course work at George Brown, but it just wasn’t for me.” But there’s something to be said for following your instincts — for getting out of programs and courses that just didn’t resonate. Instead, van Gameren followed the path of restaurant work — along with a small money-making stint breeding and selling exotic snakes. At one point, in his early 20s, there were more than 40 pythons roaming his apartment.
After four years at Il Fornello, van Gameren found himself at Canoe Restaurant and this was the turning point in his life. “It was a big wake-up call for me,” says van Gameren. “I really began to understand what it took to succeed as a chef because I was able to work with Scot Woods,” whose impact on van Gameren cannot be measured. “He was intimidating and a bit scary, but he taught me about being focused and caring about every detail of a dish, how it was served and the extreme attention to detail. I’d never experienced anything like it before.”
“I was a real task master and very demanding,” says Woods. “We went on to work at Habitat together where I had brought several chefs from Canoe. We inspired each other a lot with our love of charcuterie and we bonded over our mutual respect for each other in the pursuit of that. Grant was one of the few chefs who could ‘tough it out’ with me and he eventually became my first sous chef.”
Woods speaks fondly about how far van Gameren has come in his career. “Grant and I first met when I came back from San Francisco and began working at Canoe. He was a junior cook/chef de partie, but also a proud ‘Parkdaler’ with some edge,” laughs Woods. “He was always sharing stories of his youthful misadventures, schemes and days at Il Fornello. It was during that time I began to notice his raw talent and ambition.”
While van Gameren lacked formal training, his ambition kept him willing to fail and learn from his mistakes. “At a certain point, I began to see my friends graduate from university with degrees,” he says. “Instead of feeling defeated, I just decided I’m going to put my nose to the grindstone and work.”
van Gameren ventured from gastronomy cuisine into charcuterie, partnering with Woods on Lucien, a fine-dining resto, and then co-founded the Black Hoof in 2008 with Jen Agg. “Charcuterie was about coming back to the basics,” he says. While van Gameren talks about charcuterie in passing, friend and business partner Owen Walker recalls the depth of Gameren’s dedication to the craft. “It was an obsessive thing to him,” says Walker. “He was digesting as many books as possible about the subject and was setting up shady aging cellars in the basement,” laughs Walker. “Grant is that person who is willing to experiment and keep learning until he gets it right,” he says. “But he isn’t a traditionalist, which is why it works.”
van Gameren then shifted his passion to working over open fires. “Quetzal is a reflection of that,” he says. “We’ve got 28 feet of open fire at that restaurant — it’s the best way to cook.” Named after one of the world’s most gorgeous birds — and a sacred symbol to the Aztecs — Quetzal celebrates Spain’s influence on Mexican cuisine. The joint venture (his seventh restaurant in total and his third on College St.) is co-owned by business partners Kate Chomyshyn and Julio Guarjardo.
“For business partners, I pick the cream-of-the-crop of the workforce and bring in employees I believe in,” he says. Building business ventures through friendships is something that came naturally for the 36-year-old chef. He’s even tattooed what might be taken as an “equation” for the business relationship on his body. His stomach tattoo reads “1/2 MINE, 1/2 YOURS.” It’s from his “broke-cook” days at Il Fornello when he lived with a roommate, shared all his food and even his cigarettes. But also, in some ways, it was a prediction of what would become his philosophy of business — share the wealth.
van Gameren takes people he believes in and raises them up to the level of partner — once they prove themselves of course. Working partners currently share anywhere from 10 to 50 per cent of the business. Mike Webster — a current partner in Bar Raval — was the former bartender at Bar Isabel. Owen Walker, who was also a bartender there, says van Gameren offered him the opportunity, even when he couldn’t contribute much capital. “It was such an honour when he came to me with this personal offer. He was willing to offer a partnership to someone, just based on the concept of hard work and not a ton of financial banking,” says Walker.
Now father to a small child with partner Sunny Stone, van Gameren sometimes spends his down time at his Prince Edward County property, Cressy House. The six-acre farm — with requisite fruit trees, lavender fields and 500 feet of waterfront — is a dream estate van Gameren also uses for hosting food events and staff retreats. This September, he hosted Keepers of the Craft, the latest venture in his five-year partnership with Czech-based Pilsner Urquell. The culinary event catered to “a few rock stars” and some local food legends.
van Gameren’s access to Toronto’s elite circles hasn’t dulled his conscience. “Giving back is something really important to me — especially in my favourite neighbourhood, Parkdale,” he says. “It’s one of the last all-inclusive areas that truly celebrates diversity. I spent so many years living there and have three restaurants there, so giving back just makes sense.”
However, van Gameren’s charity work beyond the neighbourhood is extensive, including annual participation in Coats for Cocktails, Chefs for Change, Socks for Bubbly, Holland Bloorview Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital and auctions for Oakville Galleries.
“Everyone should have access to quality food,” he says. “We’re lucky to still be in business.”
Given van Gameren’s raw passion, it’s clear his success can’t be attributed solely to luck. But staying humble — and curious — is what got him here in the first place.
Written by Jennifer Fabbraro

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