One to Watch

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Chef Lora Kirk brings a lifetime of food experience to Toronto’s Ruby Watchco

Toronto’s bustling Riverside-Leslie-ville neighbourhood, a gentrifying blend of yuppies and an artsy-indie feel, is only a few hours from Lora Kirk’s childhood home near Peterborough, Ont. But, the talented chef certainly didn’t take a direct route from the farm to a table at Ruby Watchco, the hip hotspot she oversees alongside fellow chef and mentor, Lynn Crawford.

From a culinary career that stems from Ottawa’s Algonquin College, to stints at Angela Hartnett at the Connaught in London, England, The Four Seasons Toronto and Allen & Delancey in New York City, Kirk has trotted the globe in search of new flavours and techniques. However, despite the distance travelled, she says her culinary inspiration still harkens back to those early days.

“Growing up just outside of Peterbor-ough, my mom was a stay-at-home parent who cooked a lot, and cooked everything from scratch,” she says from across a quaint bistro table at Ruby Watchco one Friday afternoon. “Also, my grandparents, who were of Polish and Ukrainian decent, lived right across the street, so that meant a lot of great food. Our family meals were always a huge, classic table set-up with everything laid out in front of you.”

It’s clear the tradition rubbed off, because since its grand opening in March, Ruby Watchco guests have been giddily passing red Le Creuset cookware filled with home-inspired meals amongst themselves, as the restaurant features family style serving.

“To this day, a bunch of the recipes we do are based on my mom’s,” admits Kirk. “A carrot cake we made just the other night is a good example. It’s to the point where the other cooks will ask, ‘is this one your mom’s?’ They love those dishes. They’re not fancy per se, they just work.”

Another unique innovation that just seems to work for Kirk and the crew at Ruby Watchco is the set-menu format, and by set menu, we’re not talking about table-d’hôte with a few options. On the contrary, diners show up each evening, starting at 6 p.m., to find a new, four-course menu awaiting them. “I try and design a menu schedule for the week, and it’s always based on what products are available at the time,” says Kirk. Today’s menu features a grape tomato salad with Berkshire pork lardons; steelhead trout from B.C. and grilled asparagus, but Kirk says things change on the fly and, more importantly, customers have embraced the idea.

“It’s like a huge dinner party in here every night,” she says. And, for those reticent about relinquishing their right to order, Kirk isn’t too worried. “When you get invited over to a friend’s house for dinner, you don’t call back and ask what’s on the menu, and then say, ‘oh, no, I can’t come then,’ do you?” she asks. “People just have to trust that we’re going to give them a great food experience.”

Perhaps the most important culinary cue Kirk took from her from formative years spent closest to some of the most historically significant farmland in Ontario — David Fife’s homestead, which gave the country Red Fife wheat, is in the neighbourhood — is a sense of pride when it comes to using what the land has on offer, and developing close relationships with the people that provide it. “You realize that more and more people just don’t know where their food is coming from,” Kirk starts. “But I think the local food movement is much more than a trend. A lot of people really do want to know what’s going on with their food; how it’s raised; where it’s coming from, and I want to be able to educate them.”

Kirk says she’s always been partial to the local food movement, but adds her commitment was crystallized while working in New York at Allen & Delancey. “They gave us the freedom to take some petty cash and head over to the Union Square farmers’ market,” she says. “Once there, I’d start developing relationships with all kinds of producers coming in from Long Island and all over the state. You start to gain an appreciation for what they can do, and also what you can do with those fresh, in-season ingredients.”

For a chef as committed to the final product as Kirk, it’s the finished flavours of a perfectly executed dish that wins out over the trendy cachet of running a pseudo-100km kitchen. “It’s all in the amazing, fresh flavours you get. That’s maybe the best part about eating and cooking this way,” she says of her local mantra. “You don’t have to be a three-star Michelin chef to make something brilliant out of a fruit or vegetable that is perfectly in season. You just have to showcase it. It’s not hard to make a great dish out of Ontario strawberries when they have that perfect strawberry taste this time of year.”

That said, Kirk is not a hopeless romantic when it comes to local food. She’s keenly aware of its many challenges, particularly in the Canadian context. In fact, on this day, the phone sits next to her on a table in the dining room, as she’s waiting to hear back from a supplier that just last week told her there would be no crimini mushrooms, a casualty of heavy rains. She says the key to surviving is not to be dogmatic.

“We obviously want to serve our guests coffee and chocolate, and we know there are ingredients we can’t get here through the winter, so we’re not extremists,” she laughs, “but we’re proud of what we’re doing. As chefs, we have a responsibility to help people pause and think about their food. We have all of these local producers working so hard in Canada; where would the food culture go if we didn’t lead?”

Photography by Margaret Mulligan

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