At first glance Ben Heaton looks the part of a trendy Dundas Street West restaurateur, but a Leeds United football tattoo peeking out from under his sleeve, and the slight hint of an accent, reveal his English roots.
Born in Yorkshire, England, Heaton was five when his family moved to Canada and settled in Whitby, Ont., but the chef’s passion for his mother country has remained omnipresent in his life, from his menu offerings to his sports-team followings. “When you’re English, regardless of how long you’ve been away from there, you are engrained in England,” explains the 36-year-old.
A combination of fierce competitiveness and admiration led the young toque to follow in his older brother’s culinary footsteps, but, while his brother chose to helm corporate kitchens in England, Heaton wanted to be his own boss. After dropping out of culinary school at Toronto’s George Brown College, he spent two years staging in various high-end kitchens throughout London and Manchester. “Staging in England is very easy,” he explains. “If you’re a hard worker, run like a maniac and learn quickly, restaurants love to have you.”
Moving back to Toronto, after nearly three years abroad, Heaton transferred his skills to Globe Bistro, Colborne Lane and One Restaurant, where he gleaned vision, modern food techniques and business-management skills from Claudio Aprile and Mark McEwan.
Today, the chef is calling the shots at The Grove in Toronto, which he owns with pal Richard Reyes, who he met while working at One. Although the 45-seat restaurant has only been open for a year, it’s already garnered attention from Maclean’s as one of Canada’s best restaurants, and it’s earned a positive write-up in The New York Times. But, while The Grove serves English food, the chef is quick to point out its offerings are not typical pub-grub. “Stodgy food is a North American ideology of English food, but it’s not actually like that,” he says. Instead, it features what he describes as a modern and progressive interpretation of English food, forgoing an à la carte menu for a weekly revolving tasting menu of three, five and seven courses ($35, $50 and $65, respectively). The menu has included dishes such as parsley root soup, with snails, bacon and fried bread as well as rainbow trout with cauliflower, grapes and almonds.
Heaton pampers guests with free snacks, such as crispy chicken with bacon jam or wild boar sausage rolls between courses. “I’ll eat the costs on labour, because I want people to come in here and say, ‘wow, that was $35?’” he explains.
Meanwhile, it seems the chef has relented in offering typical pub food as he’s scouting locations for a second, more casual concept that will serve “real English comfort food” such as bangers and mash. But, looking back, he’s pleased with the evolution of his offerings. “You learn what you can do with a space and how to facilitate good food. But, it’s always important to cook what you know and cook who you are.”