Chef Michael Caballo plays from his own songbook, seeking inspiration from nature, his heritage and his travels.
Singers aren’t the only ones who need a great voice; restaurateurs also have to strike the perfect tone.
“There’s a few restaurants that have a unique voice, and that’s really special,” says Michael Caballo, executive chef and co-owner of Toronto’s Edulis, whose voice was recently heard nationwide when his culinary home was named Canada’s Best New Restaurant in 2012 by EnRoute magazine. The honour was the realization of a dream. “That was the goal — to be included. To be number 1 wasn’t even really considered. It was a very, very pleasant surprise,” he says.
The chef has been preparing for this culinary zenith since growing up in Edmonton where he attended culinary school at NAIT and worked at a couple of kitchens before making Toronto his home. It was at Avalon restaurant that he met chef Tobey Nemeth, who he began dating before returning to his roots and working in Spain for a year.
Eventually back in Toronto, Caballo married Nemeth (formerly of the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar) and they embarked on a four-year culinary journey. “We wanted to get back to the roots of food and growing food,” he recalls. It was a journey that began in Italy, where the couple hoped to eventually open a restaurant. But Italian bureaucracy changed the plans. “We very sadly realized it wasn’t a good idea or it just wasn’t feasible at that moment. So, we said a very sad goodbye to the most beautiful place we’ve ever lived,” says the 32-year-old fondly.
From there the pair moved on, cooking at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and The West Coast Fishing Club’s Outpost in Haida Gwaii — an archipelago on the coast of B.C. — before running a floating hotel, high-end restaurant and luxury fishing resort just off Panama City. The dream to open a restaurant began to take shape when news reached the floating resort that Toronto’s Niagara Street Café was up for sale. “Tobey and I looked at each other, and we said: ‘this is it,’” recounts the toque, who called the Niagara Street Café home twice in his career.
Just about a year later, Caballo’s menu reflects his Spanish heritage and his love for foraging mushrooms. The 32-seat restaurant was even named Edulis, after boletus edulis — the name of a wild mushroom — and the latin word for edible. “It’s every experience we’ve had in our whole life in food, in life, in people we’ve met, in vegetables we’ve dug,” he says.
The evolving menu always includes mushrooms (of course) and dishes such as white truffle soft eggs and black-garlic potato purée ($28), glazed veal sweetbreads ($17) and the chef’s choice, a rotating Carte Blanche meal ($50/$70, depending on size), which the majority of diners enjoy.
In the front-of-house, Nemeth is happily carving out her niche. “It’s a very natural divide between the two of us,” she says. “It’s nice to know there’s someone on either side that has your back.”
So, now as Caballo’s culinary voice grows louder, in the wake of the EnRoute victory and a listing on Maclean’s round-up of the 50 best restaurants in Canada, his next goal is modest. “[It’s] to be open in a year and still have people talking,” he says. “That’s all we can hope.”