Victor Barry is a successful chef and co-owner who admits he has a lot to learn.
In 2009, in the thick of the economic storm that pummelled the fine-dining industry, chef Victor Barry was handed a big toque to fill. David Lee, who had long been chef and co-owner of Toronto’s upscale Splendido restaurant, announced he, along with his partner Yannick Bigourdan, would be dedicating themselves to their second establishment, Nota Bene. Barry and then manager and sommelier, Carlo Catallo were handed the keys, and the 29-year-old chef took over the kitchen.
“It was a lot for me to swallow,” admits Barry. Although the chef was concerned about living up to Lee’s good name, he didn’t shy away from the challenge.
In fact, few challenges deter the young chef. The Niagara-on-the-Lake native’s ascent from part-time work in his uncle’s pizzeria to co-owning one of Toronto’s most iconic fine-dining establishments wasn’t typical. Schooled entirely in kitchens rather than post-secondary institutions, Barry was fortunate enough to find himself toiling away the weekends, cooking in the kitchen of Niagara’s Prince of Wales Hotel when he was 17. From there, Barry made the transition to the landmark Truffles restaurant at the Four Seasons Toronto, before crossing the pond to work in an environment where, in the new millennium, chefs were already enjoying a higher profile.
“I was inspired by [British] chefs, who I felt were more respected,” says Barry. In North America, “there was this sort of, ‘oh, you’re just a cook?,”mentality. So, at the age of 20, he accepted a position at the Gidleigh Park Hotel in England, jumping at the chance to master cooking at the Michelinstar hotspot while satisfying the travel bug.
“[Gidleigh Park] was where I learned a lot of skills, discipline and how to do things right the first time. Discipline is huge; it’s one of the most important things. [Cooking is] about patience, time, discipline and confidence. In England, I wouldn’t say I built patience,” laughs Barry. “I built confidence.” That confidence has translated into a more seasonal approach since reopening Splendido. Although the chef’s cuisine isn’t 100 per cent local, he’s working hard to build personal relationships with area suppliers, to make the restaurant warmer and more accessible.
These days, the revitalized Splendido retains its high-end reputation, while offering slightlymore affordable options, effectivelywelcoming
new clientele.“Before, it was very proper and posh, and very French haute cuisinewith the champagne and cheese trolleys,” explains Barry.“We decided to re-think our approach to dining and make it more about comfort and relaxation. Fine dining itself is changing, and people are starting to prefer the refreshment
and ease of more casual dining. They don’t all want it to be posh, austere or pompous.
” Through it all, diners are treated to inspired cuisine in the form of B.C. Steelhead trout, cooked sous-vide ($18), carnaroli risotto ($17 appetizer; $27 entrée) and butter-poached lobster ($38).
“We’re approachable, sincere and friendly about what we do,” says Barry. “We offer classically cooked food that’s homey and feels good.”