If this had been a normal year, our Canada’s Best New Restaurants writer would have spent a month criss-crossing the country to discover the most exciting establishments that had opened in the past year. That most mouthwatering of trips didn’t happen, but nothing could stop the chefs who still inspired us by serving up waves of exciting new takeout options, virtual cooking classes and do-it-yourself gourmet dinners. Others rallied to feed their employees and their communities, and some even managed to open a brand new restaurant, in spite of all the new challenges – after all, they’ve got people to feed.
8 Things to Love About Canada’s Restaurant Comeback
Restaurant… or Farmers’ Market?
Montgomery’s Restaurant in Toronto is upping its locavore game. First it was Canadian ingredients only (no lemons, black pepper or olive oil) at the restaurant on Queen West. The next challenge: using products from Ontario alone. Then, when the Covid-19 pandemic laid bare our dependence on global supply chains, owner Guy Rawlings tapped into his network to create bespoke boxes of the best local produce, meat, fish and staples around. “Research and planning for a new business can take years,” he says. “We did it in a week.”
Rawlings offers more than 300 items, makes all the prepared foods (including a comforting pork ragù and a smashed cucumber, peanut and chili salad) and meal kits himself, and processes and packs each box. Customers receive an enthusiastic weekly e-mail about what’s new and in season, with a rudimentary spreadsheet shopping list attached. “It’s kind of like a rent party,” Rawlings says. “Even if it doesn’t pay for all of our overhead, you have to do something.”
What he loves best is teaching his customers about produce (did you know that parsley is seasonal?) and how to prepare lesser-known foods, like kohlrabi or fuzzy Barese cucumbers (great for grilling!). Processing each order and answering every query has brought him closer than ever to customers. “It’s a very intimate connection, especially in a time when you can’t be social.”
300 — The number of fresh fruits and veggies, prepared foods, condiments and beverages that Montgomery’s picks from for their bespoke farm baskets.
Everyone’s Gone Digital
The Chef’s Table to Go
Toronto’s Il Covo is bringing back the conviviality of the intimate chef’s-table dinner via Zoom, where a four-course meal is available for pick-up or delivery. Feast on it while chatting with chef Ryan Campbell, somm Giuseppe Marchesini and other diners. “We have about 20 people,” says Marchesini; more would spoil the intimacy.
Check the restaurant’s Instagram feed for monthly menus.
New (and Fair) Delivery Apps
When Brandon Grossutti, owner of Vancouver’s Asian-French fusion restaurant Pidgin, began planning the shift to takeout and delivery, he discovered that third-party delivery apps were charging over the odds. By the time the former computer programmer activated those contracts in March, he had already begun pounding out code to build a more transparent, fairly priced Web delivery app called FromTo. Not only are there no transaction fees or restaurant price markups, customers pay only $6.50 per delivery. Grossutti expects FromTo to spread to Toronto, Montreal and beyond by fall.
Toronto restaurateur and retail entrepreneur Nav Sangha first saw a delivery app crisis coming in 2017 and began working on a web application that would let restaurants control their own ordering and delivery with one monthly subscription fee. Earlier this year, his team dropped everything to finish building Ambassador.ai. Now servicing over 100 restaurants in Toronto (plus a few in NYC), Ambassador manages contactless ordering, pickup and delivery and its wait-list feature helps prevent long queues outside restaurants. Sangha says the application has helped restaurants build a more direct online relationship with customers. “There’s a great sense of community building,” he says.
The Rise of Virtual Grocers
Online grocery shopping was a revelation for us all – but its hidden superpower is that it can shorten the food supply chain for local producers and farmers. In Montreal, Maturin connects shoppers with small makers, offering over 2,000 products from more than 250 suppliers. And small organic farms can now expand their reach thanks to BoxKnight, which offers same-day delivery for e-commerce retailers – a game-changer.
They’re Opening Anyway
In June, sustainably minded chef Ned Bell, his wife Kate Colley and two partners opened the Naramata Inn, just outside of Penticton. They’d planned out every detail for the spruced-up 1908 building on the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake, but obviously never foresaw the arrival of Covid-19. So, they brought in a seasoned hospitality veteran turned pandemic expert to help establish protocols, including systemized paths in and out of the kitchen, a waterproof, tear-resistant menu paper that can be sterilized after each use and even more luxurious spacing in the blue-hued, wood-beamed dining room.
For Bell, the inn is a homecoming of sorts: His family summered in the Okanagan Valley when he was growing up, and his farmer father planted vineyards in these parts. Coming 19 years after his first foray into country-dining perfection at Niagara’s Restaurant at Peninsula Ridge, it is also a dream come true – an iconic restaurant closely tied to the fertile wine country around it.
This season’s standouts include wild B.C. halibut with clams in a house-churned butter broth, pannacotta with the first-of-season Naramata cherries, and their staple, apple-ferment sourdough bread. “We know where every single ingredient we serve comes from,” says Bell, “and we’re able to serve a dinner that could only come from here.”
Set Menu — Printed on polyester-based Synaps paper, the inn’s menus are water- and ink-resistant and can be sanitized after each use.
Sourcing Local Produce with Chef Ned Bell
Fish — “Just two days ago, I was on a boat on Osoyoos Lake fishing for sockeye salmon that had made it back to these lakes for only the second time in fifty years. Monday I’m going out on a commercial seine boat with First Nations fisherman and I will be buying as much of that salmon as I can get my hands on. I can only tell that story here, and that’s pretty spectacular.”
Fruit — “I recently bought 450 kilos of organic apricots from a farmer who’s been homesteading for the past fifteen years. They’re the best apricots I’ve ever had in my life.” Though Bell’s team looked at him as if they were crying for mercy, he says, “in March of next year, we’re going to love that we can still taste the summertime.”
In 2018, searching for a better work-life balance, chef Martine Bauer, her husband, sommelier Jonathan Bauer, and bartender Maxime Hoerth packed up their families and left Paris for Toronto. Their pedigrees were well burnished: After meeting in Martine’s native Mauritius, the Bauers headed to Paris, where she led the kitchen at the prime minister’s residence. Jonathan nabbed the 2014 title for France’s best sommelier, while Hoerth led the bar team at the Four Seasons Hotel George V.
After their first lease fell through, they spent all of 2019 searching for the right space, and then, a week before they opened Pompette, the city shut down.
New plan: open a pantry shop selling housemade sourdough and soigné, fresh takes on classic French dishes, like pâté en croute and Bauer’s own version of leeks vinaigrette with creamy egg yolk and mustard seeds. Four-year-old Mathis watched movies on the patio while Harmonie, 12, helped her mother wash salad greens and peel potatoes. On June 26, they opened their 65-seat patio and served 92 in one evening. It’s been packed ever since, and they’ve even offered their patio to neighbouring restaurants (including Donna’s, Canada’s Best New Restaurants no. 3 in 2019) on days Pompette is closed. “We just want to support the community,” Bauer says.
65 — Pompette’s 65-seat patio (bigger than the indoor dining room) enabled the restaurant to open despite the constraints of new safety protocols.
Kitchens Become Community Centres
Just as the kitchen is the metaphorical heart of the home, we’ve watched as many commercial and start-up kitchens have begun to serve the same role for their communities. A small non-profit catering to the needs of Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood, an underserved inner-city community of about 80,000 residents, Black Creek Community Farm has taken its farm-bounty preservation and cooking classes online, sharing how to make beet toast using the whole vegetable or a veggie-filled garlic scape pasta. The farm supplies 65 food-share boxes a week to households through November, with an additional 700 weekly boxes distributed through its partner, FoodShare Toronto.
Meanwhile, at the Depanneur, a local hub for mind-expanding food on Toronto’s College Street, founder Len Senater showcases a revolving cast of international Toronto chefs, from promising amateurs to newly minted and long-time professionals. He’s now taken his dinners online, offering a diverse range of to-go meals, from Filipino to Nigerian cuisine. “It’s still allowing us to give emotional and financial opportunities to cooks and offer reasonably priced home-cooked meals,” says Senater. He also collaborated with the Bentway, Toronto’s answer to New York’s High Line, to stage a series of under-the-Gardiner Expressway communal picnics this summer.
48 — Maximum number of hours between the harvest and distribution of produce in Black Creek Community Farm baskets.
Pop-ups Are the New Destination Restaurants
Menu Extra, Montreal
Le Mousso chefs Francis Blais and Camilo Lapointe-Nascimento bonded in 2019 when a citywide cook shortage (and the fact that they were each training for competitions) exacerbated the already high pressures of a high-end kitchen. Both emerged victorious, Blais in Top Chef Canada season 8, and Lapointe-Nascimento in Quebec’s equivalent, Les Chefs – then Covid-19 hit and the two lost their jobs. They were already experimenting with making fermented condiments for wholesale distribution, but after seeing their restaurant comrades in trouble, they came up with a way to tie a few loose ends together.
Menu Extra is a bi-weekly pop-up held at friends’ restaurants that features comfort-food classics recreated with top-notch ingredients and haute-cuisine-level execution. Each lunch feeds from 300 to 350, with proceeds going to offset the host restaurant’s bills and to benefit a charity. One dinner was pizza-ghetti (a Montreal original) made with homemade sourdough, “perfect” sauce and fresh bucatini. Over the first six events, their efforts aided restaurants and raised over $20,000 for charities. Coming this fall: a series of “haute couture” Menu Extra tasting-menu pop-up dinners featuring their fermented products.
Le Mousso, Montreal
At Le Mousso, chef Antonin Mousseau-Rivard had to find an alternative to 15-course services – something that would keep his doors open. He opted for a radical change: a pop-up within a restaurant, what he calls an “artificial lung,” to keep the restaurant alive while he reconceptualized its menu for reopening. Mousseau-Rivard picked a cuisine he knew almost nothing about – Korean – and staged a research trip to Toronto’s Koreatown with chef pals Jeff Kang (Canis, Canada’s Best New Restaurants no. 2 in 2017) and Air Canada Culinary Partner Antonio Park (Park and Lavanderia, Montreal). The result: his own montréalais version of the spicy, stir-fried rice-cake dish tteokbokki made with fresh local cheese curds and galbi (marinated and grilled short ribs), using local honey and Quebec apple purée instead of Asian pear in the sauce. Properly spaced-out tables across both Le Mousso and sister restaurant Le Petit Mousso made it possible to do two seatings, for a total of 75 to 80 diners each night. Le Mousso finally reopened in August to serve revamped eight- to 10-course menus to a house of 20 diners, with Mousseau-Rivard introducing each new dish from the restaurant’s upstairs level.
You Can Take a Class to Tackle Food Insecurity
In late March, Chris Parasiuk, a chef turned digital marketing expert at Hook + Ladder in Calgary, came up with a new, pandemic-friendly business idea: MasterClass-like video tutorials paired with a meal kit for two – an ideal fit for chef-driven restaurants already doing takeout. He leveraged his personal connections, and eight weeks later the fledgling Chef Local was up and running. Jane Bond BBQ chef Jenny Burthwright shows how to put together a crawfish boil; Evan Robertson of Market guides couples through his pan-roasted duck breast and smoked caprese salad. Since the concept provides a revenue stream for restaurants with no new investment, Parasiuk hopes to see it in every major Canadian city within a year.
2 — Number of pounds of shellfish in chef Jenny Burthwright’s Louisiana-style crawfish boil for two.
The day that Victoria’s Nowhere *A Restaurant was named no. 5 on Canada’s Best New Restaurants 2019 list, co-founder Andrew Mavor announced his departure. His concern was the sustainability of the country’s food system, and to fix it, his goal is to educate young chefs. Mavor returned to his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, and reconnected with chef-turned-teacher Paul Finkelstein, a local food-systems legend with the Avon Maitland District School Board. Together they launched Food ’n 15, a series of educational videos with chef friends like Laura Cousins of Nowhere (roast chicken) and Alain Rosica from Frascati, Italy (cacio e pepe). “It’s a really positive form of community service,” says Finkelstein. “A couple of the chefs have told me, ‘I wish I had someone like me come in to my school when I was a kid.’”
“I believe in food as a tool for change. Not only do my students cook, but they run an alternative eatery where they prepare all the food and serve it to up to 300 of their peers every lunch hour. We also use food to build self‑confidence and explore diversity.”
There’s a Push for Equality
Power to the Farmers
During the pandemic, local market-farm leader Jean-Martin Fortier has advocated for strengthening Quebec food sovereignty through year-round operations of greenhouses. The catch: In order to make the numbers work, farmers would need preferential electricity rates. Although small farmers have been lobbying for this for years, the combination of the pandemic and Fortier’s public statements resulted in Hydro-Québec announcing a proposal to put in place such rates. “There are probably 600 or 700 small organic farms throughout the province that are highly resilient,” says Fortier. “If the whole [food] chain breaks – and I don’t think this is the last time that will happen – these farms are there to feed local villages. To me, this is a really good first step.”
Noted Toronto chef Suzanne Barr’s latest venture, True True Diner, was a heart-on-its-sleeve homage to diners of the American South, especially those in which the Civil Rights sit-in movement played out. Her abrupt announcement in July that her partners had forced the restaurant’s permanent closure came as a shock – especially in the midst of the #BLM movement, for which she has been a strong local voice. She’s not dwelling on it, though, and is now readying a line of consumer goods (cheddar cauliflower bake, jerk spice marinade) and writing “a celebration of learning and loving my mother’s food.” (Watch for it in 2021.)
Chefs Are Driven to Feed Hungry People
Restaurant no. 7 on Canada’s Best New Restaurants 2019 list, Whitehorse’s Wayfarer Oyster House was all ready to welcome packed houses through the spring and summer – 5,000 visitors were expected in March just for the Arctic Winter Games alone. Then came Covid-19 and, says chef Brian Ng, “We never got to have our prom.”
But a confluence of benevolent people, circumstances and ingredients gave the restaurant community a second chance to shine. It all began the day after lockdown, when local culinary-school owner Catherine McInroy had scheduled a cooking class with kids from the Kwanlin Dün First Nation. Instead, chef Chris Irving, who was to teach the class, prepared and delivered meals to the community – then launched a GoFundMe campaign based on the lack of food security he had seen. When Ng caught wind of this, the Yukon Chef Collective was born. Luke Legault of the Wandering Bison, Ray Magnuson from the Smoke & Sow barbecue truck and local baker Michael Roberts all pitched in, along with other volunteers. Food that chefs had been stockpiling for the Games found its way to the collective including frozen pizza dough and quantities of lunch meats. The mining community dropped some large donations, and others made generous one-off gifts, like Babette Lavidas (owner of institution G&P on Main) with 22 kilos of beautiful bay scallops. (Ng transformed them into a rich, soothing chowder.)
Irving says that for him, the experience distilled “the essence of culinary professionalism and community,” adding, “I feel incredibly connected to my community, proud of where I come from and proud of all those who contributed to this endeavour.”
$33,000 — The amount of money raised by the Yukon Chef Collective which, along with food donations, provided 300 meals a week for hungry locals from April through August.
- Black Foodie, a website that combines her passion for food with her sociology background, in 2015. When she’s not sharing soul food recipes or reviewing the latest Caribbean restaurant, she’s organizing food events in Toronto.
- Hawksworth and Nightingale, as well as the chic Bel Café. The mastermind behind dishes exclusive to Air Canada flights in Signature Class and Maple Leaf Lounges, Chef Hawksworth is launching his first cookbook on October 13.
Karl Wellshas been a panellist for Canada’s Best New Restaurants since 2005, is a food writer, cookbook author, former restaurant critic for The Telegram newspaper in St. John’s, a former CBC journalist, and currently hosts, Karl Wells Point 2 Point, on Rogerstv.
- food reporter and bestselling cookbook author based in Victoria, B.C. The Regina native and former food editor and wine writer for the Calgary Sun and Calgary Herald now contributes to various publications, including the Globe and Mail and YAM, Vitis and EAT magazines.
- Well Bread Culinary Centre. Cat teaches home cooks of all ages in Whitehorse and collaborates with elders and cooks from all cultures to preserve heritage cooking techniques in the modern kitchen.
- her own blog on the Montreal restaurant scene since 2010.
- Tastet, a free interactive guide to the best restaurants, cafés and bars in Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa.
- impressive past culinary repertoire includes: Head Chef/Owner at True True Diner in Toronto, owner of Saturday Dinette, and a residency at Sand and Pearl Oyster Bar in Prince Edward County.
- chef behind the restaurant FireWorks at the Inn at Bay Fortune. He is also a Food Network host, nutritional activist and cookbook author.
- Eat North. He frequently chats about Canadian restaurants on the radio and is a regular guest on Global News Calgary, CTV Morning Live Saskatoon and Global News Edmonton.
- A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba.
- followmefoodie.com, a Food Network Canada personality, a resident judge on Top Chef Canada, a judge on Iron Chef Canada and a Bocuse d'Or Canada National Selections judge. Named one of the “World’s Most Extreme Foodies” in the Sunday Times, she is also a judge for the Canadian Grand Prix New Product Awards, BC Product of the Year Award and Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards.
- her 2nd and 3rd cookbooks, both on cooking during COVID-19.