Charcuterie king: a profile of chef Grant van Gameren
By Karolyne Ellacott
After rocking Toronto as chef at The Black Hoof and Enoteca Sociale, Grant van Gameren is ready to build an empire (Image: Cheol Joon Baek)
“I kinda have a confidence complex,” admits Grant van Gameren, renowned Toronto chef. “I always have to do better.” After rising to the forefront of the city’s culinary scene at a little place called The Black Hoof, van Gameren stepped out of the limelight just as the frenzy surrounding the eatery reached a fever pitch.
Now, with a number of projects on the go — an executive chef role at Enoteca Sociale, a boutique line of salumis — van Gameren is adding a new restaurant to his lineup.
A joint venture with noted restaurateur Max Rimaldi, Crown Cooks is slated for a February opening, with ex-Hoofer Brandon Olsen coming on as chef de cuisine. It’s destined to become a hit from the get-go.
Growing up in Mississauga, van Gameren originally got into the food industry out of necessity. When his friends began trickling out of university clutching degrees, the young cook was impelled to pursue a career as a chef.
“Whatever I do,” he explains, “I try to excel at it. I don’t settle for less.”
After working his way up through the ranks at various establishments, van Gameren landed at Lucien as sous-chef. He blossomed under Scot Woods’ helpful eye and was introduced to the possibilities of charcuterie.
“Scot taught me how to make simple cured meats from scraps. It’s a skill that you’ve really got to learn, and I really enjoyed the process.” Woods, van Gameren says, has had the greatest influence on his cooking career.
When Jen Agg’s craigslist ad for a charcuterie chef proved irresistible, van Gameren jumped ship, helping to inject The Hoof with its finger-on-the-pulse sensibility.
Barraged with options upon departure, he did a very brief secondary stint at Lucien before taking the reins at Enoteca Sociale.
“It was like breaking up with a girlfriend — your first instinct is to rebound,” he says.
Having already established a relationship with proprietor Max Rimaldi (his charcuterie made a name for itself on Pizzeria Libretto’s menu), van Gameren’s role as executive chef has afforded him far more culinary freedom, allowing him to stray from his previously meat-laden path.
“It was years since I’d been able to play around with food. Taking a really humble vegetable and doing something neat and interesting with it can have just as much of an impact,” van Gameren says.
In Rimaldi’s words: “As a restaurateur, I have an incredible amount of respect for a chef, period — even more so for someone who can put out consistently great food. You can be brilliant once, but can you be brilliant all the time?” he asks. “Grant is.”
Rimaldi and van Gameren’s ability to speak the same language led to their current endeavour: Crown Cooks.
“Max is a mentor in certain respects; he’s a big thinker and we have a really good partnership,” van Gameren says. The College Street eatery will see Brandon Olsen at the helm — a fitting choice as Olsen filled van Gameren’s shoes at the Hoof following his departure.
“I will always credit Grant for the knowledge of charcuterie he has given me over the years,” Olsen says. “It’s been a while since we worked side by side. He has taught me so much — and there’s more to be learned from him. I’m super-excited to be a part of this.”
“I’m not just assuming that success is going to come because of success in the past.”
Van Gameren’s recent tour of Europe has played a pivotal role in how the restaurant is coming together. Having never been to France, Italy or Spain before — countries whose cuisine has played a starring role in van Gameren’s food — the trip was eye-opening, to say the least.
“It really gave me a true picture of what it is to eat, say, a carbonara pasta in Rome,” he says.
Entranced with the eating culture and the service he witnessed abroad, van Gameren intends to offer a menu that is both large and varied, filled with plenty of dishes made to share among diners.
“Over the last year, I’ve learned that it’s very important to be cooking what and how you like to eat,” van Gameren says.
He reminisces over one particularly affecting meal in Italy: “There was this little old woman who just started sending out these dishes of super-simple, honest food: ham, pastas, a bowl of mostarda that blew my mind!”
Spain’s tapas scene also proved to be highly stimulating. Finding his way into tiny, jam-packed bars imbued with riotous atmospheres, van Gameren was struck by how an entire menu could be crafted from the highest quality canned goods — and yet still never fail to impress. Hoping to instill some of that sense in Crown Cooks, a late-night bar menu will also be served, with food being prepped by the chefs but assembled by the bar staff, relieving the chefs of superfluous duties.
“I hope it’s going to be a pretty badass restaurant,” van Gameren says. “People will get these rave reviews and start slacking. I’m not just assuming that success is going to come because of success in the past.”
Van Gameren’s trip ended on a particularly inspirational note in Copenhagen, where he partook in a culinary seminar put on by René Redzepi that drew boldfaced names like Daniel Boulud, David Chang and Ferran Adrià, in addition to a hodgepodge of younger faces.
“It’s really about who’s thinking differently,” van Gameren says. “Not everyone can afford the best equipment — but thinking is free.”
As the restaurant nears completion, the chef is simultaneously working on Crown Salumi, his line of artisanal cured meats. Done in partnership with Frank Abballe and Alfredo Santangelo, this endeavour is a much slower process, requiring, in some cases, years of patience. Presently, the salumi are available at Sanagan’s Meat Locker and Cheese Boutique. Future plans include restaurant-ready versions. In an ideal world, van Gameren says, he’d like to open up a “cool little salumi joint,” but for now there’s no rush.
So, what are van Gameren’s other aspirations for the future?
“Right now, it’s all 30-year-olds cooking with 30-year-olds. Over the next five years, we’ll really see certain people step up and be culinary leaders. I know it’s my goal to do my part and teach people what I’ve learned and learn from them.”