For his new restaurant on Ossington, Brandon Olsen has gone bananas
Chef Brandon Olsen
Brandon Olsen is a man obsessed with process. Prior to opening of his French restaurant on Ossington, La Banane, the chef spent hours in the kitchen breaking down every element of his menu in progress.
“To make a perfect omelette — nice, medium rare, still soft, no brown on the outside, not spongy, creamy — it’s a hard thing to do,” he says.
In his research, Olsen pored over vintage cookbooks from the ’60s and ’70s. Like a mad scientist in a laboratory, he experimented with every possible variable — from the heat of the pan to the way the butter melts in it.
“Don’t forget about the carry-over. Eggs carry over with the cooking time. It’s perfect when it goes out of the kitchen, but it has to go all the way down here,” Olsen says, pointing to the table furthest from the kitchen by the front window.
But this obsession and need for perfection sets Olsen apart from the average chef, and it’s also why La Banane has been so successful since its January opening.
“We’re booked solid for the next four or six weeks,” he says, humbly. “It’s pretty remarkable, I would say. But there are a lot of eyes on us.”
With someone of Olsen’s pedigree, the expectations are understandably high. Originally from Burlington, the budding chef cut his teeth at various Toronto kitchens in his early 20s. He then moved to California’s Napa Valley in 2006 to work for Thomas Keller’s famed restaurants: the French Laundry (ranked the world’s best restaurant during Olsen’s stint) and Ad Hoc.
Olsen was captivated by the techniques and methodologies in Keller’s chocolate program, teaching himself how to make chocolates. But in 2008, the recession hit and Olsen’s U.S. work visa expired, so he returned to T.O.
Eager to put his learnings into practise, Olsen put everything he had into starting his own chocolate company, Neslo, in 2009.
“I pulled the trigger too early,” Olsen says, of the two month-long operation, “but I sunk it at the right moment.”
Knee-deep in debt, Olsen went looking for work. Not a week later, he found himself in Grant van Gameren’s kitchen at the newly opened Black Hoof. Van Gameren’s in-house charcuterie program satiated Olsen’s interest in procedure, and the two developed a close bond. When van Gameren left in 2011 to start Bar Isabel, Olsen became the Hoof’s chef de cuisine. Two years later, van Gameren brought Olsen to Isabel as its chef de cuisine.
Olsen left Isabel in 2014 to start a restaurant. The partnership collapsed within two months, so he refocused on his passion for sweets and made a second attempt at a business: Chocolates by Brandon Olsen (CXBO). This one stuck.
“I showed up with a set of keys in my hands and said to my fiancée, ‘Tomorrow I’m opening up a chocolate company,’” he recalls. “She looked at me like I was on some kind of major acid trip.”
Olsen’s fiancée, Sarah Keenlyside, an artist and filmmaker, ended up becoming a major figure in CXBO. Although Olsen crafted chocolates with nuanced flavours, he, along with Keenlyside and graphic designer Ryan Crouchman, helped conceive CXBO’s modern esthetic. The result? Those eye-catching splattered designs that have become the company’s trademark.
The independent chocolatier’s success helped him earn the trust of the King Street Food Company, the restaurant group behind Buca, Jacob’s and Co. and more. Prior to the shuttering of the Saint Tavern, King Street offered Olsen the Ossington spot. With the goal of a conceptual refresh, Olsen was given carte blanche to realize his vision of a classic French restaurant. Back in the kitchen, Olsen tinkered with age-old recipes and refined his take on the traditional cuisine.
“What can we do to reference a classic dish but play with it a little bit?” Olsen thought. “What can we do to elevate it to 2017’s palate?”
The answer is lightened and playfully reimagined renditions of French standards. Instead of liver and onions, a mousse is created from chicken livers and cipollini onions are roasted with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. His European sea bass en croûte is wrapped in a lighter, latticed pastry as opposed to the full parcel.
Inspired by his love of disco music, Olsen wanted a similar classic-contemporary vibe for La Banane’s interior. For this, he turned to Keenlyside, who worked with Mason Studio.
“The Banana is her and me,” Olsen says. “Her art meets my food meets our environment.” A vintage esthetic of brass rails and marble countertops is updated with a bold mural commissioned to local graphic designer Barr Gilmore and pieces from the couple’s personal art collection, including works from Douglas Coupland.
In the long-term, Olsen plans for La Banane to become more than just a restaurant.
“I want to be an institution in 30 years,” he says. “I’ve always envisioned the restaurant to be an octopus where it has eight tentacles, and each tentacle is its own sustainable, profitable entity,” chef says.
But until then, Olsen is up at 7:30 a.m. and doesn’t head home until 3:30 a.m. If he’s lucky, he’ll sneak in a 20-minute nap on one of the velvet banquettes.
The weariness shows in Olsen’s eyes, but the excitement shines through. To Olsen, the marathon days and nights are a fair trade-off to see his vision come to fruition.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world.”