Toca will make or break Tom Brodi

New Ritz-Carlton restaurant an ode to Canadian cuisine


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Walking through the shiny spectacle of his new, not-so-humble abode, Toca, Tom Brodi has the air of a proud father.

The chef is astounded with the craftsmanship of the place — the planed wood of the Canadian walnut floors: all tongue-and- groove, no nails; the ceiling: plaster, with pieces of marble inserted by hand; the cheese cave in the middle of the dining room, built like a Lego structure from over 100 pieces of granite; even the ventilation system in the kitchen: “the Bentley of hood systems.”

But ask him what it’s like being in charge of it all, make him step back outside of himself for a moment, and reality kicks in.

This is not, strictly speaking, the Ritz-Carlton’s hotel restaurant. It’s Toca by Tom Brodi at the Ritz- Carlton. It’s independent and his name is literally on everything. The weight of the success of the place rests squarely on his shoulders.

“This could blow up in my face,” he says. “It’s scary. But it puts me in the mindset that I will not fail. I have to succeed.”

Brodi is 35 years old, but there’s a down-to-earth quality to him that’s refreshing. At times, it seems as though he’s gazing at the glitz through the eyes of a younger, former self. Some high-profile chefs have such a hardened aura about them that they appear magically set in their glamorous surrounds, as if they were there the entire time.

Not so with Brodi, who certainly hasn’t forgotten his roots. This is a chef who’s paid his dues.

“I’ll never forget where I came from,” he says.

His first restaurant job was at a St- Hubert chicken joint, and from there, he spent four years cooking at a banquet hall. After graduating from George Brown, he went to Estates of Sunnybrook, but his real break was getting a gig at Mark McEwan’s North 44.

He showed up there with his knives on his back, determined to get a job, and worked a 17-hour trial shift just to show his grit. North 44 hired him immediately, and he took a big pay cut in the process (that’s how it was back then, he says: the better the restaurant, the worse the pay).

Then came 10 years at Canoe under the tutelage of Anthony Walsh — six of them as chef de cuisine — and now he’s at the upper echelon of chefdom as the top dog at Toca.

“My Dad was screaming at me. He said I was going to end up at McDonald’s.”

Raised by Hungarian parents, Brodi grew up in Toronto. He recalls dining on such fare as pig’s brain with scrambled eggs as a child — while other kids his age imbibed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — or eating bread and raw eggs with his grandfather.

His family was a food family. His father, he says, is the type of guy who contemplates dinner while eating lunch.

Memories abound of Hungarian food made from scratch; of eating every last piece of a pig, including the ears; of going out to Chinatown for dim sum. These recollections are some of Brodi’s fondest. Still, when he told his parents he wanted to be a chef, bedlam ensued.

“They lost it,” Brodi recalls. “My dad was screaming at me. He said I was going to end up at McDonald’s.”

Of course, that was before the Food Network and before Gordon Ramsay and Susur Lee were common household names.

Brodi was thinking of getting into kinesiology at the time, but intoxicated with the idea of doing what he really loved, he dropped his college courses the very next day and sped to George Brown on the back of a motorcycle just in time to register there.

“That was the craziest,” he says.

These days, Brodi has been travelling constantly, doing promotional stuff or visiting with farmers to better learn about food’s journey from the farm to the plate. It would be hypocritical as a chef, he says, if he didn’t know how an animal was slaughtered and what it went through to be on the menu.

Recently, he was in Cancun doing some culinary research — gruelling, no doubt: the results of which can be found at Toca’s raw bar, a showcase of Canadian bounty tinged with Latin influences (the Malpeque oysters come with tequila and chili, while the B.C. Dungeness crab salad is garnished with avocado and lime).

This is Brodi’s time to shine. With Toca, he’s been given all the tools he needs to maximize his creative output: a hand-picked crew (including his right-hand man at Canoe, Matthew Robertson), $25,000 Rational combination ovens, a 1,700-pound granite chef ’s table for face-to-face customer interaction (“it took 11 guys to get it in,” he says), and top- of-the-line gas grills (Canoe, on the 54th floor of the TD Bank Centre, is too high up for gas and relies on induction instead).

The restaurant will offer what is billed as a “classic Canadian menu” focusing on natural, locally grown ingredients in addition to a walk-through pastry corridor as well as a cheese cave. The cave will be staffed with a dedicated affineur — a sommelier for cheese, essentially —while the Cheese Boutique’s Afrim Pristine will perform regular checkups there to make sure the cave is operating at its peak. In short, the only limitation now is Brodi’s imagination.

The pressure is astronomical, no doubt, but Brodi sees it as a learning experience.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself as a human being,” he says of the past year.

Being a great chef is one thing, but being a great leader is another. Brodi seems to take it in stride, though, keeping one foot firmly planted on solid earth.

One can’t help but feel certain that he’ll succeed, but those notions are irrelevant: he has no choice.

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