Walking along Parkdale, we received an immediate sense of nostalgia. There is a feeling of history and heritage that seemed to be diminishing in Toronto very quickly. With so many restaurants and neighbourhood spots in the area, Chantecler has successfully created a new way of dining. Sitting down with co-owner Jacob Wharton-Shukster the words ‘young and ambitious’ and ‘age ain’t nothing but a number’ come to mind. We conducted our interview in a space that invited guests to stay a while, and learned about the care and thought put into the service, food, and drink that made for a great experience. Chantecler is doing Hong Kong Canadian fusion right.
What was your first job and how did you get into the food and hospitality industry?
I was a produce clerk at Loblaws. I went to university for political science at the University of Guelph, and was playing music a lot in Toronto. Usually I was home every weekend and eventually I kind of got over university, I wasn’t into it anymore. So, I ended up leaving, and my friend got me a job as busboy working with Chef Jamie Kennedy at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar. Working with Chef Jamie Kennedy changed everything immediately. I was really into it. I don’t know what happened, it just changed everything, it was really exciting.
You know when you walk in somewhere, and you’re like ‘this is really fun, this is really cool,’ it was like that. At the time they were doing the catering operation, the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, and the Jamie Kennedy restaurant out of the same spot. There were a million people working there, and when you walked in the back doors, it was one of those chaotic restaurants scenes out of a movie. The food was so great, working with all these amazing farmers, it was really exciting.
I started working there in a very basic capacity and got more into it. I went to school for a couple levels of sommelier with The International Sommelier Guild. At the time I had been working around Toronto and got this idea to open a very small restaurant-dining bar, like micro level, and the project just grew naturally.
How did you determine the direction for the restaurant and what makes Chantecler’s concept so unique?
When we initially opened, it was a little more high concept. Our chef’s a really talented guy, he’s worked all over the world, and is originally from Hong Kong. He was doing a Canadiana thing with a lot of Hong Kong influences, lots of fun dried seafood, incorporating fresh ingredients- like minimal Nordic. The food was incredible and very well reviewed, but it didn’t feel like it clicked with the neighbourhood. It was just a bit too fussy. We started doing features on Sunday’s, it was more lowbrow, fun, and generous. It was more casual, and that really took off. After that, we basically changed everything. We dialed back what we were doing with the restaurant to more restrained, fun, snacks options. It’s faster, the food’s generous and delicious. It’s a little less high concept, but I think ultimately more neighbourhood.
It’s good to do things that are more simple, honest, and just tasty and good. It’s food that’s so close to the heart.
How does the design tie into the concept?
We wanted to do something that was more classic looking, but a little bit rough. We’re definitely not professional designers, so was a little bit tricky. We didn’t have a lot of money when we started. We took a lot of inspiration from what we had at the beginning. We had a beautiful room, with gorgeous Toronto red brick, and a historical 1881 building. We kind of just worked from there. We were aiming for a rough Toronto looking bistro, but with elements of Canadiana. Actually, we did all the work here, built all the furniture, and the bar. It was me, my dad and John (Chantecler’s Chef Jonathan Poon). It took two and a half months, time that was dictated by our liquor licensing. It has changed a bit since the beginning. The windows are now operable, and it opens all up in the summer. We received a grant from the city, the Storefront Improvement Grant, because it was a seen as a rejuvenation for the neighbourhood.
Why did you choose to name the restaurant Chantecler?
We were doing something that was definitely Canadian Bistro, something that exemplified Toronto and Toronto foods, a mix of cultural influences. Chantecler is a breed of chicken indigenous to Canada, the only breed of chicken from Canada, originally from Oka, Quebec. It’s a very cold, and hearty breed of chicken. We wanted that element of Canadiana, that also sounded like a bistro, and something that looked like it had been there for a long time. I think that that’s something very anachronistic about the name, it’s from a different time, from a different place.
What are the inspirations behind the tasting menu?
When we started doing a more streamlined menu with a snack theme, we still had customers that wanted a more detailed food experience, things done with a little bit more finesse. We were more than capable and had a really exciting idea to do both a high and low concept. We decided to offer a tasting menu on Fridays and Saturdays for a few tables a night, by reservation only, and it instantly took off. We had a really nice review from the Globe and Mail by Chris Nuttall-Smith. This idea was a good opportunity for us to open some really exciting wine and do some food that’s a little bit more detail-oriented or special. It’s food that’s more inspired by what’s fresh, amazing, cool, and quick from the development side, for basically four tables a night.
It starts with the inspiration of the chef, and every week it’s something different, usually one or two dishes at a time, between eight and twelve courses. Starting with a series of small snacks and light fresh seafood, and building into heartier fare. A lot of John’s Chinese background, and a lot of Canadian ingredients from east to west coast, are paired with a series of wine. John’s food is really punchy and fun, so it’s a real challenge to put wines next to it. The neat thing about wine, is that it makes the food taste so much better. It seems very bourgeois, but it’s beautiful and basic, from the earth.
What have been some of the challenges of opening a restaurant and being co-owner?
It’s been challenging trying to be a manager, and learning to let go has been really difficult. Sometimes you want to do everything yourself, you want to control every little detail, but you’re not making an effective use of your time. Learning how to delegate has been a big thing for me because I’m not the type of person who usually asks ‘can you do this thing for me?’ I’m more likely to say, ‘oh I’ll just do it.’ It’s always my instinct, but sometimes they will do a better job than you anyway, and you just have to equip them with the proper tools so they can do the work properly. We have an amazing staff. Awesome people who are super passionate and really into it. You can’t hire someone else to do what you’re good at, but you can hire someone else to do what you’re not good at.
How did you and Chef Poon establish that dynamic?
We worked together at Jamie Kennedy’s, where we met. John did lots of travelling around the world, and we reconnected when he came back. We were like, ‘oh we’re really into this kind of thing maybe we should just go for it.’
We’ve been really lucky. We have such an amazing clientele base. Everyone is so nice, engaging, personal, and lovely, it’s great. It gets pretty live, it gets pretty real.
Why did you choose this location and how would you describe the relationships with neighbouring restaurants?
We love Parkdale, Parkdale’s so cool. It’s one of the last remaining real neighbourhoods in Toronto, with all it’s original buildings, which haven’t been fully gentrified. Toronto has such a terrible history of knocking over everything that there’s nothing left with any character. It’s a real neighbourhood, where people have lived forever, with it’s incredible Victorian homes. It’s a mixed income place, and far enough from downtown with a great artsy community. We love the architecture, the archways, the red brick…it’s beautiful.
We have a really cute community here, especially with our next door neighbours at Porzia restaurant, and across the street at Small Town and Grand Electric. We’re all in it together. We sometimes do a staff meal exchange at Porzia. Usually, they would just pop in and say hi to everybody. It’s much more collective than competitive. These people aren’t our competition they’re our friends. We all do very different things, and It’s great.
What do you think surprises most guests that come here to eat?
It’s kind of a shabby-chic sort of place, we seem very casual and everybody’s really young. People get really surprised at the quality of work that’s being done with the food. Everything’s hot and fresh, with good ingredients, seasoned and delicious. There are great things to drink, a really exciting cocktail program, and an amazing wine list.
I think it’s surprising for them when they get something that’s also a personal restaurant experience. Compared to Montreal, restaurants in Toronto are very depersonalized, it’s like ‘us versus them.’ Here, I feel like we do the opposite, we’re really engaging right off the bat.
It’s great when they give you a genuine thank you and you can genuinely thank them for their business.
When you say, thanks for hanging out with us, and we had a really nice time, we really appreciate it, and mean it.
We have regulars who come in as families, all the hipsters cats in parkdale, and more distinguished people who love it because they feel young and edgy. There are a neat collection of people who live in the neighbourhood. There are bizarre filmmakers, doing documentary films, down the street there’s an architect with an incredible art collection and walks around dressed like Freddie Mercury; he’s like an amazing guy, super nice.
What is the most interesting thing that’s happened to you working in this industry?
We did this really cool party for Vice Magazine and this show called ‘Munchies, Chef’s Night Out.’ Geoff Hopgood from Hopgood Foodliner came with their crew, we had a big party here, and an incredible dinner. It was really wild.
What is your viewpoint on fusion cuisine?
Sometimes when you combine components of different cultures, they’re not always copacetic, they don’t always fit together. It’s more about finding things that you can build together and work together as opposed to things that are just combined for the sake of combining them. You have to think about why you’re doing something, it has to have an end goal. Certain things ultimately taste incredible together, that don’t necessarily belong to the same culture.
John knows what he’s doing. He uses a lot of dried seafood, soy type ingredients that have savoury elements, drawing on some inspiration from his travels. Sometimes he’ll be doing a dish that’s like a barbeque pork bun and it’s going to change your life.
So, John takes care of the food side, and I take care of the beverage side. We bring in a natural, and organic wine list, it’s a spectrum of wines that are not just a product, but are made by real people in a way that’s natural. This means that the wines are hand harvested, and fermented with wild yeast. Nothing’s added to them, they are literally just grapes, crushed, and left to naturally ferment. There aren’t that many producers, and we have a curated list that have all these elements. We also put together a cool cocktail program, and have a beer list, with some amazing Canadian, and otherwise breweries. We’re creating diversity, there’s lots of stuff to drink.
How do you come up with the cocktail menu?
It’s a mix of classics and originals, we draw a lot of inspiration from the past, from funny old cocktail manuals, and ridiculous notebooks that have a silly idea of something. We look for what might be really fun or will engage people in a different way by refreshing something and making it punchy. Everything’s made in-house, and for us we try to amp up the freshness in our drinks. We work with a friend of ours that has a tequila company called Tromba tequila. He’s built his business through personal relationships, which is a really nice way to do work, because you meet so many nice people. The cocktail called the El Diablo, is very classic, and old school. It’s lime juice, lime, lemon, really nice tequila, ginger beer, and topped at the end with crème de cassis. It’s neat because it’s theatrical. You get a white drink, and then at the table, you dunk over this liquid that’s black, and it’s suppose to be like devil’s tears. In our version, we put in habanero syrup and fresh chilli, so that it’s not just ginger spicy, it’s chilli spicy.
Because we don’t give a lot of descriptions on our wine list people are immediately disoriented by it. It’s intentional, because they are forced to engaged with the waiter or sommelier, it gives them a chance to get something that is tailored to their own tastes, as opposed to asking for something they think they like or are told to like it. I see a lot of tastes changing away from overblown new world wines into the style of wines that we’re trying to do here, which are leaner old world wines, with a lighter body, much more freshness, and acid. Those that tend to be more food friendly. It’s great to have really fun and engaging stuff that has interactive elements. The consumer base now is so much more educated than they used to be.
Who inspires you?
Definitely, Jamie Kennedy. He’s a really inspiring guy. Just both as a chef and in the way he does business. He’s super honest, talented, and hard working. He’s an inspiring person to be around when you see the way he goes about his work. The way the food comes out, it’s legitimately farm-to-table. I know it’s too much of a phrase now, but when you see him at his farm in Prince Edward County, it totally makes sense when you can see that food is really something beautiful. It brings people together, there’s a real sense of generosity and real hosting ability. Sometimes you just meet people that blow your mind, and he’s one of these guys. I really enjoyed working with him.
One of my former roommates Dave, who was my best friend’s older brother, lived downstairs in our ridiculous house on Crawford Street at College. At that time, Dave was trying to get together a kind of late night snacks bar, with his best friend Adrian. They started something that’s just so electric and so instantly combustible. They were quiet for the first three days of opening, and then it just exploded. They changed the restaurant trend scene in Toronto, they completely revitalized it. 416 snack bar, is a really good restaurant, and one of my favourite places in Toronto.
What is the best part of your job and working in this industry?
Our customers. The people that I’ve met doing this are completely irreplaceable. I just have such an amazing experience with such nice people. It’s really fun to come to work, to have people visit, and see a collection of familiar faces. People just really enjoy themselves here and you’re facilitating them having a great time. It’s something that’s really rewarding.
I mean, I’m 28 years old, and I don’t really know much about anything, but I’m definitely fortunate to be surrounded by some extremely nice people.
Do you have any daily motivations?
I’ve really gotten into the idea of craft recently. We talk about things being really crafty or bartending as a craft as opposed to other types of work. When you do a craft, you’re always trying to get better at it, and I like the idea of waking up everyday trying to do a better job than when you did the day before, I think that that’s really important. It makes you do good work, you can stand behind what you do and be proud of it. It’s retooling my logic, like instead of trying to focus on doing business as smart or competitive, I like the idea of putting your head down, just to do a good job, and the other things will probably fall into place.
How do you wind down after service?
Usually with a stiff drink or a beer. The staff usually like to go out for a beer after work, or hang at someone’s apartment. Sometimes we had late night dinners, and you don’t get home until 2 or 3 in the morning, I like those, they’re fun. We try to stay away from after service meetings because restaurants in even relaxed environments can be intense work, because everything’s a series of very short and immediate deadlines. It’s kind of like a pressure cooker of personalities, so it can be a bit tense sometimes and a bit stressful. We tend to talk about it in the moment, and then try to leave it there, so when you’re finished you’re all friends again, everything’s cool.
What has been the best dish and drink you’ve had?
We do a really good Beef Tartare. It’s one of those things that you see so often at restaurants where it’s chopped ahead of time, it’s all gross and oxidized, but we do it right. We get a nice big chunk of proper Ontario beef, it’s chopped to order by hand. We make a Vietnamese Japanese condiment to go with it, and there’s chopped peanuts, a fish sauce vinaigrette, coriander steam, jalapeno, and a little bit of wasabi. It’s plated in an old fashioned ring mold, on a French looking dish with an egg on top. You mix the egg, and serve it with a side of shrimp chips. It’s delicious, savory, gratifying and great.
As for drinks, the Corpse Reviver #2. It’s suppose to be a hangover cure from a time when people drank 3 oz cocktails in the morning. It’s one of those crazy things where you measure everything in equal portion. I just love equal portion cocktails because they don’t make any sense, but they work. It’s fresh lemon juice, gin, Lillet Blanc, instead of typically using an orange liqueur, we use Grand Marnier; shaken, put it in an atomizer, strained into a chilled glass, and sprayed with absinthe, with an orange twist.
It’s simple, clean, bright and refreshing, but it’s so boozy and you would never guess it. The person who wrote the book we got the recipe from, said at the end of it “unrevive the corpse.”
What is on your kitchen and restaurant wish list?
There’s a new tool that I’m really excited about, it’s something called a Searzall. It’s a portable handheld broiler, an attachment for a blowtorch that defuses the flame, so the flame doesn’t directly get placed on the food. You know when you torched sushi, there’s a torch taste? This is a new tool that will allow you to melt, brown, and caramelize portably. You could do a plate where one element could be hot, or one part of a cocktail could be hot and the other not. Mine’s in the mail right now. There’s a lot of new technology that will allow us to do more interesting stuff. I’m on board with using new tech, but not just for the sake of using it. It’s great when it allows you to do something exciting and different, especially when you can use an ingredient in a different way.
What are you go-to mobile apps?
I use Rdio a lot, mobile banking, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and the LCBO on the go app.
What on your 2015 bucket list and what’s next for Chantecler?
Nothing. I’m in the now.