Few chefs can pull off a restaurant mini-empire without compromising quality or service. Fewer still can do that while maintaining an individual look and feel for each business. Anthony Rose is one of the first chefs in Toronto to grow a small syndicate in a short amount of time. His restaurants, Rose and Sons, Bar Begonia, Fat Pasha, Schmaltz Appetizing and Big Crow are all different, individualized visions from a restless chef looking to share his personal style of cooking and eating. Rose continues this journey through his new book The Last Schmaltz, which recently hit bookstore shelves.
Rose cooked some of his favourite dishes from the book and we sat down to talk about his West Coast influences, the challenges of running distinctly different restaurants and the success and failure that comes with being a serial entrepreneur.
This is your first cookbook. What was the process like?
Well, when we first signed on to do this almost three years ago we were very gung-ho about it. Six months into the process Chris Johns came on board. I’m not an organized person, I’m very chaotic. I wrote each chapter in my mind, almost like a scrapbook. A collection of small stories tied to various recipes, and Chris and I poured that out into the book. That’s why it has a scrapbook feel.
You can see that within the first few pages. People that get to know you will recognize that this feels like an extension of your personality. It has your sense of humour.
That’s how I wanted to do it. I wanted it to be about the stories and the context. Cookbooks used to be like that 30 to 40 years ago. They would list ingredients and mention dishes but there was no step-by-step. You cook like this, and here’s the final product. It was much more narrative and about the story.
Let’s talk about that story. What was the initial goal with the book?
A compendium of all your best hits or something else? Our original goal was to see if we can talk about my culinary journey. My time spent in kitchens in San Francisco, upstate New York, I was in Boston for a bit, and then Toronto. That was the original idea. I couldn’t wrap my head around it because I was involved in so many different projects. The six restaurants and all the dinners we’re doing at farms. So the idea gradually evolved. It’s just like how I open restaurants.
You’ve said in the past that when you start building a restaurant you don’t know what it’s going to be.
This is very true. When we take over a space, we don’t know what it’s going to be. I’m sure my partner Robert Wilder hates me for that. The seed is always there but for me, the idea evolves so quickly.
Take me through that. Rose and Sons was your first baby after you left the Drake?
The idea with Rose and Sons initially was to do a riff on the previous restaurant that had been there, People’s. But, how do you create something more irreverent? In the early days we were trying to be many things, then food critic Amy Rosen called our food “stoner food” and that stuck. It took us a while to accept it.
We opened Rose and Sons as people were being introduced to really loud, bigger, fatter, juicier plates of food throughout the city. We were doing things in a simple style but with bold flavours. And now in the present time, we’ve evolved again. Recently we’re changing again. Our plan with the restaurant was to become a delicatessen with the eventual goal of becoming an all-day, all-night Jewish diner. We’d serve the things that our mothers and grandmothers used to cook.
In many ways, you started to do that with Fat Pasha? Equal parts modern Israeli and Ashkenazi with a hint of West Coast.
That’s my Jonathan Waxman influence. Not just his food but his ethos. When we were opening Fat Pasha, our thought was that we don’t really see a lot of Israeli food, so we wanted to change that. We were really lucky with Yotam’s (Ottolenghi) influence and how he was bringing Israeli food to the mainstream. We also bring in the Ashkenazi food, which can be a little fatty, with the schmaltz and the chicken liver. The West Coast influence is the colour and vibrancy.
I'm chaotic. I wrote each chapter in my mind like a scrapbook.
You’ve opened eight restaurants in the last six years. In many ways, they’re all different but there is connective tissue.
Rose and Sons and Fat Pasha yes. I mean with Big Crow, the statement I wanted to make was about Canadian barbecue. I think it got lost in the messaging. We opened Big Crow at a time when Toronto was really going through a Southern U.S. barbecue thing, and we were being compared to that. I just wanted to open a cottage-y Canadian barbecue place. Because it’s how I eat and cook. The connection with all my restaurants is that they represent how I cook and eat in my personal life. Thankfully, many of these restaurants are still open, well with the exception of one.
You’ve been vocal about Swan’s failure.
That’s my fault. I own that. We wanted to go more West Coast with Swan, something brighter and lighter. Simple but also a little cleaner with the food. The theme was California, very much like Zuni Café in San Francisco, the ultimate West Coast bistro. We changed as soon as we received the first negative review. We should have stayed the course. The first few weeks were rough but as soon as I got a bad review, I changed things. That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.
And if you could go back?
I would be there 24/7. I would cook with my staff and spend enough time until the vision had completely set in.
This idea of a West Coast bistro is something you still want to pursue?
Our goal now with our restaurants is to take a step back and look at how they’re functioning. We want to go deeper and not broader. How do we get deeper into the cuisine? With Rose and Sons, Bar Begonia, Fat Pasha. We’ve slowed down and we’re focusing on the existing set of restaurants.
Robert and you were opening a restaurant every year for a while. And then you suddenly stopped.
We’re going to be smart with the next one. Taxes are going up, costs are going up. We want to evolve, but the timing has to be right. Most of my restaurants are on the same street which helps me manage things. But it’s become such a competitive and tough industry. Very few restaurants can continue to be busy after a few years. You’re on for a year and then you disappear. That fucking kills me. Our restaurants are open because we try something new, we’re not afraid to spend money and hire some people. A lot of people are relying on us. So we put the brakes on until we got it right.
That evolution is this deeper dive that you keep mentioning?
Rose and Sons is a Jewish diner. We want to explore those diner-type Jewish dishes. The things that are really prevalent in places like New York City. Liver with onions, brisket, fricassee. At Bar Begonia, I want to go more simple French.
It has to be about the food and not who gets to be famous.
You have very high staff retention. That’s a challenge these days?
We do retain staff. We try to give them a lot of power. Our goal was to empower a culture. This is your home, you own it. We try to round out their skills.
You were talking about a deeper dive into cuisine. Is the cookbook expressing that?
We wanted to pick things that are accessible. So we have this small library of recipes from our restaurants. My goal is to try and bring homecooking to the public. It’s the only thing I know. So we wanted to start by showcasing our favourites, the guests’ favourites, the cooks’ favourites. This cookbook has all the Anthony Rose classics. Each chapter is structured like a feast but anyone can cook the feast. There are a ton of recipes from my mom and grandmother.
Your partner and cookbook photographer Kayla Rocca joked that you’re ready for the next one?
Maybe soon. I think this was a challenging book and we were all quite stressed about our first cookbook baby. But it certainly leaves room for the next book and revisiting my career journey and opening up to travel and world influences. There’s a lot more I want to explore at some point, but not right now.
What about TV? Will we see Anthony Rose on Top Chef or Iron Chef?
No, absolutely not. I don’t like competition shows. I want more shows like Two Fat Ladies. They’re not about cooking, it’s about the atmosphere and the context of cooking. If I’m doing something it has to be about the food and not the selection process and who gets to be famous and who gets the most likes. So much less fluff, just the food. I remember the first Julia Child and Jacques Pépin shows, they were so great. Nowadays, you have so many competition shows, so many shiny objects. It’s ridiculous how much they’re all the same.
The Last Schmaltz, $40, Penguin Books