Chef Anthony Walsh admits he didn't know the first thing about Argentinian food until he met his mother-in-law. Normally that wouldn't a point worth mentioning, but Walsh's latest project is an Argentinian restaurant.
Walsh, one of Toronto's most celebrated chefs, is the culinary mastermind behind the Oliver & Bonacini restaurants. As a young chef his primary influences were Irish food and Québécois food, but when he met his wife's mother Elena (or Lala, as she's affectionately called) and witnessed her Argentinian cooking, it was a revelation.
The flavours were big – explosive big – and he realized he didn't know as much about cooking as he thought he did.
In late August, Walsh opened Leña at Saks Fifth Avenue as an homage to his mother-in-law. It's his most personal restaurant to date, and its Latin leanings make it different from anything else in the O&B family tree.
We caught up with Walsh to chat about his new spot, what he thinks of Toronto's food scene and whether or not restaurant reviews keep him up at night.
This is a very personal project for you.
It's personal – to a degree. How did I get here? Why did this happen? It's inspired by the mother/grandmother kind of cooking and the effect it has on a moderately skilled professional chef. True mentors, nine out of 10 times, are mothers and grandmothers. My son Noah is working in the kitchen with me preparing his own grandmother's recipes now.
True mentors, nine out of 10 times, are mothers and grandmothers
How did you come to the realization that you wanted to open a Latin restaurant?
When I started dating my wife, her family adopted me into their Latin culture. Later, five or six years ago, we were talking about new restaurants within the company. I wanted to open an Andalusian restaurant. It's my favourite part of Spain. You think of Andalusia centuries back – it must have been amazing. You had the Africans, the Jews, the Arabs; you had the French, the Italian, the Spanish, the Portuguese. Everybody living in these pockets in these cities. And now you look at Toronto, and it's a shining example of that in a different way. I did all the work on the menu and we were ready to go, but we lost the space that we had. A new deal came through with Saks about two-and-a-half years ago. They originally wanted a different concept. They wanted something a little Cali-West Coast. Twenty-four hours before our press release was to go out, I pulled the plug. I said, 'guys, I'm not doing this.' I wanted to do something different in this area.
I was drawn to my mother-in-law's cooking over the years. When I met Lala [Elena], I was five years into cooking, and I was enthralled and captivated by her ability to create these explosive and complex dishes. The first time I cooked with her I was deeply humbled by her cooking. Slowly, the wheels started to turn for me. Here I am, clearly a product of this influence in my life. It has had a fundamental impact on me as a person and as a chef. It's also a clear departure from my Montreal upbringing in an Irish Catholic family.
For years you've been drawing from that upbringing. Your mom's cooking is peppered across the company.
My parents taught me good food. Irish Catholic 1970s Canadian food in Montreal. It inspired me to become a chef. There are so many dishes in the company that were clearly from my mom. The tourtière at Canoe, the boudin, all the Québécois stuff is from my mother. I grew up with that, and then I also was heavily influenced by Lala.
What was your relationship with your mother-in-law like? What did you learn from her food-wise?
When I met my wife's parents, I didn't know shit about Argentinian food. No Food Network, no Internet, I didn't know a thing. It's big: all fire, smoke, big flavours. Obviously back then I had no idea. My wife is a very good cook, but her mother is a fucking phenomenal cook. I had some good skills, incredible discipline and the mental energy to stay focused, and I was like, 'what? Whoa, wait. I'm really not that good.' It was a slap in the face.
Tell us about the food you'll be serving at Leña.
This is a Latin restaurant through and through. The core of the restaurant is mothers' cooking and grandmothers' cooking. My exec chef [Julie Marteleira] has had a heavy hand helping me create the menu, too. She's bringing in her mom's cooking – the Portuguese influence – and there's a lot of that. You're not going to see any fucking tweezers here. It's very much about bold flavours, a lot of smoke and dishes from Lala's homeland, from the gaucho empanadas to pollo Doña Aurora.
The pollo especially is a very important dish to Leña.
Pollo Doña Aurora was the last dish my mother-in-law had before she left her homeland. Her aunt, Aurora, cooked it for her before she got on the boat to come over. And Aurora gave her the recipe. I tasted it as a young cook and was blown away. It looked kinda like a car accident, but the flavour and the way she cooked it was incredible. With her permission, I put it on the menu. I changed it very little. It's plated differently, but the paramount things are the same.
Why did you feel that Toronto could use an Argentinian restaurant right now?
When we were first looking at this corridor of Toronto, I felt that the food was quite vanilla. I don't mean that in a bad way, but I also didn't want to add to it. People young and old want something different these days. You see different generations venturing beyond and trying different foods all the time. I'm very proud of what we've achieved here. The feel of it – it's very different, it looks different.
Canoe recently earned a four-star review in the Globe and Mail. What do you make of the state of food criticism in Toronto right now?
Reviews always have an effect on a restaurant. They can tip the scales either way. As a chef, having your work critiqued by anyone is always a personal thing, regardless of how tough you like to think you are. I cannot speak for other chefs, but from my standpoint, the reviews I get are filtered and then forgotten about. There are a select few writers that I respect, assuming they are moderately civil and are not stoking their own agenda on my back. In many cases, the more sensational their commentary is, the more lustre and notoriety their reputation gets. It's self-serving.
As a chef, having your work critiqued by anyone is always a personal thing
Restaurants in Toronto have been getting a lot of heat lately for underpaying and overworking their cooks. What do you make of that?
As you have seen, we have been in the crosshairs. We have drilled down significantly on the reality of the old culture versus the new generation. In our case, the days of the daily salary – $100 for an eight-hour shift – are long over, and that has been the case for the last decade. Cooks, for the most part, are passionate about their trade. They know that kitchens are a competitive environment and that the weak get left in the dust. Having the cooks play by rules is a constant battle. Telling people that they are not allowed to come in early – when they want to, on their own time – is a difficult thing to stomach.
We have introduced some great classes and workshops for cooks to embrace that passion, from bread to pasta to butchery. We are constantly on the ground researching our sector from a remuneration standpoint, and we pay at the top end of that mean.
Has it been hard for you to find quality cooks lately?
It's always a challenge to find good talent you can rely on to keep up with the daily grind. That's never really changed all that much. We have a great pool within O&B that we pull from, because we believe in giving the entire team a chance to expand their horizons. So Julie is now here at Leña, and we have many other members from other properties here. It's always tough when you open a new restaurant to find more good cooks.
What is the most memorable meal you've had at a Toronto restaurant this year?
Man, Branca, wow. Without a doubt, Branca. The food there is incredible. It's an Argentinian-style grill house, and it's spot on. I love what Jay Carter is doing over at Dandylion, putting out these incredible plates every day. Chabrol was really good as well. Doug [Penfold] and I have history. He trained me on my first day at Canoe. We were both working the veg station. What I don't understand about Toronto is how the city puts a squash on busy areas. The Junction, the Ossington strip – these neighborhoods get squashed just when they're about to take off. You're capping progress.
You're also working on a Montreal project.
We're working on a few things. The first is a brew pub project in Liberty Village. It's going to open in November. It's this wild subterranean cave – it's going to be great. Then, in the new year, I'm opening Bar George in Montreal. Leña is a stunner, but Bar George is on a different level, set in a 300-year-old mansion.
176 Yonge St, M5C 2L7; lenarestaurante.com