How BarChef changed Toronto's cocktail scene

We chat to Frankie Solarik about how ten years of BarChef cocktails helped Toronto shake its clubbing image.

A decade ago, Toronto’s cocktail scene was limited to a handful of establishments that either specialized in the classics or ones that presented every variation of a neon-coloured martini possible. We were a city obsessed with late nights and clubbing but Toronto didn’t care for elevated drinks.

Then came BarChef, the lonely progressive cocktail bar on Queen West where bartender and owner Frankie Solarik paved the way for a new generation of modernist drinks. Solarik presented his cocktail concoctions like dishes in a Michelin-starred restaurant; they arrived at the table as elaborate showpieces. Guests had to be able to handle whatever ingredients Solarik managed to get his hands on.

His goal was to entertain and stimulate your senses. Every drink was an attempt to bridge the past with the present through nostalgia and emotions.

Now turning ten, the bar’s influence has been pivotal in putting Toronto’s drink scene on the international map. BarChef still stands alone as the most creative bar in the city, where top chefs go to seek inspiration when they’re in town.

We sat down with Solarik to talk about his journey and how a Ferran Adrià documentary changed his life and approach to cocktail making.

You run a modernist bar that has been open for longer than most restaurants.

This is a dream come true, the fact that we have managed to stay open this long and stay relevant at the same time. It has always been about pushing the envelope since day one. Evolving technically, using new ingredients, new equipment. New approach to the craft. That’s why we have stayed relevant and lead the path in terms of what has been done for the consideration of modern cocktails.

There wasn’t much near you a decade ago.

There were no cocktail bars on this stretch of Queen West when we found this place. It was formerly a jazz lounge. The space really spoke to us, we built everything ourselves. At the time we were a city that was getting used to the idea of interesting syrups and garnishes behind the bar, but that was about as forward-thinking as it was.

In many ways it was either about classic drinks or something from an episode of Sex and the City, right?

There was a huge emphasis on classic cocktails and colourful martinis. Bartenders were either focusing on something very old or it was very fruity and sweet. I was working at Kultura at the time before we opened BarChef, that’s where I was starting to tinker with drinks from the kitchen, making small changes here and there.

You were running your drink experiments from the Kultura kitchen?

Well that’s how it all started. At Kultura I was given free reign to play with my drinks. For me it has always been about experimenting with ingredients, and the first place I could find those ingredients was in the kitchen. We were an internationally focused restaurant with a variety of food on the menu; it gave me the ability to play with exotic ingredients. The kitchen’s mise en place became my own.

We were being compared to cities like Shanghai and Paris.

Kultura was known for having a boundary-pushing drinks menu but BarChef was a huge step up from that.

When I left Kultura and we got this space, there was some time during our build where I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was at home one night and I came across the Anthony Bourdain documentary on Spanish chef Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli. When I saw that, I became completely obsessed. Bourdain’s emotions and facial reactions to Adrià’s food resonated with me. I wanted to evoke that emotion in my guests. I wanted to challenge the comfort level. The second I saw that, I started experimenting at home with any food item I could get my hands on whether it was plums, herbs or what not. That’s when we decided to incorporate a full modernist programme at BarChef.

The signature smoked Manhattan ($50) comes as a showstopping presentation but is also about the vanilla-hickory flavour.

You’ve mentioned that you’re self-taught. What was that journey like when you were building the first menu?

BarChef was designed to be a cocktail bar with zero limitations. With the cocktail community, there has always been a commitment to traditions. My approach was different, I was never interested in classic cocktails. They’re not going anywhere. I have always paid respect to classic drinks but I never wanted to replicate them. I wanted to see what was possible and how far we can take the basic mainframe of bitter component, sweetness, alcohol and how far we can go with that.

I don’t think many diners were thinking about modernist anything in 2008.

Yes, 2008 was a milestone year for Toronto. The city felt like it was ready to grow up. The reception was soft at first. We were coming out of a recession. The price point was pretty high. Our smoked Manhattan was $45. There were days when there were no guests for the first few months. It was a very new thing to Toronto. We stayed true, and that’s why we managed to make it last. We started to receive a lot of press, international especially, and accolades from chefs like Grant Achatz of Alinea. We were being compared to cities like Shanghai and Paris.

My first drink here was the smoked Manhattan.

That was our first hit. When I was working at Kultura, I was watching Iron Chef and Bobby Flay was the guest chef. I think the challenge was chocolate. Flay presented this dish to the judges, it was a big ceramic bowl with a lid covering it. He lifted the bowl and smoke billowed out. I saw the reactions on the judges’ faces. I said I needed to smoke a cocktail. I started playing around with vases and vanilla beans, the first expression. I blow-torched a vanilla bean and smoked a bean, and from there I was like: “Wow this is insane.” It’s still very much the same drink.

Even with that first drink, was the goal to create a sensory experience?

The term “auditorium of perspective” puts it simply. In terms of what it is I am trying to achieve. You read the menu and maybe it sounds interesting and captivates you enough to have it come out, and see the visual presentation. It’s like going into a theatre for a 3D movie, that’s the idea. For me, the whole reason I do what I do is to get that visceral and nostalgic experience. Things that you have experienced in the past may resurface when you see the drink, and you can marry that with new feelings and experiences based on how you interact with the drink, how you touch it and how it feels and tastes.

Every drink starts off as a drawing. My place is littered with these drawings of drinks.

I have always admired the tactile nature of the drinks here, but that must be a challenge to do with each drink.

I want people to be fully in the environment of the drinks, because you create your own personal references from the composition. Like in the case of our black truffle snow drink where you get all these different textures between the coconut foam, the smoked salt, and the aromas of black truffle.

From a creative perspective, how far have you gone to do this?

Every drink starts off as a drawing. My place is littered with these drawings of drinks. I storyboard them and let them evolve over time. I almost view it as different frames of the same painting as I try to work towards the end result. The geometric lavender is by far my favourite because it looks so abstract. The geometric manipulation of ingredients that grow in the wilderness have been tamed so that customers can experience something familiar and foreign at the same time.

It seems that, for the most part, guests have come along for the ride. Toronto is a much better cocktail city now.

The modernist cocktail is ubiquitous now. I feel that. It is much more acceptable. Diners’ palates have grown up since the clubbing days. The same generation that were clubbing in the mid-2000s are now regulars here because they like our presentations. They know that we’re not a bar that’s regurgitating “corpse reviver” recipes. The industry has evolved as well.

The elderflowers and fougère ($30) is all things green in a glass.

In what sense?

The industry has become more supportive of each other. BarChef was never really part of the clique – we always did our own thing, but there is camaraderie now more than ever before. Even though traditional mixologists don’t dig what we do, they send guests our way. We’re different, we are more of a celebratory place compared to your traditional bar, but the industry has really supported us. That helped make Toronto an internationally respected community. Toronto has had a stigma for a long time, we felt the need to be accepted somewhere else first. But what’s happening locally rivals anything internationally.

Where does that take us?

To continue and improve. I know for us, it’s a journey of the next menu. We’ve been working on the fall menu for the last six months. We also have our batched programme. Batched drinks that we’ve started to sell at the LCBO where we’ve tried to make the liquid the exact same way we do here at BarChef. It’s still made in small batches, I’m hand toasting the chamomile.

I find most batched cocktails to be on the sweet side.

Savoury is an important thing. So is the weight of liquid on the palate. We’ve tried to incorporate mouth feel as much as possible. Sometimes that means incorporating flavored syrups like rosemary and chamomile which give another level of complexity. We’ve got a team working with a refractometer to make sure everything is consistent with sugar content. Savoury is interesting because it can be about umami and salt. Lately we’ve been pushing that as much as possible.

Considering you’re making these elaborate drinks that feel like showpieces, is the bar set high when you go out for a drink?

I prefer simple drinks when I go out, like the martinez. I may be old school when I go out to drink but for me it is about meeting the community and meeting bartenders, seeing new places. We have finally started to have a foothold in the international community. It’s very cool. Bartending in the industry used to be a stepping stone to get you somewhere else. Now, people are considering the craft a real profession.