Managing seven kitchens in some of the most sought-after restaurants in the city isn’t an easy job, but Oliver & Bonacini’s Corporate Executive Chef Anthony Walsh manages it with gusto. Never mind that he spearheads the creative process behind the inspired menus at top-notch restaurants like Canoe, Auberge Du Pommier and Luma – Walsh is a chef’s chef who takes more pride in his calloused hands than culinary accolades. Just on Sunday, Walsh teamed up with fellow chef luminaries Jamie Kennedy (Gilead Cafe & Bistro), Anthony Rose (The Drake Hotel), Paul Boehmer (Boehmer), and Hiro Yoshida (Hiro Sushi) to host a dinner and raised more than $40,000 for the Japanese Relief Fund.
Walsh was born in Montreal, schooled by Jamie Kennedy and has a propensity for dropping the f-bomb. Considered by many to be one of Toronto’s most talented chefs, Walsh spoke to OurFaves about what floats his culinary boat, the value of humility in the cutthroat restaurant industry and his weakness for 4 am Singapore street grub.
So what’s the secret?
Humility is something you have to shoot for. It’s the food – it’s not how clever the chef is. Especially in this day and age, the business we’re in is huge. It’s popular. Everybody has an opinion and rightly so. And chefs are elevated to this crazy status. Really, you’re ****ing cooks. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you know what I mean? Humility is the critical thing. The best chefs out there are the humble ones.
You’re pretty esteemed yourself. How do you do it?
I don’t know – for me, my commitment is to the people who work for me first and foremost. The customers are along for the ride. If I’m treating the cooks and front-of-house people with respect and teaching them and giving them all the tools it takes, things happen. Waiters walk differently…cooks cook differently. The fish stink from the head first. If I’m not going to have that attitude, truthfully, well I might as well close up shop. It’s very important that you keep things on a level.
You just have to have the appropriate humility. I go on and on about it because I don’t see it enough. These ****ing hotshots, they’re a flash in the pan and they’re gone in the next two or three years. You don’t hear about them in Toronto or wherever. But the ones (who last), it’s because they treat people well. They really care about the suppliers they use and teach their cooks about these suppliers – the important things. It’s keeping it real, keeping it responsible.
Going back to the food, what’s your favourite ingredient to cook with?
I’m a tough person that way. I’ve worked in Europe, I’ve worked in Asia, I’ve done a lot of my cooking in Toronto and I’m from Montreal, so I’m a really mixed up person. Cooking-wise, fish, I love fish as a whole. I’ve got a real passion for bread too. From a style standpoint, I really enjoy the molecular side of things, molecular gastronomy and really experimenting. I cook everyday. I’m the corporate chef of the whole company – I oversee all of them. You have to stay active. Chefs are like athletes, sort of. You should be cooking everyday. Any chef I meet and you feel their hands and their hands are like…it’s what we do.
Does a good chef have calloused hands?
If you become a chef, I would assume you love cooking. I mean, things change – you may not be a chef anymore, you’re a restaurateur, great. But don’t go around pretending you’re a chef kind of thing. That’s important. You gotta be you.
Who are some chefs you admire?
My mother. She’s not a chef, but is arguably one of the biggest influences of mine. Jamie Kennedy. I apprenticed under Jamie. I admire the big guys like Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud. Those are the big hitters. French is my background so you sort of go back to your comfort zone. Ferran Adria from El Bulli. That curious explorative kind of spirit is critical to any business. You don’t even have to speak the same language, you’re not in the same age group, but I can do something for you and it strikes a chord. That’s a pretty cool medium to be able to communicate through. Any of these chefs can do that.
Where do you find inspiration for your food?
It really depends on the restaurant. We have so many restaurants and they’re all different themes, so to speak. So it’s history – I rely on my past and on my family. My familly is huge. A lot of the food I cook in the restaurant comes from what I cook at home only turned into a restaurant dish. We eat food, food, food. I’ve got three kids and my wife and we cook like maniacs all the time and it’s not luxurious. It’s just phenomenal, great ingredients. I’ll do something like a raw zucchini salad at home and then sure enough, within two or three days, I’m doing that in the restaurant.
What are you best known for cooking at home?
Probably rabbit with honey and vinegar and fresh noodles. That’s the kids’ favourite dish.
That doesn’t sounds like a kid’s dish.
They eat whatever. Oysters, sweet breads, rabbit, sea urchin, brains. Everything. There’s nothing they won’t eat, it’s just the way they’ve been brought up. I think it’s very cool.
If you were on death row, what would your last meal be?
I suppose it depends on why I was on death row, but probably the quintessential poutine. I love poutine. None of this ****ing duck confit or corned beef on it. Just great curds, nasty gravy, phenomenal fries.
Where do you go for good poutine?
I’m from Montreal and the best poutine I’ve had was at the Montreal Pool Room. It’s ****ing horrible and open 24 hours. It’s great. It’s one of the first spots I’d go to. There’s a lot of spots in Montreal that do good poutine, but that’s where it started.
What’s one dish at Canoe that you’d want every diner to try?
The Tourtier from the lunch menu. It’s a Quebecois meat pie. It’s beautiful. It’s done with caribou and foie gras. It’s traditional, very Canadian.
What’s your favourite kind of cuisine?
That’s a tough one. I live in Korea town. I eat Korean at least twice a week with the kids. I don’t know. It’s a tough one. We eat tons and tons of Asian – Japanese, Korean, lots of Chinese. And also Italian. My wife is Argentinian so we eat a lot of barbecue. It’s not the smoky stuff though. It’s the way Argentinians do it with the chimichurri, olive oil, lemon, no ****ing around with it.
Where’s your favourite city for food?
I would say New York City. Absolutely. It’s fantastic. It’s buzzing, it’s a big city, all the big hitters are there. Toronto’s good. I love Montreal as well. I love it for different reasons. But as far as great breadth and a wide range of great food, New York’s the best. New York would be number one and then Singapore. Newton Circus in Singapore. I love street food and for me, there’s no where else that tops Newton Circus for street food at 4 o’clock in the morning. Black pepper frog, tripe, whatever.
How would you describe the food scene in Toronto?
I think it’s really vibrant. I think it’s getting to be world-class. There are a couple of places you could easily transport into New York no problem. I think as a whole, it’s vibrant and getting better and better.
Which restaurants are those?
There’s mine (laughs). Canoe, absolutely. The Black Hoof is really good. It’s a different thing altogether but it’s great. It’s forward thinking, it’s fun. It’s not fancy. Susur is good – I worked for Susur in Singapore.
Who would be your dream dinner date?
Not my wife? Dennis Hopper. I just like his different characters and the way he was in real life – a photographer and bon vivant. Either that or John Lennon. I’m a Beatles fanatic. I play the guitar and piano. It’s an era that’s gone and music to me is as important as food. It’s an expression. It makes you feel as good as food does. If I wasn’t in the food business, I’d be in the music biz. You pick up a lot more chicks than the food scene.
What would you cook for them?
Dennis Hopper is a wild man so I’d do some of the Argentine stuff I do. Hardcore tripe and guts and stuff like that. Beautiful. For Mr. Lennon, I’d probably do some of my Quebecois stuff. The meat pie and poutine. He’d love it.
Interview and photography by Maria Cootauco