Later this month, The Drake Hotel is hitting the road but isn’t leaving its backyard. Beginning June 23, Chef Anthony Rose and his audacious posse of cooks are taking the dining room on a field trip to a mess hall and Chinatown. The “restaurant-within-a-restaurant” concept will come complete with ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles, cafeteria trays and tomato alphabet soup. In September, the restaurant will transform yet again into circa 1940s Chinatown in Los Angeles. Just in time for TIFF, The Drake Hotel will be dishing out pork belly fried rice, firecracker maple shrimp and oxtail wontons.
“It’s about being able to showcase what we do, but also, every time we sit down, we talk about food, we talk about menus, it’s all about things that we’ve had in our past,” Rose told OurFaves recently about the temporary menus. “It’s about memories we have. It’s about taste memories, actually. So when I’m talking to the managers and cooks and chefs, it’s the things that we’ve had before, things that make us feel good. So we wanted to take those things and turn it into a culinary adventure of where we’ve been, where we’re going, what we’ve had and what we want to see.”
The effort is part of The Drake Hotel’s latest campaign to bring tasty kitsch factor into Toronto’s culinary scene. An ardent disciple of good ol’ fashioned simple, rustic cuisine, Rose tells us why kitschy doesn’t necessarily mean gimmicky and about his dream of one day opening a schnitzel house.
So what exactly is this Dining Roadshow all about?
The first one we’re doing is called Mess Hall and we’re taking it very literally so the whole dining’s going to be transformed and it’ll kind of take you to that mess hall. So paper napkin dispensers on the table, juice box containers with an alcoholic beverage inside, ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles, cafeteria trays. We’re totally going to redecorate it to feel like that kind of upscale, kitschy sort of feel.
It seems like an extension to what the Drake is already.
The first one is absolutely an extension of what the Drake does already, but that’s why it works so well for the first one. But really, once we get into it, the second one, which is Chinatown, is totally everything we don’t do here, it’ll be amazing.
So the first is like training wheels, let’s get it going, let’s do what we do best and the theme of the whole summer here is pretty much summer school. So it really worked well and jived with everything thing we were doing already.
Do you ever worry that something could be too gimmicky for your customers?
That’s the thing. Nothing we’re ever trying to do here is a gimmick. Even if you look at the menu we’ve come up with for the mess hall, it’s things that we may or may not already do but we’re just going to make them really, really good. Gimmicks are for different styles of restaurants where they’re just trying to bring people in for one specific thing. What we have here is we’re surrounded with such a talent pool of amazing people between the managers and my cooks and we’ve got a design team here, the guys that own the General Store, they’re redesigning the whole thing. So it’s very original and at a base level, it’s amazing. We try to stay away from gimmicks as much as possible.
Why is it so important to be creative in order to succeed in the food scene in Toronto?
It’s what we always do here. Creativity is always important for what we do here. We loves always reinventing what we do and we change the menu here every two, two and a half months. For a large place, that’s a lot. There’s 160 people who have to learn a different menu, but when we sit down, it’s not about reinventing the wheel. We just want to take the things we love that are dear to us and just think outside of the box with them and create something that’s delicious. Our food is never boring, but our number seller is the burger. How do we make that burger as good as we possibly can? But something like the Chinatown makes us delve deeper into being creative with it because we’re not Asian cooks. None of us here have ever worked in a Chinese restaurant but each and every one of us eats Chinese food or some sort of Asian food three times a month at least. So we know what we like, but how do we make that into our flavours and into our style. It’s been a ton of fun getting there.
Thinking out of the box is definitely a theme I’ve seen coming through the food scene in the city, with a food truck festival coming to the city and Susur collaborating with Kraft. Why do you think that is? Do diners today have a shorter attention span than they might have had in the past where food constantly needs to be reworked and repackaged?
Yeah, it’s funny I just got back from Chicago and I ate at maybe 12 different restaurants in two days and the restaurants that really stuck out in my mind were the ones that are doing the simplest things and each dish could have just had a little bit of a twist. I found that the restaurants that were doing the molecular cuisine and some of the higher-end places, although very good, didn’t keep my attention. I’d rather just find really good food with simple goodness to it than go for something that’s over-the-top. I like simple. Get people in, give them a good punch in the face with the food and then you’re done.
Do you think you’re different from most diners?
I think so, but it’s always the only way I’ve ever cooked and have ever been taught to cook, which is just keep it simple. A lot of people I’ve cooked with in the past have gone on different paths and have just really done something different with their cuisine and I think it’s great. But I like good, simple, honest food.
How do you balance that simple food philosophy with what society is trending towards today?
I feel like people will always come back towards simple. I feel like that’s what they want. You can come to the Drake four days a week and eat good food every single day and know that it’s going to be amazing but there’s only so many times a month that you can go to a fancy restaurant or a really high-end type of place. I like to be approachable to everyone. Our price point isn’t cheap but it’s because we use the very best ingredients we possibly can.
How would you describe your style or genre of cooking?
The style of food that we’re doing, I like to say its very Canadiana, only because we use a lot of Canadian ingredients. Even the Chinese food we’ll be creating is going to be very Canadiana as well. It’s simple, rustic, kind of country cuisine. Even when we go into Chinatown, it’s going to be the same genre.
Why are you drawn to that type of cooking?
Even with my education, I started cooking years ago in San Francisco. When I was in California, I was fortunate enough to work with amazing chefs that were practicing what we call California cuisine. It’s using simple, good products from around California and doing as little to it as possible. And then when I moved to New York, I was working for the same types of chefs and it could have been called California cuisine but for all intents and purposes, it was New York cuisine because we were using local products. So in Toronto, it’s Toronto cuisine, Canadian cuisine. It’s really the only way I’ve ever cooked and what I love the most. When I go out, I go to the same places around Toronto that are doing similar things to what I do. I love that.
Would you say you adapt your cooking according to the best Toronto has to offer?
Very much so. You come to a city, find out what’s best here, what tastes good, what other chefs are using and go from there.
If you weren’t working at the Drake, where do you think you would be right now?
I’ve always wanted to open a schnitzel house.
Why is that?
I’ve always loved fried food. Dipping something in breadcrumbs, deep-frying it and then putting it on some bread, top it with mayonnaise and eat it with French fries, it’s the fattiest thing you can find. It’s good.
What do you reach for most often in your refrigerator?
We make our own here. It’s called PBG and I keep some at the house as well. It’s a blend of peppers that we get in the summer, the hottest peppers we can find, some local cider vinegar and a little bit of fruit and that’s it.
What aspect of cooking do you enjoy the most?
Creating and eating.
Do you eat a lot in the kitchen?
I try to eat everything we make. You have to.
Do you have any favourite cookbooks?
I do. Stars by Jeremiah Tower is one of my favourite cookbooks of all time. I love that book. It’s one that I always go back to when I’m writing a menu. And more recently, there’s a book called Foie Gras and Blood Pudding out of England. The English cookbooks coming out right now are so cool and really, really well done.
What stands out in your mind as the meal you’re most proud of making?
I think one of the meals that was most interesting to me and I’m pretty proud of it because it’s from beginning to end – I was part of a round-up, that’s when a bunch of cowboys get together on a farm or a ranch and they wrangle all the cows into one small area, we branded them, we de-horned them, we gave them antibiotics and castrated them as well. This was my first time doing this, but I was surrounded by cowboys in northern California. I was there because I was cooking for them, but I also actually got to help with everything. So after we castrated them, we kept the balls and we seasoned and marinated them, put them in breadcrumbs and pan-fried them over the coals. That was pretty standout for me. The cowboys loved it. It was pretty good.
Was it delicious?
It was delicious.
What would you want to learn to cook?
One of the things I’ve always wanted to learn was really how to roll a good Japanese noodle like soba or udon. I love that. It’s a very hard thing to do.
What is your favourite comfort food?
My favourite comfort food of all time I think would have to be Kraft Dinner.
Do you follow the directions?
No, I usually put salami and hot sauce on top and extra cheddar cheese. It’s so good.
I think Kraft Dinner is the definition of Canadiana cuisine.
Right? Yeah, totally.
Do you have a favourite junk food?
My favourite junk food right now, I don’t eat a lot of junk food, but I was just in Chicago and I went to Trade Joe’s, which is my favourite grocery store of all time. I just bought these cookies that have a crisp bottom and then a peanut butter mousse covered in chocolate and then peanuts on top. No idea what they’re called, but they’re so good.
Your top three restaurants in Toronto besides the Drake?
I would say my top three restaurants in Toronto right now are The Steak Pit which is up on Avenue Road just north of Lawrence which I absolutely love. There’s a Mediterranean restaurant on Eglinton and Bathurst area called Jerusalem. So good. Just good, simple Mediterranean food. And on Bathurst, there’s a place called United Bakers and it’s like an old kind of Jewish dairy restaurant. I love the pea soup that they make there. It’s so simple and so good.
What dish are you best known for making?
One of our best known dishes at the Drake is our barbecue next door. We’re getting really good feedback on that. It’s house-smoked brisket and pulled pork and we love it. We smoke everything by hand and it just takes forever to do, but it’s just so much fun.
My last and most important question is what the heck do you put in your burgers to make them so delicious?
They’re really simple. It’s just really good ground chuck and then salt and pepper and that’s it.
That’s it. I swear. The key is buy good meat and do as little to it as possible and you’re done.
To find out more about The Drake’s Dining Roadshow, click here.
Interview and photograph by Maria Cootauco