Just as Kobe Desramaults announced the closure of In de Wulf in December 2016, closer to home, I received rather upsetting (though understood) news: my favourite restaurant in Toronto, Splendido, was closing.
In an exclusive for the Globe & Mail last month (A Splendido run: Chef Victor Barry closing Toronto fine-dining institution), chef-owner, and industry friend, Victor Barry spoke candidly about his decision of wrapping up the restaurant’s illustrious run.
It was an honour to be entrusted with sharing this news with the public. The write-up is presented as a Q&A, letting Barry explain his decision and allowing for readers to digest the news themselves. But the reality of his decision also made my loyal dining heart drop. We have other wonderful restaurants in the city, some with aspirations and great potential to fill the void that will be left, but none will replace how Splendido has been a part of many celebrations and lives. I’ve celebrated birthdays and New Years Eve there. I’ve spent time with great friends and loved ones in that dining room. I’ve enjoyed great meals with other food lovers, and solo at my favourite spot at the bar on numerous occasions.
I have a deep appreciation for what the restaurant does. I won’t deny knowing many who have graced the kitchen and dining room on a personal and professional level – the brigade had even kindly accepted me into their fold for a day. That’s put aside as I give Barry centre stage where he explains his motivations in the unabridged interview, below.
My Q&A with Victor Bary in The Globe and Mail: A Splendido run: Chef Victor Barry closing Toronto fine-dining institution (October 2015)
When I staged (interned) for a day at the restaurant. A big thank you to Splendido’s then chef de cuisine, Patrick Kriss, and my then editor Andrew D’Cruz: Foie gras, surprise caviar orders and one tight ship: my 12-hour stage at Splendido
Galleries of meals had over the years at Splendido. The photos show the progression of the food and menu over the years but also my embarrassing progression as a photographer [shudder]. Please do not let those flaws influence your judgement of Barry’s delicious food. Splendido on Flickr
When you took over Splendido as sole owner two years ago, you made some very candid remarks in an interview with Jon Sufrin for Toronto Life about wanting to focus on fine dining and becoming the best restaurant in the country. Why are you deciding to end things just as you’re achieving those goals?
There are a couple reasons. I just had my tenth year anniversary working at Splendido (October 5th) and the restaurant is coming up on its 25th anniversary. I bought the restaurant in 2009 with Carlo [Catallo] and we had this great place that was really fun and had a lot of energy, but I always wanted to cook a tasting menu only restaurant, because I always wanted to be the best restaurant. That was always one of my goals: to be the best.
Coming to Splendido and dining here now is an experience. It’s going to the theatre; it’s the event for the night. It’s not like you come for dinner and go do something else. (I travel around the world to dine at restaurants – like you do, and that’s the event for the night. It’s exciting, it’s awesome.)
But as you grow and mature – having two daughters and a wife, you realize that you don’t have to cook tasting menus to be the best restaurant. There’s been a lot of change in my life in the last three years since I bought the restaurant two years ago.
I love tasting menus; I’m always going to do a tasting menu here or there. I just think it’s time to start cooking food that I want to sink my teeth into.
We’ve been very successful; we’ve been able to garner a lot of accolades, and in the past two years becoming the fifth best restaurant in the country. Being able to do that not solely as myself, as everyone at this restaurant has been dedicated to the restaurant since the time we started to [serve only tasting menus], but solely as in being solely financially responsible for Splendido. (There’s no investor or a partner.)
It’s not that financially we haven’t been successful. That’s not the reason. It’s just as a business owner and a responsible husband; I feel that making this decision now is better than later. I can see the tide changing. I’m a smart enough person to understand when things are changing, and I see it changing. And I don’t want to have the coup de grâce where I can’t do something after this, where I feel like I let Splendido down.
Splendido has had a great life for 25 years. It’s been a lot of things in those 25 years. It will always be remembered as one of those iconic restaurants of Toronto. But everything comes to an end. And that’s not a negative.
Am I sad about it? Absolutely.
Is New Year’s Eve going to be super emotional? It totally is. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it now. I will cry on New Year’s Eve. But I’m also excited about what the new opportunities and challenges will bring after Splendido closes. But right now it’s the smart, responsible thing to do. To go out on a high. To really close the restaurant – it’s been 25 years, it’s been a great life, and it’s time to do something else.
So have you done everything you wanted to do with Splendido?
Obviously being number one [in Canada] was the goal, but being number 5, and doing it all by myself, is a huge accomplishment. The way we’ve gone about thinking about every single aspect of the guest experience at Splendido, and having great arguments with my managers on how to do that – when we first started the tasting menus, we were doing too much, trying too hard – but we’ve matured, and have found this beautiful spot where we can do 42 covers and not break a sweat, the dining experience goes at a beautiful pace. We never flip a table; we give you a glass of champagne on arrival, and a bottle of rum to finish. We take care of an experience holistically, where nothing is left to chance. I honestly don’t think we can do anything more, or at this time in my life, anything more to make it better than it is right now. I truly believe that this restaurant right now, the service style and everything – it might not be the most electric atmosphere in here, but it’s a calm, beautiful dining experience that you don’t get in many places. And I’ve brought it to the point where, in this style of dining, it is the best that I can do. And since it’s the best that I can do, I’ve brought it there, it’s been great but before the tide turns, I would like to go out on top. I’d like to go out on New Year’s Eve with a send of like no other.
But being a responsible father, husband, business owner, it’s important to be aware of what’s happening and dealing with my personal life and work life, and making the most responsible decision I can to make things work well. I think that’s just being responsible.
How much of yourself was invested into Splendido? Many have worked 10-plus years at, say, an office job, but might not understand why you would have to make a decision like this.
It’s kind of like cat or dog years, 10 years is like 30 years. A restaurant at this level needs full commitment, needs 14-hour days commitment. We’re only open five days a week, which is a luxury. 14-hours a day, five days a week… that’s not to say I’m at a cutting board chopping or cooking the entire time. The thought and creativity process is really the draining part of the business. I always have to be new; you’ve got to constantly be thinking of new dishes to impress people – for weeks before you come in we start working on new dishes.
It’s about finding new suppliers all the time, and being the first person, because as soon as one person has it, everyone has it. It’s about finding luxurious products, but knowing who to get the best i.e. truffle from. It’s about having the relationship with the best fish supplier, a farmer – bringing them in twice a year, buying them dinner so that we can get the best products. It’s a constant juggling act of a hundred things every single day, and that’s owning a restaurant for everyone across the board. But when we’re talking about the expectations of someone who’s coming in at $180 for dinner – it’s expensive; I mean, dinner for two, you’re in around $650, tax and tip in. And, that’s a lot of money, and that comes with an extreme amount of expectations. That’s a lot of pressure (that I thrive on).
This goes for all entrepreneurs, when you own your own business (not saying that being an employee is easy, everything’s hard), even if you’re not at work, you’re going home at 11 at night, my wife might be in bed by 11:45, but I’m back on my computer at 12 doing something. It might be looking at pictures of restaurants and food – and I probably do that for an hour every day – getting inspiration from around the world. That is a huge thing with business owners. No matter if you’re at work, there’s always something you can do more, be better, more cost effective, saving the restaurant money by doing things yourself like snaking a drain.
In order to be successful, you need to be working a lot, in whatever job you’re doing. There’s no misconception that working at a restaurant is very hard. The numbers are out there, the percentage of failures, and every business has its ebb and flows, good years and bad years.
I’ve been fortunate to have the most wonderful staff.
But that being said, the amount of effort and constant tweaking, and refining – there’s dishes on the menu that have twenty iterations, like the five-hour carrot… it’s why those dishes are so good.
But the last six months, I haven’t been able to give Splendido my full attention for personal reasons.
Let’s talk about this carrot dish, especially for readers who don’t know what it is or what goes into a simple sounding dish on Splendido’s menu.
So the five-hour carrot started off as a conversation with my chefs. The inspiration came from Rene Redzepi [of Noma], and how can you make a simple vegetable and put a lot of effort into it, which a lot of restaurants do now and it’s awesome. But we were like how can we do this? So we took carrots and coriander – a classic combination – and then we started cooking carrots different ways, and I believe that roasting root vegetables is the best way to coax out their sugars. Not peeling root vegetables and leaving the skins on, scrubbing them clean, because most of the nutrients are in the skin, and I believe most of the flavour is in the skin. Then we started trying to salt-bake it with coriander seed. We tried to boil it then roast it on the grill. We tried to smoke it in the green egg. And then we realized getting it nice and golden brown in a cast iron pan, then in the oven with a gastrique of ginger, coriander and honey for five hours, every 10 minutes (a timer goes off), and whoever’s taking care of the carrot is responsible for brushing and turning it a quarter, every 10 minutes for five hours. It’s the first thing that starts every morning. We used to have pickled ginger on it, but now it’s a ginger fluid gel. There was a granola, but now it’s a coriander seed and pumpkin seed granola. There was crème fraiche and pumpkin oil, and now it’s smoked crème fraiche because we really liked it when we smoked the carrots but it was always too much, and we wanted to have a little bit of smoke. There was the carrot ‘air’ but now it’s the carrot tapioca chip. We were serving a carrot and ginger cocktail to go along with it. There’s just been so much thought – it’s just one dish out of 18, only two bites. If you were to think of the man hours, the thought time that went into that one dish, it’s crazy – I love it, it’s amazing, and I’ll do tasting menus still after this restaurant, but not on an everyday basis. Not for work-life balance.
Something that’s important to me now is work, life and health balance. Health-balance is a new one for me.
There’s something going on in my personal life that has made me think the importance of health and family and spending time with them. I lost my dad last year – that was a huge wake-up call.
Ever since I was 16 years old, I’d been working in the kitchen professionally, and all I’ve done for the last 17 years is work. I’ve missed funerals, weddings, birthdays, celebrations, graduations, the birth of my brother’s kids, my sister’s kids… Everything. My favourite cousin Randy’s wedding because we were opening Splendido at the time. That’s crazy talk. People need a balance in your life and that’s what I’m looking for.
So it’s not that you want to leave the restaurant business but that you want to find that happy medium.
Yes. And I don’t put that as a negative towards anyone else who’s doing it. I don’t think they’re making the wrong choice or decision. I know what it was like. I know what I wanted to do and I went balls to the wall doing it. I didn’t listen to anybody. No one could steer me away from what I wanted to do. And I did it. I’m overly proud of everyone who works here, the food that we serve every night – the simple bream sashimi with 10 steps that go into making that dish, everything is thought out, with so much conversation in everything we do. It’s amazing. And everyone who comes here is blown away by the experience, they really are. And the value is there. It’s expensive yes, but the value is incredible.
So it’s been a great journey, but I’m looking for more of a work-life-health balance.
I want to spend time with my kids, they’re beautiful, and my wife, she’s beautiful too. [Chuckles]
What can people expect for the next couple months and do you have big plans for December 31?
New Year’s Eve is still in the works, we’re serving a tasting menu, that’s for sure and one hell of a celebration at the end of it. I’d imagine lots of friends coming here to celebrate with me. I want this dining room to be filled with friends and loyal guests that we’ve had throughout the years since 2009. I want to be surrounded by people that I know and love [voice wavers], and I want to celebrate 25 years of Splendido. That’s it.
As far as the next two months, we’re going to be doing a menu with my favourite dishes since Splendido’s opened with some of the classics, like
the carrot, the smoked oyster, the uni on toast, the egg yolk ravioli… rib steak because those are iconic of the beautiful grill we cook everything on. I’ve always been a fan of salted caramel, chocolate and peanuts, so we’re going to do salted caramel, chocolate and almonds – because as you grow up, you learn that almonds taste better than peanuts. When we first opened, we had a tart that everyone couldn’t get enough of, so we’re going to have that because it was the beginning in 2009 and it was loved, but we’re going to do it as Splendido 2015 refined and groomed. And all the little delicious things we’ve worked towards, the last 18-and-a-half years of my life, and it’s the pinnacle of what I’ve learned how to do, and there’s two more months of sharing it.
When you took over the restaurant in 2009 it was your first move into owning a restaurant but with a partner. How much have your responsibilities changed when you completely took over in 2013?
So I was 26 when I signed the deal to Splendido, which is ridiculous. It was an opportunity to buy a restaurant at 26, so being a 26-year old chef what do you do? You go out, you eat, you travel, you have fun and that’s what I did, and it’s not like I had half-a-million dollars saved up to buy Splendido (and that wasn’t it. It was more than that). I don’t come from a wealthy family, it was a deal that benefited everybody: I couldn’t afford to buy a restaurant at that age, Yannick [Bigourdan] and David [Lee] were planning to move on.
It was a beautiful opportunity between the four of us: for me to own a restaurant, for them to get out of one, to move on with their careers and for me to start mine. It was a lot of money. There were things in the deal that I didn’t know about, and I read the thing with my lawyer, front to back, and he explained the whole thing to me, but when you’re 26, the price of the restaurant was a number that I couldn’t really comprehend, so it was okay. I didn’t own a house, I had a motorcycle; I had nothing to lose except for my own pride. But I knew that if I worked hard enough, and cook delicious food for people, that I would be able to pay that money back, even if it was really high. And I did. New Year’s Eve 2014, I gave David and Yannick a bigger cheque than normal, shook hands, said ‘thank you very much’ and paid off everything.
I’ve owned the restaurant fully for the year now and we’ve been able to do the things that we’ve done. The knowledge I have now versus the knowledge I had at 26 is worth a lot of money. [Chuckles]
Now that you own the restaurant, you’ve focused and done what you’ve wanted with the space, is closing the right decision?
I believe so. Close it on a high. Enjoy it and focus on something else. Splendido, the restaurant will close, and there are plans for the building in 2016.
January 1st is going to be an awful day. [Laughs]