One of the most exciting dining cities in Canada, Toronto is home to dozens of outstanding world-class restaurants, with what seems like a new hotspot opening up every few weeks. So, how do chefs and owners set themselves apart and appeal to the discriminating palates of Torontonians and travellers amidst a fiercely competitive landscape without cheesy gimmicks?
With Canada’s Top Chef Carl Heinrich at the helm and former Top Chef Canada contestant Dennis Tay by his side, a diner’s expectations of Richmond Station — a laid-back, 80-seat neighbourhood restaurant, lined with white subway tiles and outfitted with casual wooden tables, located in the heart of the city — can be exceedingly high, to say the least.
Chef/owner Ryan Donovan, chef/owner Heinrich (Season 2 winner), and Tay (Season 3 cheftestant), along with the rest of the kitchen team have delivered on the promises of delicious food and excellent hospitality right out of the gate when the restaurant opened a year ago; setting the bar high with robust, composed, yet casual classic foods like the charcuterie board (everything on there is made in-house, except the board itself), signature burger and fried pierogies.
With recognition as number one on TripAdvisor in Toronto, and being nominated for best new restaurant in the country in enRoute. you’d likely expect or even excuse cockiness. But that’s just it: Heinrich remains humble through the fanfare and has not lost focus on the fact that he is cooking for his customers, not himself.
“I’m really excited about treating people really well and making sure that they get what they need. You want your steak well done? No problem!” Heinrich says, enthusiastically. “You just told me exactly what makes you happy. I will give you the best well-done steak you’ve ever had. You’re gonna love it.”
Giving someone the best of anything they’ve ever had is a lofty goal, even if it’s well-done steak. It’s certainly what matters most in keeping customers coming back once the novelty and the new paint smell wears off.
“When you’re onto year two, it’s about getting better everyday,” says Heinrich. “It’s harder to entice people to come in, fill those seats and excite everybody. Top Chef still fills seats and we’re totally glad for that. We’re at Posto in Calgary because we want to make sure people are still talking about Richmond Station, and serve some of the dishes we have on our menu. That’s why we’re doing Visa Infinite dinners — to make sure that Richmond Station is still a talking point a year later.”
So what keeps people coming back? What makes Richmond Station one of the best restaurants in Toronto?
Without hesitation, Heinrich credits the quality of the ingredients he purchases in producing stellar dishes.
“You have to know how to cook it, and you have to know how to handle the ingredients, but the number one rule is you have to find the best food,” he says.
And, no. Finding the best food doesn’t mean buying from the supplier with the biggest discount at “good enough” quality. It means buying the freshest ingredients from people that you’ve built a trusting relationship with.
“I have a really good relationship with my beef and pork farmers. I pay a premium to get food from him but my food cost is amazing because we only buy whole animal. If I want to put steak on the menu, I buy a cow. If I want bacon on the menu, I buy a pig. At Richmond Station, we don’t buy bones or striploins.“
It may sound like an overzealous and impractical effort to the non-cheffing layperson, but shopping from the source isn’t just for restaurants, it’s also a great way for home cooks to get excited about food and to become connected with the landscape, people and culture of Canada.
“Go out, forage mushrooms, pick your own lettuces, harvest your own beets or buy them from someone who did that and learn about them. Go see a beef farmer and a strawberry farmer. Buy a bunch of food and then host a barbeque in your backyard,” Heinrich urges. “That’s something that builds a memory. You can go to a restaurant for a meal, but you can do that tomorrow or the next day. Let’s create something today that you’ll never get again.”
The food may come from local sources, but inspiration can come from anywhere. The restaurant business is notorious for its unforgiving work hours, but when Heinrich does have time to travel, he visits Victoria, near Sooke, where his family resides, and surveys the dining scene. After all, it has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country, according to him. From the West Coast to the East Coast, from personal trips to pop-up dinners, every event he goes to fuels innovation.
“I was on Cape Breton island this summer doing an event out there called Right Some Good. It was a fantastic event and it was a great experience to cook on a dock for 200 people,” says Heinrich. “We spit-roasted two whole lambs; it was surreal. We have such great opportunity to go places and travel to try different cuisines and different food in our very own country.”
It’s not only the chance to play with food when he’s travelling that excites him, it’s also seeing how others run their businesses, from the materials they build their bars from and the hood fans they use to food cost. Equal parts business man and chef, Heinrich is always planning, and he enjoys it.
Above and beyond the food, techniques and inspiration is the collective set of values the team has at Richmond Station.
“I know that when I give my farmer a cheque, it’s going to go to his seven employees, him and his wife, his 4 kids; that means so much to me,” says Heinrich.
Of course, ideals are nothing without the buy-in from the rest of the team, and at Richmond Station, every member of the kitchen (Richmond Station hasn’t lost a single staff member since opening, it has only expanded its kitchen team) is on board and driven to produce the best with those values.
“This is the best team I’ve ever worked with. They get hospitality, they just want to take care of people, they just want to make good food, and they get that it doesn’t mean anything if the customer doesn’t come back. Those things are really important to me,” he says.
Like any successful company, motivation comes from accountability. At Richmond Station, Heinrich understand that the dishes are not solely his own creations and efforts, that they are the fruits of the collaboration between everyone and constant feedback.
“Everybody has worked every station, and so we get to be a little bit more creative. We get to be a little bit more fun. That means I get to spend more time going out and sourcing new ingredients, and seeing new producers and new farmers.“
Even at the trendiest restaurants, the dessert menu — laden with cheesecakes in teeny tiny mason jars and molten chocolate cakes — can be such an after thought. Sure, classics like apple pie and creme brulee will always have their fans, but it takes much more than those to keep up with the rest of the menu. Heinrich is fully aware of the value that a good pastry program can bring to a restaurant. At Richmond Station, where the dessert menu changes every month, some customers come in just for the sweet treats. They’re not only a way to round out the meal, they’re a meal on their own.
“Faraz, our pastry chef, does an amazing job. He’s creative like I’ve never seen before,” Heinrich praises. “He’s got an amazing background of techniques. He doesn’t just make desserts: he makes all the bread and burger buns, he does the cheese program, he’s there in case we need a hand shucking oysters on garde manger. He has a very strong presence in the kitchen.“
With Richmond Station on track in the ever-evolving food scene in Toronto, there have been speculations of expansion, but Heinrich dispels those myths and is currently concentrated on making Richmond Station the best it can be.
“The reality is: good food always wins; delicious food always wins. If you want to make people happy, give them good value, give them good service, give them good hospitality, give them food that they want to eat, and you always win.”