The Art and Spirit of Toronto’s Premiere Modernist

It was a hot afternoon in Toronto. It took me about 25 minutes, by car, to get from Adelaide and Portland to Queen and Augusta (don’t ask me why I drove, it was a poor decision). The traffic and construction decided to be extra congested that day, but I finally had made it right on time to Barchef. If this is your first time seeing the word “Barchef”, not to worry I’ll give you a quick run down. It’s Toronto’s top spot for the most innovative and complex selection of cocktails, created by none other than the Barchef himself, Frankie Solarik. Barchef is located at 472 Queen St. W and I’ll be honest is a little tough to find especially at night. It has a black tile exterior with long black drapery, with a little sign by the door that says “Barchef”. So if you’re anything like me, you’ll most likely mistakenly miss it a few times trying to find it.

As a long time patron of Barchef, you can imagine how excited I was to interview the genius behind the internationally recognized Barchef name. Here’s the conversation we had on that boiling Thursday afternoon.

(Marcus) So I guess my first question is, how did it all start?

(Frankie) So I started bartending when i was 18 years old, working in a cigar bar called Chester’s in London, ON – that was kind of my first introduction to the hospitality industry. As well as getting familiar and introduced to scotches, cognacs, and different kinds of spirits – this was back in the day when you could still smoke inside – I could remember the older gentlemen talking about nuances of flavour and how they paired with the aromatics. That really captivated me, from then I started experimenting with flavours working with cigars and seeing what worked well with whatever liquid. Moving on from Chesters, I moved to England and worked at a vodka bar. They infused different candies and chocolates in vodka, which I never imagined anyone could do. I kind of stored that information and then moved to NYC and worked in a fine dining restaurant called Tocqueville as a food runner. I was very fortunate to work in the kitchen with so many passionate, professional and talented people. From that i started familiarizing myself with different things like colour, plating and composition – with that experience it peaked my interest in presentation. Before then it was just making money, but NYC made me realize that bartending can be a successful and respected profession in the industry. When i came back from NYC i was given the opportunity to do a cocktail program at a restaurant called Rain here in Toronto with Chef Guy Rubino, and Mike Rubino. It was a really cool experience for me. Afterwhich I entered into Kultura and entered cocktail competitions and winning them too. I would usually sneak in and steal stuff from the kitchen to experiment with – the kitchen would always wonder where things went (laughs). At that time I met Brent VanderVeen and we decided we needed to open a cocktail bar that was original and was a space that had freedom of expression. I’m 100% in the kitchen working with the team to execute the Modernist Program, it’s really important that I be apart of an environment that facilitates freedom of expression. It’s all these little moments during my career that have made me to where I am today.

So you mentioned “modernist” – why has that term been used in your work versus the common term “molecular”?

 I refer to modernism and my particular approach more along the lines of abstract expressionism in the sense that its incorporating modern equipment, ingredients and techniques but not so much the idea of molecular gastronomy. I think the general public has grasped onto the terminology of molecular gastronomy to kind of understand the movement as far as that particular approach to cuisine and cooking. For me, modernism is more relating to painting rather than cooking as a science. It’s meant to challenge and invoke emotion – abstract expressionism is what I aim to convey.

Ok so, if you were to make a drink right now, and had only three ingredients to choose, what would they be and why?

Hmmm that’s a very good question. I would most likely…*minute pause* Am I consuming it? Do i get ice ? (laughs). Well my favourite classic cocktail is a Martinez – it’s a mixture of gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino, and bitters. It’s close that’s four. You could totally make a delicious cocktail even without the bitters too but you know 3 ingredients is tricky, you can definitely capture a particular flavour profile and expression but it’s tough. So either that or Jack and Coke (laughs).

So speaking of bitters since that’s a big thing here, you have a ton of them, any personal favourites?

Absolutely, we have a toasted chamomile and saffron bitter that we use here that was the evolution of the composition as far as how the bitter came about. It is a very special part of my career in the sense that I was working with a technique in the kitchen called ice malt -basically sugar work. I wanted to work with an ingredient that doesn’t react so much with humidity in the air. I wanted to make a chamomile flavoured ice malt and because the temperature was so high it toasted the chamomile, the aromatics were absolutely insane and I just had to work with it. I started flavour pairing and I found that star anise and saffron worked so well with it – it’s unlike anything you’ve ever tried anywhere. I actually started working with one I like to call the “antique” bitter – it literally tastes and smells of an attic – it’s so cool. It’s a black cardamom base that’s dark, smokey, funky, musty almost – I’m really excited about it.

So then with all the intense and diverse flavours of your Modernist creations, is your intention to appeal to everyone, or particular flavour palettes?

First and foremost fundamentality we are in the hospitality industry so it’s very important for me to make sure that I’m not going to crazy with the combinations, and that there’s a little bit of approachability there. That being said, the reason I do what I do is to challenge and to create a new expression within the genre. It’s about creative expression. Very rarely ever will I come up with something on the point of coming up with something, it’s about inspiration on what’s around me. At the end of day stuff like the Nordic Lake, it’s an artistic expression – it’s kind of like Kanye West’s album Life of Pablo as oppose to College Drop Out – it’s a balance of approachability and artistry.

What’s the most unconventional ingredient you’ve worked with?

Stuff like Patchouli… vanilla charcoal as well is a really cool one we do here – we take vanilla beans and turn them into charcoal, steep them in cream and then make a foam out of it – the flavour profile is unreal. The Patchouli is really neat. Before I started working with it, I wasn’t aware of anyone working with it as a flavour profile. It’s always used in perfumes and colognes, so when I started working with it, I was floored to find out how incredible of a flavour compound it was.

Out of all the drinks on your menu, the Vanilla and Hickory Smoked Manhattan has stood the test of time and seems to be the hallmark creation of Barchef. So what has made this drink so special that it sticks with every passing season?

It’s a very special experience. There’s a few things involved there that weren’t purposely put together that seem to create this overall experience that just blows the mind. It’s the original smoked cocktail. When it’s presented to the guest, it’s almost like a living thing with an understated elegance to it that makes it really badass. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that it would get the praise and recognition that it has today.

Toronto seems to be growing in popularity – how has the Toronto scene played a factor in your creative process, if at all?

I would say it does and it doesn’t. I’ve noticed over the course of the years that we’ve been opened that the general perception of cocktails has definitely changed – people are being a little more adventurous. Especially with the kind of press that we get I feel people are coming in to be challenged and try something new. To be honest, I completely stay away from trends and what’s going on in the industry. If it’s been done before, I don’t want to do it. Seasons are influential in my creative process in terms of weather, colour etc., but other than that I don’t derive much inspiration from places or things necessarily.

So while we’re talking about Toronto, I’ve heard that Drake likes to pop by once in while… does he have a favourite drink? (asking for a friend)

Well he’s had smoked Manhattan. He’s brought Jay Z, Serena Williams and a lot of other well known people here. They can literally just sit at the bar and nobody bugs them which is really cool cause they can actually enjoy their experience. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Drake – but honestly you never know who’s going to pop in.

Are there any international success stories that speak to you in terms of your own story and success?

I take a lot of inspiration from all mediums in all genres of personal creative expressions. I follow people that tend to lead their own path. In the culinary world Grant Achatz out of Chicago – he was just trying to do something different, respect what’s been done before but still having your own voice. It comes from everywhere from Mozart to Kanye West.

With every passing year, the Barchef name is constantly growing – how do you keep up with all the attention and success?

 It’s funny, I don’t pay attention to it as much as I can. I’m still getting used to taking pictures with people, it’s a funny position to be in – I don’t look at what I do in that light. I’m just very fortunate to make a living out of my own artistic expression. The buzzfeed video we were featured in recently has been a really cool experience, it’s been viewed almost 4 million times! A lot of people from around the world have reached out and have said that they are inspired by the work that I do. But anyways, it’s weird, I don’t look at myself like that. (laughs)

So for the people that have reached out to you, do you have any advice for the budding Modernist?

I would say for anyone looking to do this, open yourself up to inspiration and creativity. Surround yourself with people that are positive and creative, try new ingredients, new techniques. If you’re walking down the street, stop and smell rosemary and just kind of store that information. I look at flavour composition and flavour pairing as like a muscle – you constantly need to work it. Most importantly, create your own expression – respect the classics but be yourself.

So maybe this question is just for my own personal curiosity but, can you give us any hints as to what we can expect for future cocktails?

 I’m working on one right now for fall which is called (for now) Cubism of Ontario Pear – it’s going to be visually inspired by the growing movement of cubism in art as well as celebrating Ontario Pear which is a favourite fruit of mine. We’re already working on winter and spring for next year… always new things happening move forward. No returning old favourites sadly… (pries a little more) okay Essence of Fall will be making a return – I have a lot of love for that one.

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Photos by Leanne Neufeld Photography @leanneneufeld