Jonathan Gushue could have opted for another fine-dining restaurant. He could have teamed with a pricey, established place in a big city and quickly turned it into a go-to spot for foodies to discover. He could have set up shop in a country environment and cooked similar meals in a similar setting to what he'd been doing since 2005. He could have opened a food truck, or a tapas joint with a Spanish name, or a tiny bistro with $100-plus tasting menus.
But Gushue chose something radically different and it's a departure that could seriously shake up the Toronto dining scene. Here's why.
Gushue, one of Canada's most exceptional chefs, has joined forces with the owners of Queen Margherita Pizza and in so doing he is democratizing fine dining, bringing the brilliant fare he so often perfected at Langdon Hall to tables where meals are half the price.
Chefs in Canada have done leaner versions of their cuisine. Vij's in Vancouver has Rangoli beside it. Joe Beef has both Liverpool House and Le Vin Papillon. Quebec City's Panache has Panache Mobile near a vineyard on Île d'Orléans. Martin Picard has spun off his Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal with great success at his Cabane a Sucre in the Laurentian hills. But what Gushue is attempting is a massive offering of extraordinary food at lower-than-expected prices. "By the end of 2014 we should have six restaurants," says Gushue. Four of them will be QMP locations, a fifth will be a burger shack opening on Queen Street West within weeks, and the sixth is the only fine-dining option in the bunch: Gushue's own restaurant at 111 Richmond Street that is scheduled to open next door to the Google offices in the fall.
It is a corporate undertaking, but one with a clear culinary conscience and that is why it is different than what other elite chefs have attempted when partnering with larger businesses. Even Rob Feenie's rapidly expanding Cactus Club kitchens aren't as rigorous in their commitment to organic food as Gushue's QMP endeavour.
"We are creating ethical food. Not just quality food or local food, but ethically produced food, because that means something," says Gushue, who appeared invigorated by the challenge of his newest project. At Langdon Hall, there was pressure to stand alongside the best restaurants in the world. With Queen Margherita Pizza, there is the task of teaching both the diners and the staff about this kind of cuisine.
"What Jonathan is doing is educating people," says Queen Margherita Pizza owner John Chetti. "The level of training the staff has been able to receive in the past five or six months has been incredible for them. You see how enthused they are to learn these techniques."
The friendly server who attended to my table concurred, saying that the learning curve since Gushue took over late in 2013 has been incredibly steep. He had never heard of Langdon Hall ("I'm a student, I wouldn't have any reason to," he joked), but was suddenly serving patrons who were coming to QMP because of their affinity for Gushue's food.
From a Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurant to a Pizza Parlour
Gushue, though, is a perfectionist and admits the enterprise isn't yet where he wants it. He is recruiting his former kitchen colleagues at Langdon Hall to help him staff the QMP locations and he's working on improving the product he serves. "We're still spending time milling the flour to make sure it's right," he says.
I had the fortune of dining at Langdon Hall a few times in recent years and to witness Gushue's commitment to detail and passion for sourcing the right ingredients for each dish. His achievements won him accolades and devotees. In September, Gushue announced his departure from the No. 2-ranked restaurant in the country, according to the Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide. Nine months earlier, Gushue made national news when he disappeared for days, leaving his family and employer in a lurch. After that situation, the end of his time at Langdon Hall wasn't a surprise. His shift to casual food is.
Chetti was one of Gushue's fans and approached him about joining QMP. Gushue is serving leek ash on his pizzas, spiking his dishes with ingredients sourced from the same suppliers he used at Langdon Hall, introducing charcuterie and pickling to a pizza parlour, albeit a lovely one. Gushue says he will feature grass-fed beef burgers at one of his new restaurants this year.
"We're going to serve 100 per-cent grass-fed beef burgers and the truth is some places say they're doing that, but they're not, not 100 per cent. So if we have to go to Nebraska and maybe even New Zealand to get that quality, we will. People may not want to hear that," he says, referring to the local-food movement that has dominated North American menus in the past decade.
I knew what I would have at QMP would be excellent, I didn't expect to find dishes that were so similar to what I had enjoyed at Langdon Hall during Gushue's tenure as executive chef. A radish and fig dish, paired with ricotta cheese, was sublime. A palate-cleansing apple ganache came with three types of Ontario apples. Salt cod, from Gushue's native Newfoundland, was buried like treasure below circles of golden yellow potatoes, aged a year.
There isn't a pizza joint in North America that serves this kind of cuisine. In fact, the pizzas aren't the highlight. The pies are very good, but I've had better (including at Nicli Antica Pizzeria in Vancouver, still my choice for the best in the country). It's the other inventions -- the salads, small plates, desserts and breads prepared by Sarah Villamere, who worked with Gushue at Langdon Hall -- that stand out.
"He has upped the level of our cuisine," says Chetti, who now has a clear line of demarcation for his business; life "before and after Jonathan." "Introducing this food at a lower price point means it's more accessible for much more people and I think that's a very good thing."
ALSO ON HUFFPOST: