Photo: Mark O’Neill.
Stephen Perrin was 22 years old when Mark McEwan asked him to be his partner in Terra, a restaurant he was buying in Thornhill. It was 1995 and McEwan was taking over the restaurant from his old boss, and sometimes rival, the legendary restaurateur Franco Prevedello, whose attentions were to be refocused on the scene south of Steeles. 20 years later, Perrin is still there, and Terra is the centre of Perrin’s growing Substance Food Group, which also operates Sarpa in Richmond Hill; Rusty’s at Blue Mountain as well as the recently opened Francobollo in North York at the top of Avenue Road.
I met Perrin earlier this year in the recently renovated dining room of Terra. We talked about what it meant to survive, and even thrive, over 20 years in the hospitality business. Perrin should, by rights, get more press, I said. He’s doing everything right: sourcing his ingredients locally in and around his home in Collingwood, opening new restaurants. This ought to translate in more media. Is it because the people who write about food in the GTA all live a block or two away from Queen Street? He laughed and shrugged, and explained “We don’t pay attention to what’s going on in downtown Toronto. I find that a lot of Toronto chefs are concerned about what everybody else is doing, and their all shopping from the same market. So you go to any restaurant and they’re serving the same things. It’s the same play on the same stuff.”
At Terra, it’s Italo-Canadian food, and it’s what Perrin calls “what we like to eat.” That could be scallopini or duck hearts with Balsamic. What seems to be Perrin’s secret is hospitality. He grew up in Pickering, and understood that the suburbs were, and still are, an under served market for fine dining. That intuition proved right in 1995 and is all the more true now. The secret to his success at Terra, he explained, is sourcing the best ingredients. He said, “I know my customers, and if they want a steak, it has to be the best steak. The moment I got over myself as a chef, was the moment I started achieving success.”
Apart from being a successful restaurateur, Perrin is also a champion barbecuer, and frequently travels around the United States to compete. Indeed, Perrin struck me as naturally competitive: as excited as he was to discuss the intricacies of barbecue, he was equally excited to talk about the heritage breed chickens he has grown for him, which are he insists, the best tasting around. Maybe this is why Stephen Perrin doesn’t get that much press, he doesn’t care. He’s too busy trying to find the best. And it’s certainly working out well this way.