by Zara Fischer-Harrison
Maybe it’s a recession-friendly attitude, or maybe high-risk investments in new restaurants are becoming less and less attractive for worn out investors, but several great chefs in our city are diversifying their businesses by going retail. Thinking outside the resto-box, retail has become a burgeoning trend for back of house folks who are making their way up to the front. McEwan’s grocery store at Don Mills and Lawrence is basically a supercharged cross between WholeFoods and Pusateri’s. Same products on the shelf, hefty price tags, and lots of prepared foods ready to take home, complete with wee café. Paul Boehmer’s “Dean and Deluca-esque retail shop” (Karon Liu, Toronto Star) is poised to open its doors imminently on Ossington, creating a buzz in the neighbourhood, both supportive and cautious. One new project that stands out, though, Provenance Regional Cuisine, sticks to its regional food guns, and exemplifies a new model of high-quality food distribution.
Alex Johnston decided he wanted to put family first, and came up with a way of continuing to feed Toronto with his succulent meals, without the late nights and massive overhead of a restaurant. Achieving a balance in the kitchen can seem effortless for the determined chef, but other aspects of life can easily fall victim to the hours, the pressure, and the pace with which a restaurant must keep up.
Now the early mornings find him in the kitchen with Karla Kulak-Perrina. They have carefully prepared subscription menu items for home delivery for the past year, and now the brand is in high gear. Provenance Regional Cuisine is a multi-faceted approach to fine dining at home. Starting about a year ago in Teo Paul’s basement kitchen at Union on the trendy Ossington strip, he quickly outgrew the space and moved into the serendipitously available kitchen behind the Palmerston Café at the corner of Dundas Street West and Palmerston Avenue. The new space has allowed for major growth.
Provenance Regional Cuisine has quickly become an umbrella brand. It all started with Provenance to Home, a home delivery service and subscription menu, akin to a series of a four-week long Community Supported Agriculture model. The desire for choice and customer demand spurred an online marketplace for A La Carte prepared foods and grocery items, which Johnston happily provided. And now, the bricks and mortar, Provenance, a regional food shop is up and running. Plans are in the works to build a bustling catering service and a series of wine pairing and cooking workshops. Making few exceptions, Johnston procures all of the fresh meats, pantry items, and frozen prepared foods from Ontario producers. Much of the fare is certified organic, and all of the meat is, at minimum, naturally raised. Working closely with farmers and distributors with whom he built strong relationships as chef at Gilead Café, his intention is to continue and cultivate those relationships with this new project.
Working in kitchens in France, Johnston was taken with the concept of regional cuisine, which he brought back to Toronto, along with his keen butchery skills and passion for making the best food more available to more people. He didn’t always know he would find his place in the kitchen having pursued a degree in biology, a year at art college, and working in a design firm serving the the dot com industry, but knew he liked working with his hands and adopted culinary as his trade. Johnston’s team is growing and mobilizing to build the business and is primarily made up of former colleagues and Jamie Kennedy disciples from the JK Wine Bar, Hank’s and Gilead Café. His charisma is infectious and observing him come to life speaking with customers at the front of house, in this case a retail environment, is wonderful. He truly believes in the food he serves, the farmers he collaborates with, and the importance of sharing the stories associated with everything in the shop and on the menu.
The search for a larger production kitchen is ongoing, and once roots are established somewhere there’s no stopping Provenance Regional Cuisine catching up to Johnston’s ambitious vision. His intention is to participate in the larger local food system advocacy effort, sincerely wanting to spread the gospel and provide a tangible solution.
Zara Fischer-Harrison is a Toronto-based, perpetual pupil of all things food. She works and plays in various capacities in the good food movement. Read her blog at http://foodandpassion.wordpress.com/