Chef Suzanne Baby (pronounced “babby”) is the Chef at Downtown Toronto’s Gallery Grill, which has been called a “hidden treasure” by both Frommer’s and Zagat’s. The restaurant is nestled in Hart House, a student activity center at the University of Toronto. Hart House’s main feature is its Great Hall, which has welcomed many prestigious visitors over the years, including John F. Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth I and II, Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Christopher Hitchens.
While Baby is a celebrated chef on the Toronto scene, consistently getting raves from both reviewers and restaurant-goers, she is also one of my sister’s best friends. Her family lived a block away from ours when we were kids, so I’ve known her for most of my life. On the day I go to interview her, Toronto is experiencing a one-day mid-April freak snowstorm.
Chefs Connection (CC): Let’s talk about the restaurant first, because it’s a very unusual set-up. What is this place, exactly?
“This place … well we are just a restaurant. We happen to be located in the university; we’re in what’s called the student heart of the university, the home away from home for students. There’s a lot going on in the building all the time. You name it, it’s going on in here, so it’s a really, really great and vibrant place to be working in. But the restaurant is an entity on its own. We are owned by the university, but we’re a restaurant. So when I was asked if I was interested to come here, I was told, ‘Here, this is the restaurant, here’s who your clientele will be: it’s mostly students, we want them to feel welcome, but there’ll be faculty, there’ll be staff, and we want to reach out to the rest of the community in Toronto. We want this to be open.’ It had been a restaurant years ago, but it was private. It was members-only. And until not that long ago, it was men-only in this building.”
CC: Really? How long ago?
“At the earliest? The 1970s. So women were not allowed, or they had to be a guest of a male. It was a real kind of boys club, old school kind of place, and I gather the food was disgusting.”
CC: But now, it’s high end food, which seems to not mesh with the college student thing.
“I know. So we don’t get a ton of students in here. During the week we have Monday to Friday lunch; it tends to not be the students so much because of budget restraints I’m sure. And there are a lot of other great things right around campus now that are affordable to them. Years ago there wasn’t a lot of choice; that’s changed a lot, which is great.
“But I just wanted to do good food. I think that the prices are still amazingly cheap. [Laughs] But it’s not cheap for somebody who’s on a tight budget.”
CC: No, but it’s good value for what you’re getting. So you guys are only open for lunch?
“We do Monday to Friday lunch, we do Sunday brunch, and we do private events in the evening. Now the reason we don’t do dinner here is because there’s so much going on in the Great Hall that we’re overlooking. And the noise can be way too destructive for whatever’s going on in the Great Hall; for instance, if there’s a private speech, or a lecture, and vice versa. There’s just no sound control that way. So we would have to close down, and it would just be way too sporadic and chaotic to keep regular clientele in the know about when we’re open, when we’re not open. So we are available for private events, and we do a ton of them. It’s a special room. It’s a great atmosphere for a lot of people.”
CC: How old is it?
“This building was built between 1911 and 1913, I believe.”
CC: So for an American audience, can you talk a bit about the food scene in Toronto? There’s so much diversity here, ethnically, and that has to affect what’s going on.
“You know, over 50 percent of Torontonians weren’t born in Canada. So you’ve still got that huge influence in a lot of restaurants, even in neighborhoods. Some are gentrifying and changing, but you still have that core here. And then people are off-shooting from that.
“It’s exploded in the last few years, it really has. There’s just so much more now. What I really love, now, which I always loved about New York, or even Montreal, but now we’re getting this here, is neighborhoods sprouting up and saying, ‘We can do this.’ And somebody just goes into a neighborhood and does what they want to do, not so worried about what the whole city would expect, or trying to please everybody. It’s more of a neighborhood feel to a place, which I’m so happy to see and have now, just a ton of young chefs wanting to spread their wings and do their own thing. And a lot of them are pretty well traveled.”
CC: And is there a lot of the fine dining scene in Toronto too?
“There is. I’m a little disappointed in that kind of thing. Except … I guess I like to be blown away, maybe that’s not a reasonable expectation. But if I go to those places, I’m paying 300 bucks for a meal, and the service, etc., I want to feel comfortable, and I want to feel like this isn’t something I could do myself, maybe, or that I’ve never seen this before, or that the technique or something is just super special. But unfortunately a lot of times, not so much in Toronto, because I haven’t gone to a lot of the newer places that have opened up in that genre, but I tend to be a little disappointed.
One exception I can think of off the top of my head is Sushi Kaji. He [Chef Mitsuhiro Kaji] is just amazing and he blows me away. It’s not cheap, it’s high end, but the place is unassuming, you feel very comfortable, he makes you feel welcome, and he takes such good care of you; every time I’ve been, I’m just blown away with quality and artistry. So there are great places out there.”
CC: So one of the big challenges in Toronto, I assume, would be long winters and fresh ingredients.
“Yeah, you get pretty sick of tubers.[Laughs]. That’s changed too. There are a lot more growers now, that are local and organic, or naturally raised, [who] are growing in hothouses and greenhouses. It’s not the same thing as field grown or with full sun, but we can get organically grown, hydroponic … for instance, heirloom tomatoes. So there is a lot more available now.
“In terms freshwater fish, we’re lucky in that as long as there’s not too much ice on the lakes, we can still get really amazing freshwater fish. And that whole market has really expanded.
“Fresh produce, obviously anything that’s super tender, no. So you learn to deal with that, and it’s kind of nice, you know, you get into a different mode I think when you’re eating too. It’s freezing out; I don’t want something cold and crunchy. [Laughs]”
CC: So as the seasons are changing theoretically, we’re heading into spring and summer …
“Yes, this [winter] is the hardest part.”
CC: What are you looking forward to being able to work with that will come in soon, ingredient-wise?
“Okay … not fiddlehead greens. [Laughs] Sorry. There’s not that much that’s really coming in for the spring. Morel mushrooms are amazing, but they’re super expensive. And asparagus is great. Yeah, just anything that’s green that’s starting to come up, because that just seems so opposite to me from what we’ve had, the big heavy rich thick tubers and that kind of thing. There’s not a lot that’s really initially spring that’s local.”
CC: And are there any foods that you, personally, just don’t like to cook with and don’t like to eat?
“Uh…gosh. I don’t like kidneys. [Laughs] And calf’s liver. Years ago when I was pregnant with my first, I was cleaning a calf’s liver, and it was the only time I ever had morning sickness. And no one knew I was pregnant, I didn’t want anyone to know at the time, and I was the sous chef at a really lovely, great restaurant, and I was cleaning it and I had to keep leaving the room. [Laughs] So I think that killed me for a long time. But I pretty much love everything.”
CC: So I’ve known you for many years, but I didn’t really know you as a food person. But your dad was a big foodie, right?
“Yup. Which I didn’t realize as a kid for sure. And I’ve told a lot of people this story, in some ways I was embarrassed by the food that we had. For instance, he would go on fishing trips in northern Quebec, and come back with sturgeon, and come back with amazing salmon, and the best fish, and eel. And he had built in the backyard, a smoker, like a smokehouse, I don’t know if you remember this, but it looked like an outhouse. And I remember coming home on my bike and smelling the smoker and going, ‘oh my god,’ and being really embarrassed: ‘Oh, he’s smoking something again.’ And I loved eating it, though, but [I was] embarrassed by that. And then in the fridge, there would be goose fat, and he was always so proud of that, and I’d have friends over saying, ‘What’s that?’ ‘Um, goose fat.’ [Laughs] Or cassoulet, you know, he’d be working on that kind of stuff.”
CC: And he had that French-Canadian background, right?
“French-Canadian, yeah. And then my mum came along, my step-mum, and she was really into food, but very different. Kind of into experimenting with Thai, or different ethnic foods and things, so that was another perspective, which was great. And we had a huge, huge garden in the backyard. And you take these things for granted, but you know, having something that’s never been in a fridge, just straight off a vine, or pulled out of the ground … again, I didn’t appreciate that as a kid, I was just, ‘You know, whatever,’ and now looking back I think that really was amazing and I really do have memories of what those things tasted like and what they were like. So I guess that quality was instilled in me.
“But I didn’t know that I wanted to be a chef, I fell into that for sure. I was traveling a lot, and I needed to work, and these were the kinds of jobs that came up. And then when I thought, ‘Oh, I’d better do something with my life,’ when I came back home to Toronto, a friend was working at a nice restaurant with a French foreign chef, someone actually from France. She said, ‘Come, come, he needs somebody.’ And I was worried, ‘Oh, I have no experience.’ Anyway, it all started that way, and I fell in love with the whole thing.”
CC: So what was that first job?
“That first job was … well I was an assistant, so I wasn’t really considered a cook, I guess.”
CC: You were prepping, though?
“Yeah, prepping. And you know, often he wouldn’t show up for work, which is why he lost his business, so all of the sudden I was like, ‘Okay, we have to feed people.’ So there was me and his head waiter, who had worked with him for years and years, and we’d put it together somehow. [Laughs] We’d make the show run.”
CC: And before you were doing that, what were some of the countries you were in, doing those jobs?
“Well, really and truly … cooking … I was picking grapes in France, and I ended up getting super sick, and so I was stuck in the farmhouse for a few days, and I was getting pretty restless and wanted to help out. And it turned out that the great-granny on the farm was in charge of all the food, and also feeding the animals. So I found out that feeding the animals meant feeding them and taking care of them and also killing them and then cooking them! [Laughs]
“And so I got into that, with them, in France, and nothing was official, it was very, very casual. In Portugal too, I was working at a huge international youth hostel. And we did decent food, pretty cool food, so again, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. And then I started an official apprenticeship in a famous bakery in Sweden, an island off of Stockholm. Really I was an assistant there, but that was the official, official start.”
CC: I didn’t know any of that! And your husband is a chef too?
“Rob is a chef, yeah. And we were both apprentices when we met.”
CC: Here in Toronto?
“Yes, at The Windsor Arms.”
CC: So what’s it like at your house with two chefs in the kitchen? Do you cook together?
“Well we always had hours that were … we were like two ships in the night. We always had opposite hours, for years I was working days and he was working nights. So that worked out really well for the kids, we were passing them off to each other. And being together was always a big part of our lives; we wanted the family together to sit and eat. That’s always been a big thing in our house. And now he is home at night, so we take turns.
“Often it’s who feels like it, who has a feeling for something. If I feel really like eating something, then I’ll make it, ‘I’ll make dinner ‘cause I really want to do this.’ Then usually the other one backs off, that’s fine. When we’re entertaining we’ll cook together, but usually it’s one or the other, and it’s pretty much 50-50. Who feels like it, who has more time?”
CC: And your kids, who are big now, do they cook? Are they interested in that kind of thing?
“My son loves it, you know, he’s really actually been very torn about what do for a career. Poor kid, all his life we’ve said, ‘Don’t be a chef, don’t be a chef.’ [Laughs] We tried to drill it in. And he has an amazing palate, and he’s a great cook. He’s just so interested, whenever he comes over to our place, he starts looking at cookbooks, which is quite funny. And our daughter couldn’t care less! [Laughs] She likes veggies, and she likes certain things, but she’s not so into cooking, and the last time we had a discussion with her, saying, ‘You know, it is a good thing for you to learn to cook, you should learn to cook,’ – she can cook a few things but not much – she said, ‘Why should I learn to cook when I’ve got three people around me who will cook for me?’ [Laughs] Just not that into it.
“My son just loved blue cheese when he was a toddler. And he took sushi for school lunches. The teachers always loved to look at the kids’ school lunches. [Laughs]”
CC: Did they grow up bringing great food to school?
“Yeah, it was a bit of a conversation sometimes in the school, with the other teachers, which I found out later on. But the problem with my son, though, was that he loved good food, and there was no snobbery in our family. We just, we eat anything, we love everything. But as a kid he didn’t like hot dogs, he didn’t like hamburgers – well, homemade hamburgers he liked – but he didn’t like hot dogs and he didn’t like pizza and he didn’t like cake. So if he went to a birthday party, we’d feed him before he went. ‘Just tell them you’re not feeling well, so you don’t offend anybody.’”