“Chefs are saying ‘This is who I am’.”
Michael Bonacini leans in and points to a pile of textiles, leathers and plastics on his desk. He throws some prices in the air and mixes them with some measurements. “So that’s 54 inches by three feet, 49 bucks,” he says. “And this is 100,000 doublerubs at 20 per cent the cost of leather.” If you already didn’t know Bonacini as a chef and entrepreneur—one half of Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants, a longstanding empire of over a dozen Toronto eateries and event spaces, or as a star judge on the MasterChef Canada reality show—you might mistake him for an interior designer. “This one,” he says, picking up a sample, “has a little bit of that leather look to it. But it’s thinner, lighter, less expensive. And the colours? It’s just endless.”
“That’s the tough part of the design business,” he laughs. “You have too many bloody choices.” The samples he’s toying with are options for R + D, a new Asian restaurant set to open in March near Chinatown. He’s contemplating the seating. “Style has to meet function,” Bonacini says. “Chairs are the bane of my existence…”
Restaurateur Peter Oliver first joined forces with chef Michael Bonacini in 1993, for a restaurant called Jump. Its original design, by Robert Meiklejohn (it has been renovated several times in the decades since), opened eyes with its bold, white-cloth confidence. “The bar at Jump is my favourite in the whole wide world,” Bonacini says. “It’s the kind of bar that I want to pull up to and have a bourbon, a single-malt whiskey or a big stinking martini.” Even then, Bonacini heavily invested himself in design, recognizing its importance in a restaurant’s overall success, and this relationship between food and design has only strengthened over the last few years as Toronto’s dining scene skyrocketed, bolstered by a population that is increasingly aware and appreciative of good food and design thinking.
Chris Nuttall-Smith, the city’s top food writer, pegged 2012 as a major turning point. “In 2012…Toronto’s dining scene expanded, evolved and improved at a pace that no Canadian cultural industry other than pop music could even dream of,” he wrote in The Globe and Mail. It wasn’t just the exciting new dishes from up and coming local chefs or the influx of international culinary
stars like Momofuku’s David Chang: “More and more restaurants took design seriously, building spaces where you wanted to spend your time…” Nuttall-Smith wrote.
Bonacini attributes much of this energy to the rise of smaller, chef-centric ventures. “Chefs are saying ‘This is who I am’,” he explains. “’This represents me and my beliefs in food and beverage and I don’t give a hoot what anyone else thinks…’ [They are] getting involved in not just the food but also the design of the restaurant, the plateware, the uniforms and type of music, the branding. All of that.”
Canoe, which launched in the mid-’90s a few years after Jump, provides an enduring example of O&B’s relationship with design and designers. Perched at the top of a 54-floor downtown financial tower, the restaurant was originally outfitted by Yabu Pushelberg. “It’s a mix of contemporary design that has a little irreverence to it,” Bonacini says. While most upscale diners at the time would have expected a more formal restaurant crowning such a “traditional” building, patrons instead encountered an adventurous minimalism, with ductwork and BX cables peeking out from open ceilings and floating panels. Bonacini remembers the reaction of a landlord: “Whoa! When are you going to finish it?”
George Yabu and Glen Pushelberg were one of three teams up for the job. The duo flew in from L.A. on a redeye flight to present their plans. “We called them up later that evening and let them know we had chosen them. They did an amazing job,” says Bonacini. The look held strong over 15 years and helped Canoe build a home at the top tier of Toronto restaurants. For a million-dollar makeover it received three years ago, including the addition of two private dining rooms, Anacleto Design (run by former Yabu Pushelberg associates) built on the original contemporary foundation. “It was done with such lasting design fundamentals that anyone who knows Yabu Pushelberg will still be able to see their DNA there,” Bonacini says.
Though design and food are booming in the city, budgets have not necessarily grown in tandem. In his earlier days, Bonacini believed bigger coffers would always equal better design, but he’s learned since that setting restrictions and being “incredibly resourceful and innovative” is not only better for the bottom line but often for creativity as well. In the new, highly competitive climate, it’s think or sink.
“The city is becoming something else.”
Amin Todai’s team knows a thing or two about innovation. In many ways, Todai is the opposite of the design-savvy master chefs of the world: he’s a creative who then educated himself about the culinary world. His digital design agency, OneMethod, is a division of ad agency Bensimon Byrne, but along with its creative work for clients like Kit Kat, Nickelodeon and Drake, it also happens to be the driving force behind a growing portfolio of good food/good vibes Toronto hot spots.
La Carnita, OneMethod’s popular taco joint that embraces the city’s hip-hop and street art scenes, started as a social media experiment. “We just wanted to see if we could build a following, build a buzz,” Todai says, “and use that as a case study for clients, to get other social media business.” The self-taught designer already had a taste for the restaurant biz—as a side venture he helped launch the now-defunct Lucien, which was named one of the best new restaurants of 2008 by Toronto Life magazine.
Spurred by some fantastic chicken fried one night by Andrew Richmond, OneMethod’s design director at the time, Todai and Richmond decided to fold their love of food into OneMethod’s design and branding operations. The plan was to generate excitement around a pop-up taco shop, but there was a snag: even if the marketing push took off on social media, La Carnita wasn’t properly licensed to sell food.
But what if the product for sale wasn’t food? What if it was street art and design? To work around the issue, La Carnita sold $10 limited-edition screen prints featuring unique takes on its Dia de los Muertos logo done by the team’s favourite street artists, designers and illustrators. The tacos were just a giveaway with every purchase. New artists were added with each pop-up/party/art show, and the list was more than appetizing: Jacqui Oakley, Carson Ting, Kwest, Doublenaut, Shingo Shimizu and more. “We would even get a good handful of people in our line saying ‘I don’t really care about the food, I just want the print’,” Todai says.
“That, to me, was design culture,” he explains. “We embodied this kind of hip-hop culture scenario. They’d come out and hear A Tribe Called Quest, a good hip-hop tune, and we had this persona—I don’t know what you would call it, hip-hop hipsters or something—we were just on the cusp of a cool culture, we had an interesting connection to the food and to the art, and design was one of the main themes throughout. It attracted people,” enough so that in 2012, the pop-up series spawned an 80-seat permanent restaurant in downtown Toronto, notably well-received for a resto run by a home chef like Richmond.
Three more brick-and-mortar La Carnitas are currently in the works, and the family now includes a sister restaurant, Home of the Brave, and a dessert-dealing offshoot called Sweet Jesus. Richmond has left his design duties at OneMethod to focus on running the kitchens. “The funny thing is that Andrew runs the restaurants like an agency,” Todai says. Design and social media still heavily inform the business, and employees are encouraged to get involved in cultivating the overall brand experience, whether creating playlists of music to pipe through the speakers or pitching ideas for new menu offerings.
The ’90s hip-hop generation that La Carnita speaks to is just one example of the city’s ever diversifying foodie population (let alone population, period). Todai points to Richmond’s contemporaries, like pan-Asian chef Nick Liu and Top Chef Canada alum Steve Gonzales, who specializes in Latin American street food, as prime examples of 30- and 40-year-olds who came of age alongside the rise of hip-hop, street art and the Food Network. “It’s just the way we grew up and we’re expressing that now as businessmen. It was in 2008 to 2009 when that generation really started popping up in the city. The foodie culture also started picking up around that time—all of that was coming together.”
“The city is becoming something else,” Todai says.
“It’s not like the old days.”
Interior and industrial designer Irfan Bukhari says the dynamic between layperson and expert has changed. “With the foodies, now everybody’s a critic. And you can’t judge them by the way they dress…it’s not like the old days where a critic would walk into a restaurant, like [Toronto Life and Post City writer] Joanne Kates with her big hat, and everybody would know it was her and she would get special treatment. You can’t just do that anymore!”
With barriers wearing down across the local culinary scene, Bukhari’s firm, Bukhari Design, found itself minding several different consumer groups while designing the latest location for Pizzeria Libretto, whose restaurants are lauded for their traditional Neapolitan-style pizza. “The challenge was to cater to all these walks of life,” Bukhari says. While the first two Librettos serviced the cool and casual crowds, the new location, which opened late last year, sits in the city’s financial district where bankers and brokers roam.
That added the proverbial “suits” to the mix, without supplanting the need to accommodate families, casual groups, and even those looking to socialize at a bar. Bukhari dissected the space and allocated a raised front end for diner-style banquettes, a back area better suited for families, and a bar section. “I needed to really understand who we were servicing,” he says. Although the space works cohesively, closer inspection reveals well-considered details like fewer barriers in the rear section for parents with strollers, or deeper benches that offer added comfort to those in business suits.
Owner Max Rimaldi and managing partner Gary Quinto take their pizza seriously, and wanted Bukhari to share a sense of the dish’s deep roots. They brought the designer with them on a food-immersion trip to Italy last year. “For me, it was to feel Naples,” Bukhari says. “People who live in Naples don’t really leave. But the food is amazing. Pizza especially. The street food scene is incredible because everybody is out and everyone eats outside and it’s this chaotic, very cool thing.” Sovereign State, the Toronto design studio that handled Libretto’s graphics, also sent photographer Brittany Hildebrandt to Rome to photograph chefs from Pizzeria Libretto and sister restaurant Enoteca Sociale on their culinary journey.
Bukhari returned with a greater sense of the Libretto vision, “bringing that Neapolitan concept to Toronto and keeping it authentic,” and also with a key metaphor through which to filter his plans. “The hardest pizza to make and master looks like it’s the easiest. It’s the margherita. It’s just two or three ingredients…I thought OK, like with the pizza margherita, [Rimaldi and Quinto] didn’t want to go overboard with design. They didn’t want overkill. They didn’t want to scare people away.” Bukhari aimed to punch harder with fewer ingredients.
Libretto’s custom lights are painted in a strong Ferrari red, inspired by the iconic car designs of the late Carrozzeria Pininfarina. For a rustic touch, walls are clad with individually selected pieces of hemlock wood salvaged from Mennonite barns, installed in a chevron pattern. The warm wood breaks up the subway tiling and concrete flooring, design touches imported from the previous Librettos that tie all three together. The centrepiece Stefano Ferrara ovens are encased in a wall, setting them apart from Libretto’s other fully exposed ovens, branded with the company’s logo set in penny tile. “It sort of looks like an igloo,” Bukhari says. “Really simple and clean.”
One of the new Libretto’s most noticeable upgrades is its leather upholstery; as Bukhari explains the maintenance headaches that come along with using vinyl, it’s clear that the business has a confident eye toward longevity. Back at Michael Bonacini’s office, Bonacini points to his own office chairs. “It’s important you build something that has resilience,” he says. The chairs are the originals from Jump restaurant, over 23 years old.
While it would be easy to dismiss Toronto’s food craze itself as just a phase the city is going through, a temporary affectation to be discarded like a pair of skinny jeans, Bonacini sees it more as the natural buildup of momentum gained over the years, fuelled by the city’s competitiveness. Before moving here in 1985, the young chef from South Wales was required to watch a video about Toronto as part of his immigration process. “I remember that the opening line of that video was that you could eat in Toronto 365 days of the year, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and never eat in the same restaurant twice,” he says. “Now it’s [still] that, but times a factor of two or three.”
Even if the excitement slows, food and design will maintain their relationship. “There are so many things that are a part of creating that perfect dish,” Bonacini says, relating the act of cooking to designing a complete restaurant experience. “It could be simple, beautiful steamed asparagus, with melted chervil butter spooned over the top. It could be as simple as that. But when every ingredient is just right, and is the right plate in the right setting, you can’t get better than that,” he says. “It’s tough to beat, right?” •
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.