Known for Oliver & Bonacini, Jump, Canoe, Luma, Bannock, Auberge Du Pommier, Biff’s Bistro and more Toronto restos…
Sara Waxman: Michael, when you came to Toronto from England, you were a protégé chef mentored by Anton Mosimann, and you had unusual ideas that were going to change the way food was presented and prepared.
Michael Bonacini: I came with a mission.
SW: Peter, were you always a foodie?
Peter Oliver: No, I was interested in business; I have a degree in Investment Management. I’d seen a little pie shop on Yonge Street, and how busy they were, and I thought that the product was good, and that if I started a bakery I could be busy like that, too. I knew nothing. We were paper plates and plastic forks at the beginning. But my mother was a wonderful cook, and she taught me how to appreciate food, and I quickly learned that there’s something very spiritual about baking. I’ve come to appreciate that, in fact, food is holy, and it is what ties us to the universe. And so, when you talk to people like Michael, about “why do you cook?,” often you can see their eyes tear up because of that special feeling of making food. I feel blessed. I mean, there’ve been times when it’s been tough, or times when I’ve had a merciless review, and I thought, “My god, why did I get into this?”
SW: And three merciless reviews in one weekend?
PO: How have we lasted as long as we have? I think our attitude toward those reviews was always
positive. As hard as it was to not react to a bad review, we always regrouped and said, “Let’s look at what we can do and prove that they are wrong.” I’ve had very good reviews, too, and I’ve learned that not everything in a good review is true. So many people have had glowing reviews, and six months later they’re not in business. I think they start to believe it instead of constantly trying to get better at what they do.
SW: Michael, what do you think that you contribute to this partnership?
MB: I’m still somewhat involved in the food, menu, etc., and we have great chefs onboard. But, at some point, you’ve got to say, “I’ve got to let go of the reins a little bit.” But you’re always reading the menu, always having a little tasting, always passing back commentary that is both positive or encouraging, and criticism that is, hopefully, constructive. There’s no lack of effort that goes into running an operation, for example, like Canoe. The mental energy, the constant coming back at things and seeing how we can improve the design, the lighting, the layout, or how to improve our approach to service, our quality of food. These are all things that I think are a part of what makes Oliver & Bonacini who we are today. We are relentless at those sorts of things. You have to be.
SW: You cater to the very top clientele—the top spenders in the city—as well as the café crowd at street level, below us here in the Bell TIFF Lightbox.
MB: Canteen. As much as we enjoy the fine dining represented by Auberge Du Pommier, our oldest restaurant, celebrating 26 years, and Canoe, we also take the same attitude, hard work and effort that goes into a casual concept, such as Canteen here or Bannock at the corner of Bay and Queen. A lot of the ingredients we use are the same, a lot of the wines that we offer are very similar. It’s all about having that positive attitude to exceed guests’ expectations.
PO: Because sometimes all you want is a pulled pork sandwich.
SW: But make it a good one.
PO: But make it a good one. And you know, there’s sometimes when that’s all you want. It’s like having a hot dog. If you have the best kind of hot dog, you prefer that to having foie gras. And so, very often, the guys that will have the foie gras or the lobster club sandwich at Canoe, on another occasion they’ll come into Canteen and have something very simple.
MB: The key is having the team understand even a sandwich can be something incredibly special, and still be driven by passion.
SW: Well, you’ve done an extraordinary job in this city.
PO: It’s kind of you to say. Michael and I are always thinking about what it is that we should be improving, rather than ‘we’re hotshots because we’ve got 16 different restaurants.’ It’s important to keep humble, and as long as you are enjoying what you’re doing, and building a team of people, it’s a wonderful atmosphere.
SW: How many employees do you have?
MB: A little over 1,100. In the kitchen, in particular, it really is a noble profession, so we look for individuals who are driven by their passion for food, their passion for cooking.
PO: You can hire people that can do every job better than you can. But, how do you create a culture where people want to try and do the best job they possibly can? It’s more than just cooking and serving. It’s creating an environment. I want them to see that even at my ripe age, I care about them and about the business, because I do the orientation of every new employee. That’ll be the last thing I will give up—talking to the new employees and continuing to focus on their development. Now somebody may say, “That’s not really what makes a restaurant successful.” Well, it is what makes a company great.