With the face of a naughty child and many tattoos, Grant van Gameren is one of the most recognized chefs on the Canadian food scene. After traveling to Spain in 2012 he fell in love with the country. He was so impassioned by its food, architecture and society that from that time he has worked tirelessly to show Canadians the essence of Spain through his restaurants Bar Isabel and Bar Raval.
Text: Blanca López-Bonet / Gourmets magazine
In 2012 he left everything to travel round Europe in search of inspiration and new ideas. His initial intention was to explore Italian cuisine with view to opening a trattoria on his return but chance brought him to Barcelona and San Sebastián and he totally fell in love with the country.
How did this love affair with Spain come about? What did you know about the country when you first visited?
I knew nothing about Spain. In fact, before 2012 I had not traveled to many parts of the world because all my time had been spent working. I had been to New York, Chicago and Paris but not many other places. In 2012, my partner sent me to Europe to see what was cooking over there and after visiting Spain, Italy, France and Denmark, the idea of opening an Italian restaurant started to fade because I was completely captivated by Spain.
Pre-set ideas do not always work
Exactly! I recall that we started our trip in Spain. We went to Barcelona and San Sebastián and I fell in love with the country immediately. But I wanted to be cautious because I thought that maybe I would like Italy more and I didn't want to make any rash decisions. At the end of my visit I realized that Italy was a beautiful country but that Spain had something more. I think Spain is unique in many ways. It has spectacular architecture and the energy in the food is very different from other countries. Eating in Spain is a vibrant, relaxing and simple affair although at the same time the country is home to the best restaurants in the world. I recall being in Hondarribia one day and going into a "pinchos" bar called El Gran Sol. They stared to bring out these delicious, intricate tapas and I was amazed because I hadn't expected it. Another thing I love about Spain is that every establishment offers its own specialties and you won't find the same dishes in all the restaurants.
So you went back to Toronto and opened Bar Isabel in honor of your discoveries
Yes, with Bar Isabel I wanted to create a traditional restaurant that represented everything I missed about Spain: the food, the light, the atmosphere. But I also wanted to be honest. Recognizing and explaining to diners that you can't always take a recipe or an idea from Spain and re-create it precisely in another country. That's why we always say that in my restaurants we provide food inspired by Spain and while we don't always have Spanish products, the essence, presentation and the original idea are there.
Do you think that Spanish cuisine is appealing to the Canadian public?
I do now because I think that peoples' habits have changed over the past few years. For instance, in Toronto people no longer just go out to eat to celebrate birthdays; nowadays food is an excuse for people to socialize and they want to try lots of different dishes. This new trend in Canada fits perfectly with Spanish food, with “a little bit of this, a little bit of that”.With Bar Isabel I wanted to re-create a traditional Spanish restaurant but for Bar Raval I was more inspired by the essence of a "pinchos" bar, with no seating, lots of noise and constant movement. I wanted a flexible restaurant where people can go at any time of day to get something to eat. This is hard to find in North America because establishments serve lunch or dinner or takeout, burgers, etc. At Bar Raval we have customers who come in for a coffee in the morning, come back for an appetizer at midday and return at night for dinner. This was a totally new concept in the country and I wanted to see how it was accepted.
You designed a wooden Gaudí-style bar that has won several awards
We wanted the people coming into the bar or walking by it to be reminded of their trips to Spain. We couldn't touch the façade of the building so the door and the interior had to be striking. Our inspiration came from art noveau, Catalonian modernism and Gaudí and honestly, after ten months of work, the result could not have been better. We won the 2016 award for the best restaurant design in Canada, and we feature among the two hundred best designs in the world.
Will we see you in Spain next summer?
Of course. Each year I choose a couple of members of my team and take them on a trip to Spain so they can see where my inspiration comes from and get to know the source of the products that we serve. We will dine in sophisticated establishments (we have been to Mugaritz, StreetXo, Asador Etxebarri and El Capricho de León, among others), but we will also visit places where you can eat well for a few euros (such as Can Paixano in Barcelona or Bar Gambara in San Sebastián). I think that personality in the kitchen does not only come through in the dishes but in the whole experience. For this reason, it is important to travel around Spain and take my team to all types of restaurants because this is what are trying to re-create every day in Toronto.
Grant Van Gameren. "I think Spain is unique in many ways. It has spectacular architecture and the energy in the food is very different from other countries. Eating in Spain is a vibrant, relaxing and simple affair although at the same time the country is home to the best restaurants in the world".
Blanca López-Bonet / Gourmets magazine