Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
TORONTO, ONTARIO — For Chris Stewart, departing Hawksworth, one of the best kitchens in Canada, was only going to be worth it if he could make an impact on how a significant number of Canadians eat. The former chef de cuisine at Hawksworth is one of the executive chefs in charge of menu development for the Donnelly Group, which owns 17 restaurants in Vancouver and Toronto, including the Walrus, a pub that caters to a mix of financiers hobnobbing over martinis at happy hour, the after-work crowd downing pints while watching sports, and young tech professionals who play ping-pong in the lower-level parlour.
The Walrus is a showcase of the modern pub environment. Rather than a dark, narrow, uninviting bar and worn wood-stained tables and chairs, the Walrus is filled with light, whether from the large banks of windows or from the warm colours inside. It’s open and contemporary. Similarly, the food is updated, and what diners are enjoying now is just the start, according to Stewart, who joined the Donnelly Group in 2017 with the goal of reinventing a category of dining that for decades had been stuck on soggy chicken wings, limp salads, and bland burgers.
“This is my first time ever doing pub food. But in my time working in fine dining, I always found myself in a pub and I don’t remember ever having good pub food in Canada,” Stewart recalls about his motivation to make his career change. “It’s not hard to do, but it is a matter of care.”
Stewart also called the Canadian pub industry “easy pickings”, because the category had been so overlooked for so long. While working at the world-renowned Fat Duck in England, Stewart got to know some of the pubs in that country. Several of them are so outstanding they have earned Michelin stars. Their Canadian counterparts, though, have long relied on artificial attractions like big-screen TVs, tacky short skirts, and cheap beer deals to draw in consumers. The Donnelly Group is pushing change and the results are impressive.
Not long ago, I avoided Donnelly Group locations in Vancouver because the experience was disappointing and ordinary. That changed over a year ago when I tasted the currywurst at Three Brits Public House near Stanley Park. The flavour was similar to the acclaimed sausages found at WVRST, the Toronto eatery that started the currywurst craze in this country when it debuted in 2012.
Starting in Vancouver, Stewart and the company’s other menu development chef, Sarah Stewart (no relation), began overhauling the kitchen operations one location at a time. Some of the changes, like the currywurst, were examples of adding items that had gained popularity in recent years. Others, such as the chicken wings served at the Butcher & Bullock, a bar in Vancouver’s financial district, were more ambitious. Removed from the menu were the wings with several flavour options and they were replaced with a single flavour of salt and pepper. It was a change that was met with resistance.
“Our aim became to focus on something people can identify with and then make it extra special. We tried 30 different variations of chicken wings before we settled on the one being served at outlets like Butcher & Bullock,” Chris Stewart said.
The wings look like pretty much any breaded chicken wing you’ve ever seen but the flavour is perfect, without grease and with an exact spice blend that will keep anyone noshing and drinking whatever craft beer you’ve settled on. Chris Stewart has also reimagined the popular Guinness Pie, putting bits of puff pastry on the inside of the bowl, rather than surrounding it, and helped introduce a number of salads in Toronto and Vancouver.
All of that effort means pub food looks much different in two of the nation’s largest cities than it did as recently as two years ago. The Walrus, which has 700 seats, is thriving in the country’s leading downtown and is a proving ground for what the Donnelly Group wants to do as it looks to broaden further.
“We use Toronto as a jumping board,” Chris Stewart says. “The diners in Toronto are more adventurous and also the Donnelly Group restaurants have a different identity in Toronto than in Vancouver, where these bars and restaurants have been around for years in some cases. Toronto’s fresh for us. We think our excitement for being there shows.”