Q + A with chef Walid El-Tawel as he leaves for Toronto

Q + A with chef Walid El-Tawel as he leaves for Toronto

Within 36 hours, what began as a trip to attend a wedding in Toronto wound up as a life-changing adventure for the talented chef at Restaurant E18hteen

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MAY 04 14 – 2 PM — Walid El-Tawel, 27, the bright young chef who early this year brought the coveted CAA/AAA four-diamond award to Restaurant E18hteen in the ByWard Market, is leaving Ottawa for a new adventure in Toronto. His last day here is on May 20 — seven years to the day he arrived at the upscale, fine dining restaurant at 18 York St.

urbantoronto-9897-35054In Toronto, El-Tawel, a 2006 graduate of the Algonquin College culinary arts program, will be one of two sous chefs at the new 12,000-square-foot, 300-seat Montecito restaurant opening in early June in the city’s Theatre District. Montecito is owned by acclaimed chef Jonathan Waxman of Barbuto, known for its accomplished rustic Italian cuisine in Manhattan’s West Village, and Canadian-born filmmaker Ivan Reitman, who directed such movies as Ghostbusters and Stripes.

He will work directly under Toronto head chefs Gaetano Ferrara, formerly of Scarpetta restaurant, and Matthew Robertson, whose cheffing pedigree includes stints at Reds Midtown Tavern, the Ritz-Carlton TOCA, and Canoe.

El-Tawel was appointed executive chef at E18hteen in May 2012 to replace Matthew Carmichael, former executive chef of six years and now owner/operator of El Camino on Elgin Street. His replacement at E18hteen has not yet been named.

Born in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to a British mother and Palestinian father, El-Tawel previously spent four years under Carmichael before his promotion. He moved to Canada in 2000, and during a high school co-op program he met executive chef Russ Weir at the Sheraton Ottawa, and Marcel Mundel at the Fairmont Château Laurier.

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Above, executive chef Walid El-Tawel with sous chef Ashton Harvey in the kitchen at Restaurant E18hteen. El-Tawel’s replacement here has not yet been named.

“Hanging out with my grandma, mom and aunts in the kitchen, I still remember on Fridays having dinner with the whole family — roughly 25 to 30 people,” El-Tawel said, in my earlier 2012 interview.

“Mom is an amazing chef who learned from my grandmother, which is where my training started. The cuisine I grew up with is very flavourful with lots of depth, lots of spices.”

The CAA/AAA four-diamond distinction was the first addition to the exclusive list among Ottawa restaurants in seven years, and identifies a dining room “geared to providing individuals with a distinctive fine-dining experience.”

Below, a slightly edited version of my question-and-answer session with the talented chef conducted Saturday, not 24 hours after he announced his departure. Here, he speaks candidly about his new adventure, how it came together literally within hours, his dedication to the craft, and advice for up-and-comers in the hospitality industry.

Congratulations, chef. We will certainly miss you.

IMG_2612Ron Eade: This sounds like an exciting opportunity for you. How exactly did it come about?

Walid El-Tawel: It literally came together last week in the space of about 36 hours. From start to finish.

I was in Toronto to attend a wedding last Sunday, and planned to stay there a couple more days to eat. So I was out to dinner with old friends on Tuesday, and we talked.

I’ve been ready to move on for awhile, but I always wanted it to be purposeful and meaningful and it had to be something big. We have 120 seats in the restaurant at E18hteen, and I wanted something bigger where I could develop and grow.

So I found out there is this new restaurant, Montecito, opening with someone I idolized, chef Jonathan Waxman. While I don’t know him personally, I’ve heard about his restaurants, I’ve heard about what he’s done, I’ve seen him on TV. His restaurant in New York is Barbuto, and he was at cutting-edge Chez Panisse in California. He’s won James Beard awards, Best Restaurant of the Year, Best Chef …

The other investor is Canadian filmmaker Ivan Reitman, who lives in Montecito, California; hence the restaurant name.

So I found out chef Gaetano Ferrara of the former Scarpetta restaurant in the Thompson Hotel, and chef Matthew Robertson, executive chef at Reds Midtown Tavern, former sous chef at Ritz-Carlton’s TOCA and former sous at Canoe restaurant in Toronto, were going to be his executive chefs at Montecito.

Eade: Did you know either of them until now?

El-Tawel: I’ve heard of both, but had never met them.

Eade: Then how did you wind up with the job?

El-Tawel: Like I said, I have friends who moved to Toronto in the hospitality industry. We were chatting at dinner, I told them I was exploring new opportunities and what-not. They asked how long will I be in Toronto and I said I have tomorrow, which would be Wednesday. So they set me up with a meeting with Matt and Gaetano at the construction site of the new restaurant.

I was overwhelmed by how nice both these guys are. We went through the paces, we went for a walk and we asked each other questions. I saw the space and, well, it’s really something. It’s going to be crazy, it’s gigantic, 300 seats. The kitchen is six or seven times the size of my kitchen at E18hteen.

There are two head chefs – Matt and Gaetano – and two sous chefs, I’m one of them. The other hasn’t been announced yet. All I know is he’s very talented and went through the paces as I did.

They’re starting with 30 cooks and building on that, depending on how many we need. We’re starting with just dinner service. We take occupancy on June 2 …

Eade: They hired you on the spot?

El-Tawel: No, there were three interviews. One on the construction site with the chefs, then with the general manager, Jimson Bienenstock, then with the director of operations Mike Young. This is all within a span of 36 hours. It was very fast-moving.

So I went to Toronto on Sunday for a wedding, expected to stay a few days beyond that and return to work Friday. Everything was done Wednesday and Thursday, when I was offered the job. I had to move fast.

When I heard the concept, met the chefs and saw their vision, it just felt right in my heart and in my stomach.

Eade: So, when Gold Medal Plates announced about 10 days ago you are among 10 contestants in the Ottawa competition in November, none of this was on the horizon?

El-Tawel: I had no idea. I don’t want to anger anyone by withdrawing from Gold Medal Plates, but people have to understand this is a lifetime opportunity. I even started planning for Gold Medal Plates.

Eade: What will be the style of cuisine, as Babuto in New York has been described as rustic Italian?

El-Tawel: This will be extremely local. We’re talking direct from farms, we’re talking farmers’ markets, off-the-cuff cuisine.

Eade: You mean you’ll be shopping at Kensington and St. Lawrence markets?

El-Tawel: Yes, and farmers from the surrounding boroughs will be dropping off at the restaurant. We have farmers on board right now. I’m meeting them on May 25, when I start my new job, to work through logistics.

There’s going to be a chalkboard menu with what they call off-the-cuff cuisine. There will be no printed menus. It will be hyper-local food. And we’ll be using Organic Oceans sustainable seafood.

Ivan Reitman’s philosophy is to use organic, local, sustainable and ecologically friendly food that doesn’t have much of a carbon footprint. His food will reflect that, and chef Waxman is the same.

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Eade: What exactly will your role be as a sous chef?

El-Tawel: Between myself and the other sous chef I think we’ll be in charge of ordering and stuff like that. On the food level, chefs Gaetano and Matt told me about the importance of us sitting down daily to devise menus. So I’ll be part of the food development, and also the maintenance of the cooks and developing them with training programs. You have 30 individuals, each with their own personalities and characteristics, and that means there’s a lot of micro-managing. I don’t think Gaetano or Matt will have time to do that.

Eade: How will this be a transition for you, after running the kitchen at E18hteen?

El-Tawel: It’s a refreshing move. For me, the whole shift in gears doesn’t really mean that much. If you talk to my staff they’ll say I’m not someone to be feared, I listen to people. Every person in the kitchen has a voice, an opinion, which they are entitled to express. Collectively we make decisions, but it’s always for the betterment of the food.

We work together to create good food, and that’s all that matters to me. That’s paramount – the best food, the best service to me is most important. I don’t see taking a job as sous chef is a step down, I honestly don’t.

Eade: To what extent did getting a CAA/AAA four-diamond award this year help land you this job?

El-Tawel: I’m sure it helped. They didn’t mention it, but it’s at the top of my resume. I had literally two hours to go home and update my resume, which I hadn’t done in seven years since I came to E18hteen. In fact, it will be seven years exactly on May 20, the day I leave this position. How wild is that?

Eade: Who will be taking over at E18hteen? Your sous chef, Ashton Harvey?

El-Tawel: I have no idea. I’m very confident in the ability of the owners, Caroline Gosselin and Peter Boole, to make the right choice …

walid-portritEade: What surprised you most during your years at E18hteen?

El-Tawel: The overwhelming support from everybody – the community, local chefs, my staff, my managers, from people like you. Everybody. I’m getting positive support and loyalty from everyone who tell me that if I need anything in this transition please let them know. Their support for me was the motivation to push on to do the next best thing – to strive for four diamonds. I was hoping to be named to the Top 30 list of best chefs under age 30 in Canada. I haven’t made it yet, but I have three more years to work at it.

That loyalty and support drove me to do more because I knew people were watching, and I perform well when they’re watching. I wanted to make people proud by contributing to the food scene in Ottawa.

Eade: Any parting thoughts as you leave?

El-Tawel: The food scene is progressing fast in Ottawa. Even five years ago, we didn’t have more than a dozen good restaurants. Now we have a lot, with more opening all the time. The Ottawa dining scene is constantly evolving, which is nice because it’s not stagnant.

On a personal level, I’m going to miss the feeling of community with local chefs. There are no bitter rivalries. The small-scene part means you can see a chef on the street and say hello because you know each other. It’s not like in other cities where you have no idea who is the chef at another restaurant.

Eade: Any advice for up-and-coming chefs in the hospitality business?

El-Tawel: Plant your feet and go hard. Work at a restaurant and give it all you got.

Eade: But there are certain realities of the business, the long hours and working when your friends are out playing. Being a chef with those hours is pretty tough on relationships

El-Tawel: You must realize that at the beginning. You have to know at the outset you will make a lot of sacrifices, like not being able to go to a doctor when you want a checkup because you’re working. If you’re sick, you’re going to work because that’s the way it is. You’re going to work nights and when your buddies are out partying. You’re going to work when your family is having dinner together.

This industry is very demanding, very, and the only way you’ll succeed – as cold as this may sound – is to direct your blinders and just go for it, because nothing around you matters. Your guests and the hospitality industry are the only things that matter for a chef to succeed.

Family and support is huge – that’s what helped me. Job One is making sure you have a solid foundation of support with understanding friends and family. And what time you do spend with family and friends will be so precious. I’m very tight with my family, and for me Sundays are special with my parents, brothers and sisters  because I don’t see them the whole week.

Eade: You’re not married …

El-Tawel: No. One of the nice things about moving to Toronto is the fact I have no luggage, no baggage let’s say. I’m going debt-free with no wife, no children. My mother was upset that I’m leaving because, well, she’s my mother. But, again, she’s very supportive. That support will be missed because I’m down to three or four friends in Toronto.

I’ve already found accommodation with a friend who owns a house; I signed the lease this morning in the Danforth area with easy access to the subway. It all fell together so quickly. It was difficult to put in my notice and tell my staff. Now the hard part starts.

My employers here took the news so well, and I am so lucky to have worked with Caroline and Peter. They told me they knew they couldn’t keep my talents forever and we so happy for me. They’re the best owners I have ever worked for.

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Twitter: @roneade
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