It took Chef Steve Gonzalez and his team at downtown Toronto’s Baro about three years to formulate and build their newest addition the restaurant – an outdoor kitchen on their rooftop patio overlooking the city.
Chef Gonzalez set out to create the feeling that a customer had been transported to an exotic locale in Latin America without ever having to step off of the King Street streetcar line. In addition to the open-air space that seats 85, there is an enclosed glass patio area that features a sleek bar with seating for 35.
As you arrive, if you look to your left, you’ll find the chef busy BBQ’ing. Inspired by his travels to Uruguay and Argentina where he witnessed the bustling markets, and hawker stalls cook street food, Chef Gonzalez decided to bring this experience back to Baro. To best convey the authentic feel he wants, the outdoor kitchen space showcases a nine-foot barbeque pit and grill that uses wood only – no gas, no charcoal.
The result is food that Chef Gonzalez calls, “primal”, “aggressive” and “charred”. The chicken wings come out of the kitchen crispy and blackened and the ribs are delivered to your plate with a delicious smoky scent.
Chef Gonzalez was yearning to get back into the kitchen, to really feel the experience of creation and cooking and this is evident in the outdoor kitchen. The space is unique in the saturated Toronto market. And knowing how much Canadians love a patio, it’s easy to envision the space packed on a warm summer day. However, that doesn’t mean that the three-year long journey was smooth sailing.
We asked Chef Gonzalez to tell us more about the outdoor kitchen and what others can take away from his experience in designing this one-of-a-kind space.
You’re going to get wet
While the space is somewhat covered and water and windproof, the truth is, you’ll probably still get wet. In Canada’s (and Toronto’s) temperamental climate, even the summer time doesn’t guarantee consistent sunny and warm days. Expect chilly days well into June, non-stop rain for what seems like days on end followed up by blistering hot and humid weather the next week.
On the consumer end, the indoor patio space enclosed by glass is key to keeping customers happy. Guests can still enjoy sweeping views alongside a watermelon cocktail and a charred bite while they keep cozy from inside.
One of the biggest issues his team has had to deal with – is ensuring that wood is kept dry. As mentioned, the kitchen uses wood only. They go through about a bush cord of wood every two weeks and keeping it dry, so as to not exceed budgets or be left in a tight spot, is essential.
Unfortunately, accepting the circumstances is half the battle. While you can work with the area to provide coverage or shade, Chef Gonzalez and his team have had to ‘weather’ (excuse the pun) the conditions outside. For Chef Gonzalez, this return to the elements is worth it and part of the overall ‘primal’ experience.
A dream team is everything
Murphy’s Law states, “If something can go wrong, it will”. And building the outdoor kitchen or Baro, was no exception to the rule. Projects don’t always go according to plan and it can be a struggle to complete them. You can’t predict changes or issues arising, but you can learn from them. Chef Gonzalez credits his time at Valdez with giving him the time and opportunity to learn and experiment.
At Valdez, the team focused on street food. They put their time into learning and embracing the cuisine. At Baro, Chef Gonzalez retains the street food roots, but had elevated the dishes for a more refined approach. The time spent at Valdez prepped the team for what was to come. And as they moved on to Baro, having that base knowledge meant that they could more easily roll with the punches and build on previous experience.
Of course, without a supportive and talented staff, the patio would have never come to fruition. Having a trusted staff that is able to act autonomously and handle major tasks is integral to the success of the restaurant and overcoming obstacles.
As Chef Gonzalez stated, “The only reason we are seeing the success we are today, is because of the team we’ve built at the restaurant. They believed in this vision and I am so thankful for the support they have given me as a Chef and a leader. I am able to focus on recipe development and providing Toronto something different because of this team.”
The kitchen determines the dishes
It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention, and taking away all cooking methods except for wood-burning has allowed the Baro team to flex their creativity. Like Chef Gonzalez says, the Baro rooftop is a return to primal cooking, by doing so, the team has been able to revisit old techniques or think about how to change or adjust their cooking to fit the new model- in each case, providing something new to the customer.
For instance, just take a look at their wood choices. The Baro rooftop uses ash and maple wood. The choice in wood has attributed to the menu and the flavour of dishes. Maple wood is more easily found and it burns hot, long, and strong. Ash wood produces a steady flame a strong heat output. The wood helps to deliver that “charred” taste (charred, never burnt) on the outside, with a juicy instead.
As they deal with the environment, the team has worked with their surroundings when developing the menu. As soon as the outdoor grill was installed on the roof, the team began to test recipes. This took time, and though the weather didn’t always cooperate, the team stuck it out with lots of trial and error.
Creating an experience pays off
According to Chef Gonzalez, the typical Toronto consumer is “always asking for more”. “They want the best,” he says. Presented with a fickle audience, Chef Gonzalez has created a cohesive space and menu, with a point of differentiation that grabs and attracts the typical Toronto customer.
With the short Canadian summers, Torontonians crave sunshine whenever they can get it, flocking to outdoor spaces. Setting this patio apart from the others, is not only the rooftop view, but the outdoor kitchen. The smell of BBQ is a quintessential summer experience. And a rooftop patio is prime real estate for a Toronto summer. I can’t imagine a better combination than patio, BBQ, and cocktails for a July weekend in the city.