Born in Paris, the tellement French and very charming Chef Romain Avril always knew he was destined to be in the kitchen. From a very young age, Avril’s passion for cooking was evident, tugging at both him and at the apron strings at his godfather’s local bakery. At the tender age of 18, Avril began his career at the Relais & Châteaux Domaine de la Bretesche outside Nantes and then crossed the English Channel to Mayfair and the 2-starred The Greenhouse. He then made his way across the Atlantic to Toronto where he worked as Executive Chef at Le Saint-Tropez, Marcel’s and Le Zazou. He then managed the kitchen at the now-defunct Colborne Lane Restaurant before moving to Origin North as the Chef de Cuisine with Master Chef Canada’s Claudio Aprile. Finalement, il est arrivé comme Executive Chef at the Bloor Street French bistro La Societé. We spoke with the charismatic and handsome Frenchman to get his thoughts on the real role of French food in Toronto, his undying love for his home country and some recent changes in his professional life.
I think you have some news for us?
Yes, I have just accepted a position as Corporate Chef for Peter Freed’s new hospitality group TRADEMARK. I will be responsible for all their venues and start this summer with the rooftop of the Thompson Residences and a second location in the fall. The location is truly one of a kind and which Peter Freed describes as “the best site in the whole of downtown Toronto”.
You were just two years in since assuming the kitchen at La Societé from a rather staid and in our opinion, boring version of what French food is. Why have you decided to leave and pursue the TRADEMARK gig?
I spent two wonderful years at La Societé as Executive Chef, working with a great team but it was time for me to pursue something bigger and better. Being in charge of several venues and doing my own, creative food was crucial in my decision. I didn’t have to think twice, the project is incredible and fitting my expectations of where and what I want to do for my career. Under Peter Freed, I will be working for a successful man who knows what he wants and who has made a name for himself, which is something that I greatly admire. I want to follow in his footsteps with my career path.
I have heard that you may have been frustrated with the lack of opportunity to create your style of cooking at La Societé. Is this true of all kitchens that are attached to a corporate chain?
It is difficult. When I received the offer of the La Societé position, Charles Khabouth was clear and honest about the fact that he wanted French classic brasserie food. It is obviously not my style and I “thought” for two years and tried to incorporate my own, personal touch. But eventually, I had to give it up to him which is totally fair and create a typical menu that was representing the brand and his wishes.
How would you describe your style of cooking? What is a typical Romain Avril dish?
I would classify myself as French fusion/modern. I have tried cooking molecular but gave up on that but wanted to keep the technicality of the process. I wouldn’t say there is a typical Romain dish but I always look for balance, texture and harmony of flavours in every dish I create (crispy, acid, sweet, crunchy, light, rich and so on).
What’s one of your earliest food-related memories?
It would have to be going to my grandparent’s house when I was still in Paris on vacation and have them cooking amazing dinners as well as staying at my godfather’s bakery and waking up in the morning to the warm, amazing smell of croissants and bread.
Tell me about an average day?
I am a methodical person. Every day starts with a coffee and a morning walk with my dogs, checking social media before work. Looking at my emails and writing my to-do list for the day as soon as I get to work. Then I will say hello to all my employees and check up on them. Followed by going to the host stand, looking at reservations and VIP and then my day start with cooking, calling lunch service, paperwork in the afternoon and dinner service. When service is over, I would wrap up saying goodbye and give everyone feedback from the day. Now time to go home and relax, an average day is about 12 hours for me.
What does food mean to you?
Food is everything; it is my career, my art, my passion. I live for it, and it guides my existence. I wouldn’t be happier doing anything else.
These days, local sustainability and the over-used concept of foraging seem to be an integral part of any kitchen’s big plan. However, this doesn’t appear to be a very French concept. Do you consider yourself a ‘wild food’ or “foraging expert”? How French will be your new menu at the Thompson? Farm to Fork? Do you subscribe to the ‘100 Mile Diet’ food concept?
Well, it is not a very French concept because it’s part of the French culture: all products used in France come from local farms or a local producer. It is already part of the food systems. We are a smaller country so everything will come from 100 miles away regardless. Also, each region has so much to offer; there is no need to import or try to do what the other region does. The locality and regional aspect to the menu of a French chef are essential. It’s not even a concept back home nor they would understand it as it is common to us. I am all about using local produce and farmers and using seasonality and what is available to us. However, I would consider adding Asian or South American ingredients or other regions of the world to extend the idea of true farm to fork. I would lie if I said I enjoyed hunting and spending time in the wild or even foraging, however, I love how passionate people are about it, and I love to learn or hang out with my supplier and listen to them and their knowledge. It’s fascinating! The new menu at the Thompson will be French as I am cooking French, meaning the base and technique and root are there but I am a traveller and so is my food. This is my food ethic: I believe in the mix of culture in cooking and life.
What do you do when you’re not cooking?
Sports are my second passion, I spend a lot of time watching and catching up on it. Honestly, I am an addict! I also spend lots of time with my two dogs Chelsea and Brady and my lovely other half, Christina.
What’s the one food you absolutely cannot stand?
I am not a huge fan of Tex/Mex food but what I dislike is pretentious food that tastes of nothing. Pretty food is not always yummy. I know most chefs would answer junk food, but the truth is everyone enjoys a good greasy burger (not every day of course).
You’ve eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world; I’m sure. Where has been your most memorable meal?
It’s going to sound crazy but last summer I met one of my mentor Thierry Marx and had an incredible meal at his restaurant, Sur Mesure at The Mandarin Oriental in Paris. We then went to Italy and we stayed at a villa in a small village in Tuscany. We went to a little restaurant in the middle of nowhere and the food was fantastic, simple and authentic. I also enjoyed seafood the most and a dinner at my mum’s house eating fresh langoustine caught by my uncle is comparable to heaven.
Who do you draw inspiration from in the industry?
As I mentioned previously, Thierry Marx and Michel Bras are my two mentors and inspiration in cooking. In Toronto, I have so much respect for Michael Bonacini and Claudio Aprile; I drew my inspiration for success and my business mind from them.
Any advice for those who want to make cooking a profession?
Don’t be foolish and know where to stand. You need to start from the bottom and respect your peers and your superiors to get somewhere in this industry. Hard work, sweat and tears, a good education and not assuming you have made it, EVER. As someone said once “you are only as good as your last dish.”
Finally, what does the future hold, food-wise at the Thompson Hotel?
That you will have to wait and see and try yourself 🙂 I look forward to hosting all of you this summer.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Picture: courtesy of Chef Romain Avril.