If you ask any bartender where you need to get a drink in Toronto, without fail the name BarChef comes up. Opened in 2008 Bar Chef and it’s owner/creative force Frankie Solarik have made a huge impact on the city and on drinks in general. His incredibly well thought-out modern cocktails are stunning works of art. Frankie took the time to chat with us about his attitude and approach to making “drinks”.
Bartender Atlas: In what year did you start bartending?
Frankie Solarik: I started bartending when I was 18 years old, I’m 37 now, so what’s that 1998?
BA: What style of bartending were you doing when you started?
FS: It was very simple. I was at The Cigar Box in London, Ontario. There was a huge emphasis on Cognac and single malts. Even still there was some demand for classic cocktails like Manhattans and Old Fashioneds.
BA: Had you considered opening a business before BarChef? How was the concept different?
FS: I was very involved with the creative process where I was at the time and it hadn’t crossed my mind to make that change. I just thought “do what I can with the craft” of where I was working at the time. I was still pretty young. It was my business partner Brent and my other business partner Billy who really brought it up as being a realistic option, and I got super excited about the idea of it.
BA: In 2008 when BarChef opened, cities like London and New York were falling in love with classic cocktails using all natural ingredients, with BarChef you went a different direction. Was there any one reason for that, or was it a confluence of influences?
FS: To be honest, with me, even before BarChef, it was always the reason I do what I do, it’s a very personal expression. It was the idea of not being limited to what had been done before but creating essentially, my own voice, my own approach towards the craft. Back in 2007 and even 2006 I was starting infusions, incorporating a lot of spices and herbs for making bitters and flavoured syrups and things like that. Even at that time I wasn’t aware of flavoured syrups and that being used in cocktails. Since day one it was the idea of creating a brand new expression with the drinks that I create.
BA: Were you hoping that Toronto might get on board with your modernist approach? Were you secretly hoping for copy cats?
FS: Since day one with BarChef, it has always been a very personal experience. It’s literally an extension of what’s going on inside of me creatively. It never was about creating a new following or anything like that. It was strictly based on an artistic expression and creating an experience for the guest.
BA: You came from a bartending background, but so much of what BarChef specializes in is heavily influenced by kitchen and cooking techniques, where did you pick up these skills? And which came first, the idea to use these skills, or the idea for the drinks?
FS: I had zero experience. Like, none. It was natural evolution of incorporating new ingredients and new techniques. I approach it as “This is what I want to do, now how do I do it?”. We have a dish called The Apricot, where I came across the service piece first and I wanted to work with the flavour profile of apricot so it was the idea of creating edible bites that created a specific texture, flavour profile in the mouth and being able to present it in that service piece. A lot of the time, the modernist stuff starts with a visual reference or a reference of a flavour profile of an ingredient that I want to showcase or a story that I want to tell. Then I work backwards. With The Apricot, I had never worked with dehydrated meringues or anything like that, I was literally starting from scratch as to how to make a meringue sphere. Every single step of that dish was “well, let’s try it.” Then we dialled it in, right down to the gram of sugar, then we multiply by batch and let them set for 7 hours…it’s crazy. But there is no other way, this is how the dish expresses itself, so that’s what we do.
BA: Wow, that’s intense. How do you feel about bars and bartenders that focus on pre-prohibition, tiki or other vintage cocktail styles? Do you find inspiration in classic styles of cocktails?
FS: I have a lot of respect for anyone taking their craft to a personal and passionate level. If you are doing that then you are doing what you need to be doing. That’s the necessary component in life, to do things with love and with passion. I am very respectful of people that want to make the perfect classic cocktails or have the perfect tiki style. I appreciate that 100 percent. For me personally, my approach has been to create a new perspective, work with new ingredients, new flavour profiles, a new approach. With that, the classic definition of a cocktail doesn’t apply to the approach that I take. I have a lot of respect for the craft in general and I think it’s amazing with what’s happening in the industry both behind the bar, considering professionalism and people doing the best they can to learn what they can about these drinks and ingredients, to find out what they are working with. Even the tools and techniques. I think it’s awesome and it’s the natural evolution of the industry.
BA: When I have seen you out, you will often drink bourbon & Coke or lagers. Besides personal taste, do you drink simpler drinks when you go out because you equate cocktails with work?
FS: To be 100 percent honest with you, it’s just something that I enjoy. It’s simple. Because I have so much going on in my head all the time with what I am doing from aromatics, visual presentation, concepts etc…At any given time, like right now, I am just finalizing next season’s menu and just starting the following season so there are all these things constantly going on in my head. For example, one of the summer items has hundreds of components in the one presentation. At Bar Chef we have all these weights of ingredients we are working with, so when I order a Jack and Coke, people get a kick out of it. But to be honest, it’s just simple and I can enjoy that.
BA: Your book came out about 3 years ago and I know that you are often asked to do events but have you got any plans to expand what you have done with Bar Chef?
FS: Right now Brent and I are putting an emphasis on the catering side of the business. We feel we have a lot to offer with our approach and what we do. We are working on how to execute that. Developing BarChef catering is essentially another business. Also, ever since the BuzzFeed thing came out, it has been unbelievable, man. The response internationally has been crazy. I am getting asked to do talks in Costa Rica and talks for executives for huge corporations and one offer to speak to 1500 people in Texas. We are always interested in seeing what we can do with different opportunities that are presented to us. At the end of the day, BarChef is such a beautiful and special place so I don’t know if that can ever be replicated on a mass scale but it’s really entertaining some of the opportunities that are coming in, for sure. The whole team, we’re very excited. The bartenders showing up 2 hours before we open and the kitchen guys excited about something they saw on Chef’s Table. You know, people being passionate about the industry and the work environment. There is no Bar Chef without the amount of passion in the entire team from our dishwasher up to our management.
Thanks to Frankie again for taking the time to talk with us.
You can find Frankie here: @barcheftoronto