The Chef Upstairs // Judge Foodie

Following mingling and cocktails, it's time to get cooking

By Kirsten Thompson

On Monday March 26th, 2012


The Chef Upstairs
516 Mount Pleasant Rd., Toronto | 416-544-9221 |


The firm’s client event was to be an “interactive dinner,” premised on the idea that you and the client bond over the shared experience of preparing and serving a meal. Herding an important client into a room with sharp knives, open flame and free-flowing alcohol seemed to have some obvious drawbacks, but I kept quiet.

Surprisingly, it was actually a great opportunity to get to know the client — the concept levels the playing field: VPs were shoulder-to-shoulder with junior associates, and both were equally clueless (chives should be cut on the diagonal? Really? Who knew?) In addition, the food here is solid, and at least as good as any you’d find in the downtown core.

Owned by the sibling team of Lori and Greg Heller, with backgrounds in event planning and wine/food respectively, The Chef Upstairs’ concept is that your group helps a bona fide chef prepare and serve a meal. Menus can be customized, by season, cuisine, ethnic or religious preferences or any other theme.The emphasis is on local and organic ingredients, with each course paired with wine (you have the option of bringing your own wine).

There are professional serving staff — who were excellent — but the interactive part requires that you serve each menu item to your group, as well as introduce it.

The space itself is well thought out. A large curved bar runs lengthwise through much of the upstairs and serves as both as a place from which to watch your colleagues prepare the meal and as a seating area when it is time to dine. A large round dining table and some lounge seating is also available. The Chef Upstairs can also accommodate a large game-time crowd (the space features two large screen HDTVs) or an evening of mega-mix favourites (there’s an iPod docking station so you can channel your inner DJ for your particular event).

Our chef was the gracious René Brunet, who didn’t seem to mind that he was about to be “assisted” by 20 folks who were more at home with an APA than an AGA.

After the initial mingling and cocktails, Chef René provided some instructions on washing your hands (do) and running with knives (don’t), and we were off. Typically the menu includes appetizers, a seasonal salad or soup, the main, and dessert. Though Chef René had done most of the heavy lifting, we would be assisting in the final preparation of each course. For this, we broken into groups of four.

The first course was cream of squash soup with a caramelized diced Vidalia onion, sweet potato and parsnip. Chives, chopped carefully by the first nervous group of four, were sprinkled masterfully over top. Then, after an intermezzo of lime sorbet (hand-formed into quenelles by four proud lawyers), the main course was ready: beef medallions with a grilled red pepper port sauce topped with shallots, and a sauté of wild mushrooms and wild rice. Seared and salted by another bunch of rookies, the beef medallions were good but nothing here was unique or adventurous.

Dessert was a deconstructed apple torte — basically a flaky pastry crust and  a chunky apple sauce. The deconstruction here also included an aged cheddar tuile (think of the baked cheese that’s left on the plate of nachos after the nachos are gone) and a small container of cream. While not an extraordinary dessert, I would certainly have it again.

Though the food presentation may be a bit rough and the service somewhat less than professional, this is balanced by the fact that the food tastes better because, darn it, you made it. And while you might be tempted to grouse about the waiter’s thumb in the soup, that temptation vanishes when the waiter is the guy who is paying your bills.

Judge Foodie’s verdict:

Highs: Excellent client bonding experience for all members of the firm, especially for juniors

Lows: The experience wouldn’t work for every client; diners must be forgiving of minor slips in presentation, service; a bit far from the downtown core.

Kirsten Thompson is a Toronto-based research lawyer and commercial litigator. Since her call to the bar in 2000, she estimates that her restaurant to courtroom ratio is approximately 14:1.