At 25 years old, Splendido is a Toronto institution. It's one of the restaurants that introduced the city to the idea of a tasting menu, and one of the few to carry on in recent years while other spots turned to simpler fare.
For the past decade, chef Victor Barry has worked its storied stoves: He's been the restaurant's sole owner since 2013, proudly serving exacting, impressive dishes such as a single carrot cooked and basted for five hours until it glistens in its own caramelized sugars, offering up a meaty but yielding texture. Barry has been open about his willingness to sacrifice everything in pursuit of fine-dining perfection – but now he's changed his mind.
On the heels of Splendido being named the country's fifth-best restaurant by a panel determining Canada's 100 best restaurants, Barry has decided to end its illustrious, quarter-century run. He'll be closing this New Year's Eve. The 33-year-old chef isn't done cooking by any means, but right now he's in pursuit of something we can all relate to: a little work-life balance.
Talk a little bit about your history at Splendido – you took over the restaurant in 2009 with a partner, then became sole owner in 2013.
I was 26 when I signed the deal to buy Splendido, which is ridiculous. I couldn't afford to buy a restaurant at that age, but [previous owners] Yannick [Bigourdan] and David [Lee] were planning to move on. It was a beautiful opportunity: for me to own a restaurant, for them to get out of one, to move on with their careers and for me to start mine. The price of the restaurant was a number that I couldn't really comprehend. I didn't own a house, I had a motorcycle; I had nothing to lose except for my own pride.
So why close now?
Torontonians want [this style of dining], that's why we're busy and fully booked on Friday and Saturday nights. It's not a financial reason, it really isn't. It's to change a way of life.
But as you grow and mature – I have two daughters and a wife – you realize that you don't have to cook tasting menus to be the best restaurant. A restaurant at this level needs full commitment: 14 hours a day, five days a week. Even if [I make it home by] 11 at night, my wife might be in bed by 11:45, but I'm back on my computer at 12, looking at pictures of restaurants and food, getting inspiration from around the world. There's always something you can do more, be better, more cost effective, saving the restaurant money by doing things yourself like snaking a drain.
I just had my 10th anniversary working at Splendido and the restaurant is coming up on its 25th anniversary. It will always be remembered as one of those iconic restaurants of Toronto. As a business owner and a responsible husband, I feel that making this decision now is better than later. I don't want to have the coup de grâce where I can't do something after this, where I feel like I let Splendido down.
Have you done everything you wanted to do here?
When we first started the tasting menus, we were doing too much, trying too hard. But we've matured, and have found this beautiful spot where we can do 42 covers and not break a sweat, where the dining experience goes at a beautiful pace. Nothing is left to chance. I honestly don't think we can do anything more, or at this time in my life, anything more to make it better than it is right now.
Closing now seems like a drastic decision.
It's kind of like cat or dog years, 10 years is like 30 years. The thought and creativity process is really the draining part of the business. It's about finding new suppliers all the time, and being the first person, because as soon as one person has it, everyone has it. It's about having the relationship with the best fish supplier, a farmer – buying them dinner so that we can get the best products. It's a constant juggling act of a hundred things every single day.
That's owning a restaurant for everyone across the board. But when we're talking about the expectations of someone who's coming in at $180 for dinner – it's expensive; I mean, dinner for two, you're in around $650, tax and tip in. That comes with an extreme amount of expectations. That's a lot of pressure that I thrive on.
The last six months, I haven't been able to give Splendido my full attention for personal reasons. I lost my dad last year – that was a huge wake-up call. All I've done for the last 17 years is work. I've missed funerals, weddings, birthdays, celebrations, graduations, the birth of my brother's kids, my sister's kids. My favourite cousin's wedding because we were opening Splendido at the time. That's crazy talk.
Let's talk about the five-hour carrot, and what it means to be a dish on Splendido's menu.
We took carrots and coriander – a classic combination – and then we started cooking carrots different ways. We started trying to salt-bake it with coriander seed. We tried to boil it then roast it on the grill. We tried to smoke it in the green egg. And then we decided to get it nice and golden brown in a cast iron pan, then put it in the oven with a gastrique of ginger, coriander and honey. //
Whoever's taking care of the carrot is responsible for brushing and turning it a quarter, every 10 minutes for five hours. It's the first thing that starts every morning. That's just one dish out of 18. Only two bites. If you were to think of the man hours, the thought and time that went into that one dish, it's crazy. I love it, it's amazing and I'll do tasting menus still after this restaurant, but not on an everyday basis.
Do you agree that there is an increasing desire for a healthy work-life balance in the modern workplace, and that restaurateurs are starting to make changes to redefine standards?
It's not just restaurateurs; it's a new generation of people. The idea of the 40-hour work week is dissolving. Some people work as much as they need to work to get the job done.
This change is personal, for myself and for my family life, but I want that to trickle down to everyone who works for me as well.
Do you have big plans for December 31?
I want to be surrounded by people that I know and love, and I want to celebrate 25 years of Splendido. Everything comes to an end. And that's not a negative. Am I sad about it? Absolutely. Is New Year's Eve going to be super emotional? It totally is. I will cry on New Year's Eve.
This interview has been condensed and edited.