“But some things remain”
Behind the Boîte with Jacob Wharton-Shukster, owner of Parkdale’s Chantecler
PARKDALE PERSONALITIES EDITION — By MARTA S
15-second, deliciously snackable video filmed & edited by Carrie Hayden.
Jacob Wharton-Shukster is a likeable guy. And his lovely little resto-bar, Chantecler, has been a Parkdale fixture for over four years now. As the landscape around it on the dynamic Queen West Dufferin-Brock block has changed and morphed, with handfuls of little restaurants coming and going and experiencing varying levels of success, it’s survived. It’s thrived. It’s been the nucleus for too many industry-centric nights and post-shift/post-event gatherings to count.
Chantecler is a little beating heart at the social centre of Toronto’s f&b crowd.
Earlier this year, Parkdale breathed a collective sigh of relief when word spread that Chantecler was not, in fact, going to shutter its doors. Jacob and his original business partner, chef Jonathan Poon, had dissolved their partnership in the summer of 2015 and, for a while, Chantecler’s future hung in the balance.
“We were determining what we were going to do — what I was going to do,” Jacob corrects himself, “here. Whether I was going to sell the business or if I was going to keep it going. Basically all of my friends, all of our customers, our families were like, ‘You can’t leave, you’re not allowed to go — this is an important place for the community.’ So I decided to renew it and do something new and really exciting here.”
It’s always risky for a beloved business to undergo a highly publicized revamp — people can be furiously loyal to the old ways, and have an instant distaste for someone trying to re-write the norm. But Jacob — along with his talented new chef and fellow likeable guy, Jesse Mutch (Keriwa Café, Aria) — have struck a deft balance with Chantecler’s revival.
“We completely revamped the entire kitchen program here and created a new concept that’s based on classic French bistro food, done in a family-style, sharing way,” Jacob explains. Chantecler launched their new offerings a month and a half ago, and they — along with the addition of a late-night menu serving until 2am — have been resoundingly well-received.
The fact that the offerings are quite the departure from Chef Poon’s original, Cantonese-inspired menu of old hasn’t seemed to hurt Chantecler a bit. This says something of the quality of execution among the staff in both back- and front-of-house.
I’ve lived around the corner from Chantecler for a few years now. I’ve meant to write about Jacob and his little slice of hospitality heaven for ages. What really spurned me to convince this super busy guy to drop everything one afternoon before another crazy service was when I read Cliff Lee’s piece on Chantecler’s revival in the Globe & Mail.
It’s there that I learned that Jacob and I share a mutually deep love for L’Express, an old-school French bistro on Montréal’s St-Denis strip. That place has been my favourite resto in Montréal since I lived there over ten years ago. Reading that he feels the same — and that L’Express had injected inspiration into Chantecler’s new identity — felt like a sign that it was time to make this piece finally happen.
When I tell Jacob all of this, he truly lights up. “L’Express has the deepest wine list, the greatest old-man waiters, and the most dated, out-of-style, delicious food. I love things that are anachronisms, that sit out of their own time,” he shares energetically. “It’s like going to a living museum of culture that still exists. A lot of things become ‘Epcot Centre’ versions of themselves, but some things remain and are exactly the way they were. It makes me so happy, those things that are a little glimpse into a past way, the way a city used to be. It’s so fucking cool.”
Eloquent, and my sentiments exactly. We’re off to a good start.
The start of service
Jacob grew up in Toronto proper. He only left the city to study Political Science at the University of Guelph. The experience didn’t sit so well with this city kid.
“I don’t think that was really for me,” he says with a small cringe. “I’m from Toronto — born and raised downtown — so it’s a little hard to move to a small town from here. It was weird. I went to Guelph and I was surprised by the small-mindedness and intolerance of some people there. It’s like I didn’t really believe that actually existed in the world.”
Jacob started in the industry after he came home from university, eventually landing a job working with Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner as a server. This is also where he ended up meeting his future business partner, Jonathan.
But anyone who knows Jacob knows he has a real passion and skill for bartending, and the man can handily create some tasty and dynamic cocktails. He got his first taste for creating the unexpected while working with venerable chef Claudio Aprile.
“The cocktail thing started a little later when I was working with Claudio at Origin,” he tells me. “I got really involved there, and he’s a super interesting guy to work with. He’s a lot of fun, and very encouraging of people who want to do interesting and really unique, dynamic things.
“Claudio likes shit that’s going to fuck you up, you know?” Jacob continues with a laugh. “He was always like, ‘This is going to fuck with people!’ Which I really like. There’s something about creating those experiences that are really big, and not soft and subtle, but in your face. The first time you try something and you’re like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ — it’s awesome!”
Coming to roost in Parkdale
At the age of 24, Jacob and Jonathan decided to take a stab at starting their own spot, where they could create those same kinds of experiences on their own terms. “There’s a certain amount of cock-suredness that you have when you’re a 24-year-old moron,” Jacob jokes self-deprecatingly.
The young guns immediately gravitated towards Parkdale.
“We didn’t have a huge budget so we were looking for something small and in a good neighbourhood. This is the neighbourhood we were interested in just because Parkdale is one of the last, real… Well, you live here. How often do you leave Parkdale?” he asks me, pointedly.
“Because I barely do. Which is neat. That’s one of the best parts about being in Toronto. We have the resources of one of the biggest cities in North America, but ultimately you could probably contain all the places people like us go in a two-block radius if you compressed it all down. It’s nice, because it ends up feeling like you know everybody — you have a sense of community. You don’t feel lost in a big city. At least I don’t.”
The pair ended up buying the lease from small sandwich shop Mangez, paying for it out of pocket. Over the course of the next three months, Jacob and his father set to work renovating the space that would eventually house Chantecler (the Canadiana-infused name coming from a heritage breed of chicken native to Oka, Québec — cute, right?).
“We built all the furniture, the bar, the back-bar, updated all the plumbing and electrical — everything. It was a pretty big undertaking,” he says with a hint of pride, glancing around the room. “It’s a little beat up after four years now, I guess.” I tell him I prefer the term “well-loved”.
Locked in our ‘hoods & industry love
Although Jacob admits to being a true-blue Parkdalian that rarely leaves the ‘hood, he tells me it’s precisely this kind of pervasive mentality in Toronto that — while endearing — can present a big challenge to people trying to open new restaurants and bars in the city.
“Toronto’s a little bit big for its britches sometimes,” he says carefully. “It doesn’t have the population density or pressure that other places do to allow certain types of businesses to succeed.” He cites the popular pizzeria Roberta’s in Bushwick in NYC as an example. “It’s rad. And it’s on kind of a side street, in the middle of nowhere on an industrial block.
“If you opened that restaurant in Toronto in the middle of — I don’t know — West Dupont, nobody would fucking go. They’d be like, ‘Why would I go to the middle of nowhere to eat pizza pie? There’s a pretty good pizza place on Ossington, it’s called Pizzeria Libretto, they do a great job!’” he goes on, chuckling. “I’m blown away by the support these places in the middle of nowhere in New York and LA get.
“Are they doing a good job? Totally. Absolutely. But there’s a lot of people here in Toronto doing a lot of great jobs in just slightly out-of-the-way places that have to fight like hell because people aren’t willing to move back and forth between neighbourhoods. They have to fight the neighbourhood that’s just not there. It’s so weird.”
But something Toronto’s done right is foster a tight-knit community among its service industry workers. This community is growing every day, and creating more and more support for the slew of its individuals trying to make a go at running their own place (regardless of where they end up). It’s this community that’s helped propel Chantecler to its current level of success, and Jacob is very grateful for that.
“The industry is really important to us — to make a place that’s friendly to that. But also, those are the people who are really the arbiters of taste in this city. They know what’s good. And if you’re doing a good job, it feels great when your friends come in, and not just to visit you. With this new menu, the level of cuisine that we’re bringing back here, and the late-night menu that we’re doing, [industry] people are coming back a lot. Which is really, really nice.”
A culture of positivity
While the community has embraced Chantecler’s recent changes, Jacob tells me that one of the most important things he’s learned from being a restaurateur over the years is to be more flexible and willing to embrace change himself.
“You can’t be stubborn about your opinion of something versus what people are telling you,” he says vehemently. “For example, rolling out this new menu, we were using this sustainably caught BC cod, which is an awesome fish. It’s got this big, fat flake to it and a really good meatiness — super clean-tasting. And it fit out pricing so that we could offer a good portion of it. But I guess the difference between ‘meaty’ and ‘chewy’ is in the eye of the beholder. Or in the mouth, I guess.” He grins.
“I thought it was delicious, Jesse thought it was delicious, but people started to complain. So we were like, ‘Let’s be honest here. Look at how hard we’re working.’ To undo that because people just didn’t like the product — something totally incidental to the work that we’re doing — well, just change it! Just fix it! Just fix the fucking problem, because it’s not that big a deal.
“We were victims of that before when we were younger,” he continues. “But you can’t always blame other people for the shortcomings of your restaurant or your work. It’s not fair to do that, and it’s a really bad attitude to have.”
One of Chantecler’s central tenets — and a big reason why this little boîte has endeared itself to the f&b community — has been to forge an environment in direct opposition to all kinds of negativity.
“It’s something that I think is a bit pervasive within the restaurant community — there’s a tendency to want to break other people down,” Jacob says seriously. “What we’ve accomplished now versus back then is building a culture of positivity; where we can all work really hard and accomplish things together, rather than beat each other down.
“You’re not allowed to shit-talk other people’s restaurants at this restaurant. It’s not okay. We don’t do it. I don’t tolerate it among our staff,” he says frankly. “And I think that’s something that’s a bit contagious. I think it’s — hopefully — why people keep coming back here, and why we’re able to have such a good rapport with a lot of industry people.”
Seeing the world, staying in Parkdale
I’m surprised to find out that, for a guy who seems so worldly with such a deep knowledge of food and drink, Jacob hasn’t started traveling until very recently. So if he could be doing anything else in the world, traveling would be it.
“I didn’t do much traveling when I was younger. I was always here. I saved up to do this [open Chantecler], and then I did this,” he says with a shrug. “So my first travel experiences have actually only happened in the last couple of years. I had never been anywhere at all before that. I never realized before how awesome it actually is.”
But for now, Jacob is — largely — staying put, and will be pouring more and more energy into building Chantecler’s new identity here in Parkdale in the months to come.
“As much as this is continuing a restaurant that was already open, more than anything I’ve ever done before it feels like I’m opening a new restaurant,” he shares. “It’s a whole new team, a whole new focus, a whole new everything. With the summer coming up, we’re going to get really, really into this. We’re getting a backyard garden put in. Things are going to get pretty serious this summer, from a culinary perspective.”
And while the Chantecler team has been focusing largely on kitchen ops, Jacob promises me that there’s “some really exciting stuff” coming up beverage-wise, as well. “It’s coming — I’m pumped,” he says enthusiastically.
And Parkdale is pumped, too — about all of it.
“Parkdale is one of the last remaining, almost unadulterated communities whose ‘gentrification’ really is not what people think it is,” he muses thoughtfully, a smile spreading across his face. “It’s remaining a mixed neighbourhood and that’s what’s so exciting about it. You have mixed incomes, everyone living together, a huge collection of backgrounds. It’s really dynamic and fun, and always exciting and entertaining and wild. And occasionally sleepy. It’s just a really great place to live.”
I agree, and am so happy Jacob and Chantecler decided to stay and roost here a while longer.
Restaurant Chantecler is open Thursday — Tuesday, 6pm — 2am.
Come in & get truly cozy — the place is small, but friendly & delicious. And if you’re industry, don’t be surprised to run into a fellow server or bartender on any given night.
Marta S is a freelance writer and bartender living and working in Toronto. If you or someone you know would like to be profiled by Behind the Boîte, email her at email@example.com.
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