TORONTO – Jamie Oliver is the latest international culinary icon to launch a restaurant in Toronto, with the opening of his first North American outpost of Jamie’s Italian set for next week.
Toronto previously hit the radar of New York’s David Chang, who opened a Momofuku location in 2012, and French chef Daniel Boulud, who retooled the French brasserie Cafe Boulud at the tony Four Seasons Hotel earlier this year.
“Iron Chef” star Masaharu Morimoto is slated to open his first Canadian resto in Toronto in the spring. And culinary heavyweights Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and Lidia Matticchio Bastianich are looking at opening the first Canadian location of their beloved Eataly in Toronto.
Why Toronto and why now?
Lidia Bastianich says the city is vibrant with different ethnicities and a keen interest in food.
“You need a city that has all of those elements, then it’s a great city to live and hence a great city to do business,” the TV host and cookbook author said from New York, where she has four restaurants as well as one each in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, Mo.
She couldn’t confirm when Eataly — an Italian marketplace with restaurants, food and beverage counters and retail items for sale — would open in Toronto, but expects late 2016 or 2017.
Oliver has partnered with Toronto chef Rob Gentile and the King Street Food Company, which owns Italian eateries Buca and Bar Buca, for his new restaurant at the Yorkdale Shopping Centre. There are more than 60 Jamie’s Italian locations worldwide and nine more are due in Canada over the next five years.
“I’ve worked in Canada for 15 years. Loved it. Get on really well with the people here,” Oliver said while visiting Toronto in October to promote his new cookbook “Everyday Super Food” and TV show “Jamie’s Super Food.”
Of Jamie’s Italian, Oliver said: “It’s not trying to be flashy food. We’re not waltzing in trying to be Billy Big Boy. It’s just really good comfort food, freshly cooked, good price, high ethics, grass-fed, free-range, which is at the heart of all our restaurants. Trying to get it to the masses, really.”
Restaurant critic Ruth Reichl says celebrity chefs have become their own brands and are increasingly looking to go global.
“They’re opening all over the world and I think it’s kind of irresistible to them,” says the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine.
“I think big companies come to them and say, ‘Will you anchor our hotel, our shopping mall, our whatever?’ It’s big business.”
But other international celeb chefs worry that expansion outside their home country means they won’t be able to control their brand.
“As we were walking around (Toronto) the last two or three days looking at spaces, I thought, ‘That would be amazing or how cool is this,'” said “MasterChef” judge Graham Elliot, who visited from Chicago last month to promote “Cooking Like a Master Chef.”
“But I would never want to open something and just have it be an outpost…. I’d want to keep it small and make sure that I could be here a lot if I did. Luckily it’s an hour flight from Chicago. It’s pretty close.”
Yotam Ottolenghi, who has four locations of his eponymous restaurant as well as the high-end Nopi in London, admits he’s been tempted to expand outside the U.K., but two things stop him.
“One of them is the quality control, which we’re quite obsessed about, and the other is the quality of life. If you open a restaurant in another part of the world it means you have to travel a lot and be on airplanes all the time, which is a big price to pay if you have a family and all that.”
Ottolenghi, whose new cookbook “Nopi” is on store shelves, said he wouldn’t rule it out if he forged a strong partnership abroad with someone trusted, as Oliver has done.
It remains to be seen how international chefs will do in the Canadian market, which has its share of domestic celeb chefs like Michael Smith, Mark McEwan, Lynn Crawford, Chuck Hughes and Michael Stadtlander, says Donna Dooher, president and CEO of Restaurants Canada.
“I think David Chang is doing very well. He really appeals to a different generation of young chefs and entrepreneurs and I think that they have a much more global perspective than perhaps the generations before them,” said Dooher.
“I think Jamie Oliver will do well here. He’s got such a huge name, a huge brand, I’d be surprised if he didn’t succeed.”
She thinks Batali is popular in Canada and will likely do well with Eataly in Toronto.
One high-profile American chef didn’t fare well.
“I know that Wolfgang Puck tried several years ago to come into the Toronto marketplace. He’s a huge name in the U.S., but it didn’t translate into the Canadian marketplace,” Dooher said.
But she added that it would maybe be a different story now.
Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter.