It’s rare that a restaurant of this calibre comes along. It makes us rethink food and restaurant policies in fresh and meaningful ways. Those who have patronized downtown London’s Grace Restaurant will have insight into the obstacles of building a restaurant in a former fast food location in the middle of a construction zone. Grace is a cosmopolitan urban experience, an ambitious undertaking, and a dedicated affirmation of co-owner/executive chef Angela Murphy’s expectation of the transformational effects of the new flex street known as Dundas Place. This revitalized streetscape is expected to encourage urban renewal and pedestrian traffic, and to provide enhanced economic and social opportunities and residential intensification. The promise of increased foot traffic, alfresco dining and a setting that showcases the heritage and character of the downtown are among the reasons that the team at Grace gravitated to the Dundas Place concept.
Named for Grace Murphy, Angela’s grandmother, the 72-seat restaurant prioritizes quality, seasonality, locally-procured ingredients, industry fairness, community engagement, and social responsibility. Ingredients are used consciously and allow the flexibility to change menu items or rotate dishes. At last count, there were 65 different suppliers.
The assurance at Grace is that the food and drink are crafted with artistry and uncompromising dedication to excellence and intention. The offering is billed as “Conscious Canadian Cuisine,” draws on tradition, and is infused with regional influences and local flavours. Intention is a mandate at Grace, requiring focus, action and good energy to manifest. Even the minimalist backdrop co-created by Design House intentionally allows for the drama of the plating of the dishes to be a primary focus.
Murphy’s vision with sous chefs Cody Tanner-Slater and Kyle Newman is aspirational and modern with multi-cultural riffs and influences that are uniquely Canadian.
We have sampled many of the dishes and especially loved the devilled Aylmer shrimp with smoked tomato, sweet potato, cured egg yolk, mustard greens and poppy seeds. Impeccable melt-in-your-mouth fresh Lake Erie pickerel was a seasonal special served with Hasselback potatoes, French beans, and dill and caper beurre blanc. Other favourites were the House Ricotta with toasted chilies, stone fruit, pistachios, sweet olive oil and toast.
Pastry chef Roger Porcellato has a passion for baking artisanal bread and crafting pastries. There is a dedicated focus on creating all things in-house. Roger has worked at the former Church Restaurant in Stratford, the former Berlin in Kitchener, and Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn. An uncompromising perfectionist, Porcellato collaborates with Murphy on an evolving robust bread and pastry program. Like the rest of the culinary team, his subtleties and strengths reveal the qualities of the ingredients used in the restaurant.
Lauren Fitzgerald has curated a charismatic, spirit-forward seasonal craft cocktail and beer program. Sommelier/partner Pete Annson has instituted an interesting and eclectic wine selection that emphasizes the importance of small production vineyards.
Murphy pursued academics out of high school and has a double major degree in Humanities and English Literature. She attended Stratford Chefs School, graduating in 2011. At the Windermere Café, Murphy was mentored by Kristian Crossen (formerly of Braise and Langdon Hall, and now Food and Beverage Manager/Executive Chef for Great Hall Catering at Western). Murphy succeeded Crossen and took over the reins at Windermere Manor’s new Restaurant Ninety One, where she nurtured direct relationships with farmers and suppliers before conceptualizing Grace.
The staffing model challenges the traditional roles of the front and back-of-house, with the cooks often serving and engaging with tables. It is an open kitchen in the most real sense, approachable and transparent. Murphy knows that it is fiscally responsible to make an investment in training workers properly about the various positions within the restaurant. “We recognized in the beginning that we were going to have a high labour cost. We pay our employees a living wage. We are trying to make the best of the fact that the capitalist systems — paying workers less than a living wage — in the restaurant business are broken. We want the staff fully invested in the restaurant, so we have adopted a co-op model with no upper management salaries.”
This type of innovation is so unusual and forward-thinking that it made headlines when the owners of Emma’s Country Kitchen on St. Clair Avenue West in Toronto proclaimed they would add a non-compulsory three percent surcharge on guest checks so full-time workers could have health benefits. Some patrons complained, other patrons and colleagues in the industry commended the move. There is a debate in the restaurant community about whether a surcharge is too contentious and whether it is the most sensible way to underwrite enhanced working conditions for restaurant employees. Some restaurants introducing health benefits for workers are sidestepping the surcharge and choosing instead to raise prices.
Changing the patriarchal kitchen hierarchy and the dismantling of oppressive constructs are topics Murphy and I have discussed on several occasions. Historically there has been wage inequality and institutionalized segregation by gender and race in the restaurant business. There remains a profound connection between sexism and homophobia in the restaurant kitchen culture. Everyone is entitled to equal protection in the workplace. “The traditional hospitality industry is unfriendly to women, especially in the back of the house. We have known this for years — the long hours, the macho aggression, the harassment present in many kitchens. The point is that it’s not just women that suffer from these issues. Men don’t thrive in this environment, either. I have worked with men that have had problems balancing work and life because of the late nights, the stress, and the physical labour,” says Murphy wistfully. “Many men have been harassed, felt bullied and intimidated in a toxic atmosphere which allows only a narrow range of personalities to succeed. In the ideal kitchen, and I like to think we model our kitchen after that ideal, everyone feels supported, listened to and respected. I would even go so far as to say, utterly rebellious to the traditional chef mentality, that restaurants should be more accommodating to the personal lives of their staff. The kitchen is not a cult, and you shouldn’t have to forsake your family, your friends and your relationships to be successful. Ultimately, the kitchen is a meritocracy regardless of gender. That’s the best part. Even if you are at a disadvantage to start because you are a woman, or because you can’t afford the fanciest tools, or because you don’t speak English, or you have a mental illness, if you can cook, you get respect. If your plates look good, you get respect. If you clean up after yourself and help your team when they need you, if you work hard, it can’t go unnoticed, and you will earn your place.”
If you’re looking for a modern dining and drinking experience, Grace is the ideal venue for a multi-course tasting menu with wine pairings. Relax at the bar in front of the open kitchen or in the lounge with a signature cocktail or choose from the carefully curated beer and wine list. Grace offers late-night snacks and drinks after your downtown concert or trip to the theatre.
215 Dundas Street, London
Lunch: Thursday & Friday 11:30am – 2pm
Dinner: Wednesday to Saturday from 5pm; Sunday 6–8pm
Brunch: Sunday 11:30am–2pm
Photos by Alieska Robles, a London photographer and the producer of Forest City Cookbook. alieskarobles.com