FRANK’S NEW EXECUTIVE CHEF, RENÉE BELLEFEUILLE TALKS ABOUT HEADING UP THE KITCHEN AT THE ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO’S RESTAURANT
The Art Gallery of Ontario has been on quite a roll of late. Over the past few years it’s hosted celebrated exhibitions on everyone from Jean-Michel Basquiat to David Bowie, from Frida Kahlo to Ai Weiwei to J.M.W. Turner. The art-star shows have been so notable that it’s become easy to overlook some of the institutions (many) other elements—its multifaceted permanent collection, of course, but also things like its well-regarded educational programming, designer gallery shop, and its locally focused yet globally inspired restaurant, FRANK. The latter has been undergoing a bit of a revamp. Special-event dinners have become more frequent, a snacks-and-cocktails menu was recently launched, and a new executive chef, Renée Bellefeuille, has taken the reigns in the kitchen. Below, chef Bellefeuille reveals her culinary philosophy and hopes for FRANK going forward.
Can you tell us about your background as a chef?
While I was still a student at George Brown College I started working with Elaina Asselin at the short-lived but critically acclaimed Abracadabra on Peter Street. Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to work for and alongside some of Toronto’s most well-regarded chefs—like Andrew Milne-Allan of Zucca, and Jamie Kennedy at JK ROM and then JK Wine Bar—which helped me to build my style of creative yet thoughtful food.
What are some experiences or people that have informed your culinary philosophy?
The way I cook—professionally, and even before I decided to become a chef—has always been influenced by how we cooked at home. Food from our nearby farmers was preserved for the long winter months. I’ve been fortunate to surround myself with chefs that appreciate and value where we live and what great resources our province and country provide us. My foundation of using the bounty from an Ontario harvest has solidified further with each and every chef I’ve worked with over the years. On the other hand, I’ve always had a keen interest in the culinary traditions of cultures other than my own. I enjoy experimenting with flavours, techniques and products to find a balance between my classical training and food traditions from elsewhere in the world.
You have extensive experience as a pastry chef. Given that, can diners at FRANK expect to see a greater emphasis on sweet endings?
Our culinary team is growing, and our aim is to keep our guests excited from start to finish—that includes sweets that are thoughtful and sophisticated with just enough whimsy. We’ll carry the philosophy of FRANK being a global pantry through the entirety of each meal.
FRANK has lately ramped up its hosting of special-event dinners. Will this trend to continue?
Our next special-event dinner is a sparkling wine and Champagne tasting on November 24. We plan to continue the tasting series on the last Tuesday of most months, except during busy periods like the middle of holiday season. We have some exciting ideas that we’re planning to roll out in the new year.
There’s also a new cinq-a-sept menu. What inspired the decision to offer “after-work” drinks and snacks?
For some time now, sharing plates have been a fun way to explore new flavours with friends. The idea to introduce this to FRANK came about when we were thinking about our neighbours, visitors and colleagues within the gallery. An inviting and casual place to share a bite with friends, talk about art, enjoy a cocktail and then stay for dinner—that’s what I hope FRANK represents.
The AGO is Toronto’s only cultural institution with a full-scale lunch-and-dinner restaurant. Why has FRANK succeeded where other museums have had to scale back their culinary ambitions?
In FRANK we have endeavored to achieve a sophisticated balance of global flavours and approachability: we want young families, urban professional and art tourists all to feel at ease in our dining room. The restaurant is truly woven into the fabric of the AGO. Part of the pride I feel working here is knowing that the AGO is one of only a few galleries in North America with fully in-house food and beverage operations.
What are some of the benefits of working in a restaurant that’s operated by a larger organization like the AGO?
There are many benefits to being part of a large organization. We receive a great deal of support from our teammates within the gallery: they join us regularly for meals, for a glass of wine and snack, or to participate in our wine-tasting events. They’re always excited to see what’s new at the restaurant. As FRANK is part of the larger food and beverage team here at the gallery, we have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips and opportunities to teach and mentor staff. Being part of an art gallery is also a huge benefit. We not only have food, seasons and flavours to inspire us, but thousands of works of art to draw inspiration from. We recently hosted a dinner in FRANK as part of a conservation around Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s Jar of Apricots still life. We took inspiration from the piece and the time period to create a menu that brought the work and the food together in harmony.
—As told to Craig Moy