by Malcolm Jolley
Chef Martin Kouprie and his front-of-the-house partner Peter Geary are relaxed in the pause between lunch and dinner service on a snowy Toronto afternoon. I am sitting with them in the skylight lit bar of Pangaea, the restaurant they started together in 1996 after leaving the employment of Peter Oliver at Jump. Both had approached Oliver separately about a ‘sweat equity’ deal, but alas, Oliver had just joined forces with Michael Bonacini, so the two decided to strike off on their own. Geary and Kouprie had no interest in trying to compete with Oliver, so they left Bay and King for Bay and Bloor and traded the power lunches of the financial and banking firms for those of advertising, government and media mavens. As if running a successful restaurant through two recessions wasn’t enough, Kouprie has also just published his first cookbook, Pangaea: Why It Tastes So Good.
The book, which is as beautifully produced and innovatively laid out as any I’ve seen, follows Pangaea’s seasonal menus, tracing each dish back to its main ingredients and the story behind it and the supplier Kouprie trusts. The approach is novel and fresh, while the technique is classic and steadily run-through. It didn’t hurt, Kouprie concedes, that his wife is accomplished cookbook author, recipe developer and tester and food trends guru Dana McCauley. Still the adjustment to cooking in a professional staffed kitchen to translating Pangaea recipes for the home cook was a challenge for Kouprie, who had to pay close attention to things like the proportion of ingredients. As a consequence, some recipes changed at the restaurant: “I discovered I was using more salt than I needed to.”
When I ask Kouprie how he would describe his cuisine, he says, “Good question,” pauses and decides, “thoughtful. That’s really what we’re trying to do here.” This is as good a cue as any to bring Geary’s role into the picture. Together they describe a moment in the middle of a recent dinner service. A diner has never tried sweetbreads and asks Geary what they are and whether she’d like them. He explains and tells the lady not to order a whole plate, instead Kouprie’s kitchen prepares a small extra order, which they send out to her table alongside her main at no charge. One of thousands of small gestures that have one them a fiercely loyal legion of regulars.
Pangaea is known as a serious power lunch spot. I ask Geary why he thinks this is. While he says he can’t say for sure, he believes he and Kouprie have succeeded in creating a restaurant where Toronto’s media and political elites can relax. “I can see it in people’s body language, in their posture,” he explains and demonstrates by reclining in his seat. If their patrons like coming back, so does the their front of the house staff: three of their servers have been with them since the beginning and Geary has worked with one since 1988.
Staff turnover in Kouprie’s kitchen is quite another matter, which suits him fine: “We are a teaching kitchen, so we expect ambitious young cooks to come in and learn as much as they can before going on learn more somewhere else, that’s the apprentice system I came up in.” Kouprie has a drive to keep up with best practices, he’s refined what’s gone on in his kitchen over the years by doing things like taking advantage of more local food supplies, switching over to an only sustainable fish menu, making his own charcuterie and cheese (!). Next month, he plans to start making bread with flour he’s milled himself, so he can find the perfect blend of grains. “There always new things to do,” he says and the two business partners smile looking as fresh as can be.
Find out more about Pangaea at www.pangaearestaurant.com.
This video was made possible through the kind support of Fortessa Canada / Schott Zwiesel.