Oliver & Bonacini at the Bell Lightbox – Ready For Their Close-Up

The biggest opening of this year’s film festival isn’t taking place on the movie screens. Instead, it’s all about where movie stars and movie goers will be dining. Torontonians have been watching the Bell Lightbox reach for the sky for the past couple of years, and when it was announced that Oliver & Bonacini would be running the onsite restaurants, both food lovers and movie fans were excited. What a great way to have dinner and a movie.

O&B Canteen, located at street level, opened in mid-August and is already receiving rave reviews. The 3,500 square foot space, designed by KPMB architects (who also designed the rest of the Bell Lightbox) seats 90 at banquettes and communal tables and another 70 on the streetside patio.

Officially opening today [Editor’s Note – Original info indicated that Luma would open today, but a representative from O&B has informed me that it doesn’t actually open until Sunday], Luma is a more upscale destination, seating 230 with room for another 50 on the terrace. The space is huge (8,000 square feet) and boasts marble walls, oak tables, leather chairs and a wall of windows that look down onto King Street West or up at the skyline and the CN Tower.

Chef Jason Bangerter made the move from Oliver & Bonacini’s fine dining mecca Auberge de Pommier to head both Canteen and Luma. He addresses what everyone in Toronto’s food community is thinking – how can you go from heading one of the city’s (possibly the country’s) top French restaurants to making breakfast sandwiches?

“When we first started talking about this whole project I had shown a bit of interest,” he tells me as we tour Luma. “It’s kind of like a hotel gig and there aren’t really any hotel chefs at O&B. I had the hotel background, I had a little bit of experience with this, with the room service aspect with the condos upstairs, and also with the grab-and-go lower end restaurant and the higher end restaurant. I think Michael [Bonacini] was a little bit shocked to hear that in the beginning because I had just gotten this beautiful renovated kitchen at Auberge, and it has a lot of momentum right now.”

But Bangerter saw the opportunity as a challenge, knowing that, despite his love for his work during his 8 years at Auberge de Pommier, and that he’d have been happy to remain and continue to tweak and improve things there, he’d never get another chance like the Bell Lightbox.

“To open up two restaurants in the Bell Lightbox with TIFF… that’s not going to happen again,” the chef enthuses. “And I was at a point where Auberge was great and I was having a lot of fun with that, but the only growth there for me, as a chef, was what I do with the next menu. This is an operations position for me, it’s overseeing culinary at Bell Lightbox. For me this is the next step.”

At the point when we meet in mid-August, “overseeing” is definitely a better job description than executive chef, as Bangerter is not only running the pass at the Canteen, but is preparing to open an entirely different restaurant at the same time. And on a very tight deadline at that.

His day consists of everything from making sure equipment is delivered to ensuring that it is installed properly and that everything works. A tour through the kitchen to show off the new stoves finds him consulting with a chef over a broken stove knob. Then he’s off to work on Luma staff training, and running back and forth to the O&B Board of Trade location in First Canadian Place to consult on event menus. He’s picking out china and dishware (he shows me an array of Le Creuset pots in Canteen and jokes that the O&B restaurant with the lowest priced menu items had the most expensive serving dishes). And when he’s done talking to me, he’ll be off to answer emails, check on his smallwares suppliers and then head back to the pass at Canteen to oversee the preparation and service, some of which he does himself. When he gets a break (yeah, I know) he’s working on menus for TIFF events.

When I ask about the menu at Canteen, Bangerter offers a level of enthusiasm unexpected from someone trained to cook the classics.

“This location has to be about the people who come through here; you’re going to have film students, movie stars, and regular folks going to the movies, so it has to be something that makes sense. O&B Canteen is what you would make at home on a Sunday with your family, but it’s being made by us, using the best ingredients with a little bit of a chef inspired twist.”

He uses the coleslaw as an example, made from local products, and dressed with a Nam Prik vinaigrette and coriander. The rest of the menu is hearty and fresh, featuring pizza, pastas, sandwiches and a daily special – all things that would appeal to a lunch crowd, or to folks grabbing a quick bite before or after a movie.

“I think what we’re doing at Canteen is what every chef in the city is trying to do,” he continues. “Fresh simple food, making everything in house, using as much fresh local and artisanal as you can, not messing with it but hitting it at every level. I’m more excited about Canteen than Luma! For me it’s inspiring to look at what we’re doing at Canteen because the [house made] ketchup is amazing and you get these wicked potatoes that are hand cut and you get this amazing parmigiano, bowls of salad, hand-rolled gnocchi. That’s the food that I like to eat, that’s why it’s exciting for me.”

That inspiration comes, in part, from the spaces that he’ll be running and the people he’ll be cooking for. “We went to the first TIFF meeting last night with donors and programmers. For me, a big part of going was to learn, because we’ve got all the programmers coming into the restaurants, there will be personalities coming in to the restaurants. And the thing that blew me away was how passionate they are about film. For the first time in a long time, I’m looking at someone talk as passionately about something as I am about food. I was so inspired by listening to these people talk about film.”

With everything being done towards a goal of opening during TIFF and feeding the movie-going hordes, I ask what happens when the festival is over.

“After TIFF, we’ll regroup,” Bangerter says, knowing that the next 10 days are going to be tough. “We’ll probably have some casualties,” he concedes. “But then we’ll start rebuilding, and for me, it will be a time to start working with my staff. I want the people who are working in this building to be excited about working here but I also made a promise to them that they’re going be taught how to cook. We’re going spend a lot of time with them and make then feel a part of this really amazing family of restaurants.”

The building process may include bringing back some proteges who trained with Bangerter at Auberge and who are now building their careers with notable chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Daniel Bouloud, as well as using the space as training ground within the Oliver & Bonacini empire.

For Bangerter though, who appears to thrive on the stress (“Look at me, I look like a ray of sunshine”, he jokes when I ask him if he’s exhausted yet), there is no downtime in sight. Once TIFF is over, there’s still everyone else in the city to feed, and he knows that it’s the locals that he really has to please. “This is the biggest opening in Toronto in a decade,” he says of the dual restaurants. “It has to be amazing and O&B is gonna knock it out of the water.”