When Andrew McLeod opened Bolete four years ago, all thoughts were on making his St. Paul Street dining room a destination. These days, the veteran chef has been thinking about how best to feed people at home. It’s been an unexpected shift, but then that’s what running a restaurant in a pandemic will do.
Take the composed Thanksgiving turkey dinner that was a recent collaboration between McLeod and Nathan Young of In the Smoke Cookery. All thoughts were on people who stayed home during the cresting of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic yet still craved a sense of occasion. Takeout turkey with the all the fixings was McLeod’s answer to help people celebrate on a smaller scale anyway.
“We wanted to turn this into a positive,” McLeod said. “After a negative time in the beginning, it was ‘Let’s stay on top of this, be positive and make this as amazing as we can.’ ”
There are many beginnings to go back to in McLeod’s storied career as a chef. The real beginning was sitting in the exalted dining room of Canoe when McLeod was a teenager. He was wowed by the towering Bragard hats and flawless choreography of the kitchen brigade. Soon after, he took a job washing dishes at an Italian restaurant in his native Whitby, working up the ranks to short order cook. Next came graduating from George Brown College’s culinary program, then working in storied kitchens throughout Toronto. By the mid-aughts, McLeod turned his attention to Niagara.
McLeod took full advantage of what the wine region and buckle of Ontario’s fruit belt had to offer, spending six years in the kitchen at Andrew Peller and connecting with winemakers and other chefs in the area. After a few years helming high-end kitchens in Stoney Creek and Burlington, including at Spencer’s on the Waterfront, McLeod found himself back in Niagara with dreams of a place of his own.
Bolete was it and it was a culmination of everything he’d done to that point: show-stopping food paired with the best Niagara vintages, but without the conventionality of the dining room that originally drew him to the profession.
People could sit at the bar at Bolete and watch McLeod and his team work. Or they could luck out and have him serve their entrée to them at a table. Soon after opening, Bolete ranked among the go-to dining rooms in the downtown. But then the pandemic hit and it was another beginning for McLeod, who was forced to lay-off his staff and translate fine dining to takeout.
“Standing in an empty restaurant with no people and no staff to communicate with… and waiting for the phone to ring for takeaway, it was really sad,” McLeod recalled.
Bolete had to be reimagined, starting with opening a patio in early summer after restrictions loosened. McLeod barbecued chicken and ribs and served his trademark composed dishes staring each. There were burgers with diners’ new budgets in mind, and then jalapeño mac and cheese because comfort was being given top consideration, too.
They’re still “beautiful dishes that would be a Bolete dish” but reflective of people’s cravings in a global health crisis.
So, too, is the market that McLeod has opened where tables once occupied space in his restaurant. It features take-home meals, including Young’s brisket to reheat sous-vide. There’s also kimchi from Paul Bang at Korean BBQ Town, McLeod’s own preserve projects, fresh pasta, gourmet pantry staples and wine.
“Bolete — what it is — is supporting other people,” McLeod said.
And feeding them, too. With one of the largest dining rooms downtown, McLeod is inviting diners back to physically distanced tables in a newly renovated space that currently features the photography of local shutterbug Joel Smith.
The barbecued chicken and ribs that beckoned people to the Bolete patio are still on offer. But there are plans to get back to the “OG” menu, of “lots of braises and warm comforting things,” as the weather turns colder.
That means another beginning in the story of pandemic dining. Still, McLeod is hopeful given how much he’s persevered since March, and especially since that meal at Canoe all those years ago.
“I look around the restaurant with the renovations and what we’ve accomplished, and who thought we’d do this?” he said. “We changed the entire dynamic of the restaurant in the middle of COVID with no staff and I’m proud of that. Looking around at what we’ve done, it’s kind of incredible.”