Take a seat with a view of the kitchen at Bolete and chances are you’ll see chef and owner Andrew McLeod wearing a button-up shirt with the sleeves casually rolled up, jeans and a canvas apron to protect from the hazards of the job.
There are no starched and pressed chef’s whites, no towering, pleated hats. And yet, it was those formalities of kitchen life that captured McLeod’s attention as a teenager while dining at Toronto’s iconic Canoe, ultimately inspiring him to pursue a career behind the burner.
“I remember seeing the chefs with all their tall Bragard hats. I thought it was awesome,” McLeod recalled. “Everyone knew their jobs and what they were doing. It was just a really gorgeous room and I thought I’d like to explore that. It was a cool thing to watch.”
Now McLeod and his chef Jayde Burton are the ones to watch as they cook at Bolete, creating elegant dishes inspired by the seasons in an entirely casual atmosphere.
“Just the way the kitchen is set up, we want it to appear like we’re cooking in our house,” McLeod said. “It’s just like a house party. Everyone wants to be in the kitchen. It’s just where everyone ends up.”
View this post on Instagram
It’s where McLeod, who grew up in Whitby, found himself as a 15-year-old in need of a job. The aspiring culinarian took a gig washing dishes at a small Italian restaurant, and eventually worked his way into cooking. It wasn’t fine dining — McLeod was a short-order cook — but he learned to be fast and efficient, skills that would prove essential when what started as just a pay cheque morphed into a career after that fateful dinner at Canoe.
McLeod headed to cooking school at George Brown College. He stood out among his classmates, some of whom had no idea how to hold a chef’s knife never mind ever setting foot in a professional kitchen. It was the dawning of the age of the celebrity chef, brought about by the polished cooking shows on TV, and those drawn to culinary school by the prospect of fame rather than a passion for food saw their 15 minutes evaporate before the clock even started ticking.
“It was interesting to see. Then they found out it wasn’t what they expected, like on the cooking shows. They were dropping like flies,” McLeod recalled.
After graduation, McLeod stayed in Toronto, testing his skills as a newly minted cook at La Bodega, a highly rated French bistro on Baldwin Street. McLeod didn’t stay relegated to the entry-level garde manger, responsible for creating salads and cold dishes. He got to do dessert, trying his hand at classics like crème brulée, and had opportunities to practise butchery.
He also learned — perhaps the hard way — not to make mistakes. McLeod’s roommate was the restaurant’s chef. “If I did something wrong at work, I’d hear about it all night at home, so that pushed me to do everything right,” McLeod said.
From there, he graduated to coveted posts at the high-volume Auberge du Pommier in the Oliver & Bonacini restaurant family. There he worked under one of Canada’s most celebrated chefs, Jason Bangerter. They were intense jobs, but McLeod, set on being an executive chef, was keen to push himself professionally in those early days.
He was also eager to learn, so when he got thirsty for more than a cursory knowledge of pairing food and wine in 2005, McLeod, then 27, took to the Queen Elizabeth Way. His first few interviews at winery restaurants didn’t go as hoped. But then he knocked on the door at Peller Estates where Chef Jason Parsons, a fellow alumnus of an Oliver & Bonacini restaurant in Toronto, hired McLeod as sous chef. It was a busy job that he did and loved for six years, not only for the education in winemaking it provided, but also for everything else Niagara taught him. There were the farms producing stone fruit and vegetables, opportunities to raise animals, and a collaborative spirit among chefs in the region. And Parsons was the ultimate leader after which McLeod could model himself — constantly checking in on the morale of his kitchen staff.
“There are a million things you can get your hands into here,” he said. “We didn’t have access (in Toronto) to the products you have here. You can’t get in your car and be two minutes away from vegetables or beekeeping.”
McLeod has immersed himself in every opportunity to learn about food and wine production that has come his way in Niagara, either in those early days or since opening Bolete in 2016. He’s spent time with beekeepers at Rosewood Estates Winery in Beamsville, and has willingly stepped into the pen with Paul Harber at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery to learn more about raising pigs.
Executive chef jobs presented themselves after Peller Estates but they took McLeod away from the region. He helmed the kitchen at Edgewater Manor in Stoney Creek, then at the landmark Spencer’s on the Waterfront in Burlington.
But being a boy from the ‘burbs in Toronto, McLeod didn’t want to hang around Burlington. He loved St. Catharines, being close to vineyards, and market gardens. He also dreamt of owning a restaurant.
He searched for a time before finding Bolete’s home on a stretch of St. Paul Street that was the epicentre of downtown revitalization in St. Catharines. Other restaurants serving beautiful, thoughtful food were opening along the artery and yet no one was stepping on anyone’s toes, McLeod noted.
All of those relationships he cultivated along the way are apparent at Bolete today, be it on the wine list, dominated by world-class Niagara vintages, or the roster of artists in residence whose work has hung on Bolete’s walls over the years.
And, of course, a menu that takes its cues from what’s available in Niagara, complemented by ingredients, such as East Coast oysters or Prince Edward Island beef, from elsewhere in Canada.
The spectacle of Burton and McLeod at work — even without those Bragard hats — makes the experience all the better.
“I love being here on a Saturday night, taking plates over to a table, saying ‘Hi’, telling people what we’re doing,” McLeod said. “I don’t like to create a pretentious atmosphere… . It’s more about making people feel comfortable and at home.”
Tiffany Mayer, My Niagara Profiles
• • • • •
176 St. Paul St., St. Catharines, ON, Canada L2R 3M2