Substance Food Group – MEN OF SUBSTANCE
Bringing us the legendary Terra Restaurant, Substance Food Group’s Stephen Perrin, Ian Chase and Michael De Tommaso on the beginning of a culinary adventure that continues to evolve and shape the restaurant industry.
On a cool, sunny day, the skies bright and blue, I make my way toward Sarpa Restaurant, an Italian-inspired Richmond Hill mainstay serving up fresh bites and tantalizing entrées. It’s only a few minutes after the noon hour when I step inside and see several patrons already seated for their midday meal, their eyes running up and down the summer lunch menu.
At the restaurant’s entrance, a friendly maître d’ is at the ready, greeting me with a smile before leading me through the restaurant’s rich mahogany interiors and rustic brick walls to a bar area illuminated by contemporary light fixtures. I take a seat at a table where just beyond is Sarpa’s outdoor patio, the perfect spot for sipping cold berry mojitos and sharing orders of piping-hot polenta fries among friends.
Thanks to the restaurant’s seasoned proprietors — Stephen Perrin, Ian Chase and Michael De Tommaso — who now sit across from me at the table, Sarpa has provided an urban dining experience and date-night vibe in the area since it opened six years ago, the third of four establishments under their helm since they first took their entrepreneurial plunge in 1995.
You may recognize the three enterprising men as the force behind Terra Restaurant in Thornhill, their culinary crown jewel that has stood two decades strong despite a changing city, fierce competition and diners’ heightening palates. And while the fine-dining flagship continues to attract a local and downtown crowd with its pan-roasted gnocchi and exotic offerings like ostrich and wild boar, Terra is proof that good things come to those who stay laser-focused on their dreams, every day and every hour. “Just this last weekend we had a sellout for a communion at Terra with the same clients that had their child’s baptism with us. There are kids that actually grew up with us — kids who we’re now catering their weddings,” says De Tommaso. “Terra is our essential. It is our goose that laid the egg,” adds Perrin, whose adventurous foodie spirit complements De Tommaso’s charm and Chase’s collected nature.
Since the acclaim that came with the meteoric rise of Terra, the trio has expanded their portfolio to include the aforementioned Sarpa, the upscale pub-style Rusty’s at Blue in Blue Mountain Village and Francobollo Posto Italiano, their newest, trend-bucking instalment in North Toronto — now all united under the recent and aptly named Substance Food Group. They also have a successful catering division, Terra Parties, for events big or small. Looking back, it’s clear that their love of food has allowed them to evolve into a culinary collective driven by passion, guided by quality and led by stellar service.
It all started in the early ’90s when Perrin and Chase began working together as youngsters at North 44 restaurant, now an institution of Toronto fine dining that launched the remarkable culinary career of founder Mark McEwan. Chase was just 15 but already had three years of restaurant experience under his belt, having bussed tables and worked the pastry counter at a nearby restaurant before his reputation of a strong work ethic landed him a job at North 44. Perrin, fresh from culinary school at George Brown College, completed an apprenticeship under chef Leighton Azzopardi and cooked abroad in a British trattoria before landing the job of a line cook at 17 under the wing of celebrity chef McEwan. “My whole career was based on what Mark taught me,” explains the McEwan protégé, now the executive chef of Substance Food Group. “I started with his style but built my own from it.” He adds how important McEwan’s lessons of understanding costs and balancing the worlds of fine dining and business were to him. Digesting the knowledge, Perrin returned to England to work under the guidance of Rory Kennedy of Le Gavroche in London and the great Albert Roux, while Chase hopped on a flight to Palm Springs, Calif., to help consolidate two restaurants and refine his palate as a sommelier.
With Mark McEwan giving us opportunities we started to take it a lot more seriously. If I had to guess why, it was because we always treated the place like it was our own and put our blood, sweat and tears into it
– Ian Chase
Everything started falling into place once their master called them back home. It was 1996 and McEwan had just purchased Terra Restaurant, previously co-owned by Toronto’s then-pre-eminent restaurateur Franco Prevedello, a visionary widely credited in culinary circles for kick-starting Toronto’s dormant dining scene. Chase and Perrin (who took on the role of executive sous chef) happily returned from their adventures to help reopen Terra with McEwan before the star of Food Network’s The Heat sold his interest in 1999. “Stephen’s always been a great guy, always hardworking and focused,” says McEwan. “He excelled very nicely. He came up through the ranks very nicely. I don’t usually make people sous chef and bring them through management if they’re not doing very well on the bottom end. He and Chase are two very hard-working, industrious guys.”
Having that kind of support system and belief of their skills backed by such a household name in the industry prompted Perrin and Chase to confidently buy into the restaurant. “For me it was supposed to just be a part-time job while going through high school and then I sat back and thought about how not many people would take a chance on a 17-year-old kid to run their restaurant,” recalls Chase. “With Mark McEwan giving us opportunities we started to take it a lot more seriously. If I had to guess why, it was because we always treated the place like it was our own and put our blood, sweat and tears into it.”
In the year 2000, the duo brought on De Tommaso, Terra’s general manager at the time, as a partner. Even then, De Tommaso was already an expert in the restaurant industry, having fallen in love with the inner workings of the kitchen at age 16. “I was actually going to open my own spot before I met these guys, but then we became such good friends we decided to raise Terra together,” says De Tommaso, who had just returned from a research trip in Italy for inspiration and restaurant ideas. “We’ve spent over twenty years together and it’s been the perfect union of skills,” adds Perrin. “We climbed in sales since [Chase] and I took over the restaurant — we jumped twenty-five per cent in profits in the first year and then the following year we jumped another twenty-five and then Mike came on board and we jumped and jumped and jumped.” Often aligned in all their business decisions, each one’s complementary strengths would prove to balance the lesser strengths of the others. Perrin, with his impressive chef skills, is the soul of Substance Food Group; Chase, who excels at staff communication, secures the house’s foundation; while De Tommaso’s commitment to service is the glue that holds everything together. It’s a winning combination that works, and it’s further strengthened by their enduring friendship.
With the keys to their very own restaurant in hand, Perrin, Chase and De Tommaso got to work, renovating and replacing Terra’s Italian bistro concept and zany décor of yellow and baby-blue pillars with refined accents, crystal glassware, linen tablecloths and an extensive wine list. Customers demanded the North 44 experience they were anticipating and they got it, twofold. “You never just stop and say, you know, this is what we’re going to do and that’s it,” says Perrin. Constantly upgrading Terra’s look over the years and revamping their offerings with seasonal ingredients to keep things fresh and innovative, the Substance Food Group proprietors happily obliged loyal clients living in Aurora when they asked for a restaurant closer to home. That’s when they gave them Terra’s little sister, Sarpa, named after the spirit of the grape, the soul of wine, in Venetian dialect. De Tommaso explains that the restaurant has a big focus on fish, with daily pescatarian specials featuring fresh-caught trawls that Perrin, who lives up in Collingwood, picks up from Kolapore Springs Fishery, a spring-fed trout farm located in Thornbury, Ont. “We never compromise the quality of our food,” says De Tommaso, who was dubbed “Chef Michael” by his counterparts for the many times he pops into the kitchens to assess ingredients and flavour profiles. “[De Tommaso] knows good food. He’ll cut the end off a striploin to make sure the quality is right, and if it’s not, it goes right back,” says Perrin.
The group’s commitment to a farm-to-table approach also extends to their vegetables, fruits and organic poultry, which are exclusively raised for Substance Food Group by Roy’L Acres Farm, a small, family-run business that produces GMO-free, pesticide-free and chemical-free artichokes, Swiss chard, Italian kale, parsnips, onions, morels, and grain- and grass-fed heritage chickens and lamb. “Winter is winter so we have to buy from places like California and Florida, but in the summer, from now until early November, we use local ingredients at all our restaurants,” says Perrin. “Our farmer also works with someone who grows shiitake mushrooms in a forest and they’re delivered to me the same day they’re cut down. Same thing with our lettuces and greens — they’re delivered fresh to my house every day and I bring them down to the city every day.”
While he’s classically trained in the art of fine dining, Perrin is also known for flexing his award-winning barbecue chops across North America as a regular on the competitive BBQ circuit. From first-place finishes at top international grilling events, such as the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Tennessee and the Salisbury Pork in the Park BBQ Festival in Maryland, Perrin has racked up a long list of accolades that have solidified him as a Canadian barbecue master.
Most recently he was appointed captain of the Canadian BBQ Society team at this year’s Memphis in May, which hosts a month-long festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Perrin and the CBS team took home third place in the “Anything But … Exotic” category with Terra’s Honey Mustard Pistachio-Crusted Rack of Lamb prepared on a smoker with cherry and apple wood. They also placed seventh in BBQ sauce, 25th in wings and 35th in the whole hog category — impressive numbers when you consider that 235 barbecue competitors from around the world descended upon the banks of the Mississippi River for the event.
In 2015, Perrin took home the top honour in the BBQ Food Fight Night at the weeklong World Food Championships in Kissimmee, Fla. — the world’s largest food sport competition attracting over 1,000 professional chefs from around the world. His triumphant triple-seared USDA prime beef tenderloin has since then been added to the menu at Rusty’s at Blue, where a competition-grade, 10-foot smoker barbecue brings all things southern and slow-cooked to life. He also placed second in the pasta category at WFC last year with his decadent rendition of tortellini stuffed with Mangalitsa pork, a dish now featured on the menu at Terra, Sarpa and Francobollo. “We’re constantly learning new techniques and exploring new flavours that we bring to the table at our restaurants,” says Perrin. “For example, I just bought a bison shank that we’re going to cure and smoke at Rusty’s and then make a risotto with it for our patrons at Terra,” he adds. Since 2008, the Substance Food Group’s landmark pub at the foot of the Blue Mountains has proven so successful with crowds young and old that SFG is currently working on a spinoff of the upscale southern BBQ concept for an undisclosed resort town in northern Ontario.
Although the past 20-plus years have been a time of growth and success for Substance Food Group, Perrin, Chase and De Tommaso have never forgotten their roots or replaced their gratitude with arrogance. The concept of their recently opened Francobollo Posto Italiano in North Toronto reflects their own humble beginnings: a small, personable restaurant where the highest priority is simple, good food. The trio isn’t at all concerned with Francobollo turning out to be the next trendy spot — their intention is to make it the next great neighbourhood restaurant of years gone by. De Tommaso explains that he named the restaurant after a memory of his grandmother, who would often ask him to fetch a francobollo — a postage stamp — so she could send letters to family back in Italy. The word stuck with him for decades before emerging with clarity in a world now driven by smartphones, emails and texts. “With everything going on these days, that whole process of writing home, of waiting for that letter to come, has much more meaning than just click and go,” says De Tommaso.
Knowing how integral service is to the dining experience, the partners continually place staff first, treating members just as they would family. So far multiple employees have worked a decade at Terra, with several going on to open restaurants of their own. Take for example local restaurateurs Gianmarco DeZorzi, Carmine Biasi and Jonathan Aretusi, who began their days at Terra as servers. DeZorzi now co-owns Italian restaurant Nodo in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto while Biasi is an owner of Maple’s popular Farro Ristorante. Aretusi is a partner at Francobollo Posto Italiano. “We always have the best team,” says De Tommaso, “the people we work with are unmatched. They’ve brought our success to the next level.”
As for what’s next, the Substance Food Group proprietors break out into big smiles — they face each hectic day as it comes, they say, while still keeping their eyes on innovative restaurant and catering concepts that reflect their goal of making life endlessly delicious. “It’s not the same day twice, but that’s the most captivating part of the restaurant business,” says Chase. “We love food and wine and the marriage of the two, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
PHOTOS BY Farzam Hosseindoust