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Chef Grant Van Gameren is losing his reservations - and it feels great

Grant van Gameren, one of the creators of legendary Toronto charcuterie restaurant The Black Hoof, is photographed in his new kitchen at Enoteca Sociale.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In the two-and-a-half years it took him to help build The Black Hoof up from an idiosyncratic, off-the-radar charcuterie bar to one of the country's most influential restaurants, Grant van Gameren gave every indication that he didn't want to be noticed. He avoided charity events and television appearances, and even as international superchefs like Gordon Ramsay and Daniel Boulud waited in line to try his cooking, he hated having to work out in the open every night, in view of the entire room. Mr. van Gameren, who is 30, rarely made eye contact with his customers. The fear of failure ate at him. He was terrified of seeing someone react badly to his food.

And he never learned to talk to his co-owner in the restaurant, he now realizes. Though he and Jen Agg were often portrayed as the city's preeminent culinary power couple, the reality wasn't anywhere near as sunny as that. They weren't friends. They were partners in a business relationship that grew more difficult the longer it went.

"She had always been the person who was communicating and I was always the person with the shut mouth," Mr. van Gameren said in an interview this week. "I would kind of lock down and not open up."

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When their partnership finally fell apart this summer – this just weeks after Food & Wine, the influential U.S. food magazine, listed their long-planned but as-yet-unopened second restaurant as one of Toronto's must-try spots – the city's most-talked-about chef made the bombshell announcement in a single, 19-word tweet. Then he locked down again and disappeared for a while.

But, for the last month, Mr. van Gameren has been working behind the scenes and – so far, at least – unnoticed, at Enoteca Sociale, a popular Roman-themed room on the city's west side. On Thursday, he was named the restaurant's executive chef. He's mentoring cooks, refining the restaurant's classic dishes, and remaking a big part of the menu to reflect his interests; he's introduced gizzards and sweetbreads, as well as a vegan dish that's made with kale, mushrooms, pine nuts and raw persimmons.

He and Max Rimaldi, who is a principal in the company that owns Enoteca Sociale and the growing Pizzeria Libretto chain, are also starting conceptual work on a "Grant restaurant," as they call it. The young chef who has always been reluctant to travel, who's so far taken just four airplane trips in his lifetime, has got research tours of New York and Rome planned.

But like so many creative stars who burn hot through their late teen years and 20s without ever really stopping to grow up, Mr. van Gameren has realized he also needs to get his life in order. And so for the first time since he started cooking professionally, he's also taking time to work on himself. He's even started seeing a therapist, he says. He loves it, and he's not afraid to admit that either. The city's quietest chef is learning to talk.

Success first, then conflict and therapy

The Black Hoof was never intended to become what it did. Mr. van Gameren and Ms. Agg had planned to serve only charcuterie and cheese at the restaurant, but a week before opening, they started to doubt. They hauled in an old electric stove that they found in a vacant apartment, and added hot food to their lineup. "I kept trying to make the food a little more complex, a little bit better, and things just kind of evolved from there," Mr. van Gameren said.

Even if you've never eaten there, you have, sort of: The Black Hoof influenced dozens of rooms that have opened in its wake (although none so far have been as good). The restaurant debuted in October, 2008, just as fine dining was lurching into its death throes, and a new and demanding generation of food lovers was desperate for a different style of place. They wanted fun and unpretentious but also accomplished. The Hoof, with its smart but casual service, DIY-ish decor, classic, well-crafted cocktails and menu features such as bone marrow, lamb's brains and tongue sandwiches exactly fit the bill.

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Yet Mr. van Gameren often felt that the restaurant's miniscule kitchen and the expectations of its clients had locked him into too narrow a style of cooking. He created seasonal vegetable dishes, for instance, but that's not what he was known for. They didn't sell, he said.

And even after he'd trained one of the city's most consistent kitchen crews, he had trouble stepping away. "Until, of course, I eventually did it one day," he said. "And within the first 20 minutes of sitting at home, it was super easy."

He needed another challenge. He persuaded Ms. Agg that they should turn The Hoof Cafe, a breakfast and cocktail place they'd opened across the street, into a casual but high-end tasting-menu restaurant. BHCo., as it was called, was 2011's most anticipated opening, easily. "We aspire to have BHCo. compete on the world stage," Ms. Agg said a few weeks before its planned launch date.

Mr. van Gameren didn't feel ready, however. He was losing confidence, and wanted more time. Ms. Agg, concerned about the cost of the empty space and idle staff, pushed for a faster launch. "I think that's where our relationship got a little more difficult," Mr. van Gameren said. They moved the opening back from last summer to this coming spring.

(In a written statement, Ms. Agg said she plans to keep her side of the story private. "I'd rather focus on the great things that are happening at the restaurant now, than something that happened months ago that I've long stopped thinking about," she said.)

Amid all this, Mr. van Gameren started seeing a therapist, in hope that it would help their relationship, he said.

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Though it was difficult going at first, he discovered that he liked it. He realized that if he wants to be the best he can, he has to know himself. "I became super open – Mr. Let's Rehabilitate, Let's Change," he said. But the business relationship couldn't be saved.

New partnerships, new ventures and a restaurant that's a blank slate

There is so much he's excited about. He's excited about creating again. He's excited about creating vegetarian dishes, even. "We've seen enough meat – it will always be around, but working in a restaurant that's not all offal, it's great to see the balance of what you can do," he said.

He's excited about his relationship with Mr. Rimaldi, who seems as much a friend and a mentor to him as a business partner. "I want him to travel," Mr. Rimaldi said in an interview. "This guy is ridiculously talented, but what's going to happen if he spends a week or two in Rome? He's going to come back and be a creative monster."

Mr. Rimaldi added that he's learning from Mr. van Gameren. "He'll say to me, 'This dish here, you know, it sucks,'" Mr. Rimaldi recalled. "'What are you thinking, allowing your guys to put that on the menu?' And okay, whoa, it hurt my feelings, but he's really woken me up to where I want to take this company."

So they're both learning to communicate, maybe. "If you're going into a business relationship you should really ask yourself, how do I communicate with this person, and am I comfortable? Because it's probably going to get tougher after that romantic start is over," Mr. van Gameren said.

The chef plans to focus on Enoteca Sociale for the next six months, until they go into full-out planning mode for the new place. They plan to begin looking at spaces when they get back from New York in a few weeks; they haven't yet settled on a neighborhood, and the opening, Mr. Rimaldi said, is likely at least a year away. But Mr. van Gameren has some ideas already. He wants to be able to serve big parties with whole roasts of meat and cauldrons of soup, he says. He wants to think more about service – about how to treat customers, about how much tiny gestures can matter.

He wants to do a place where his cooking can evolve with his interests. "I almost feel like the restaurant shouldn't have a name. I want to essentially strip the restaurant of all things that lock it into what it's going to be, or what style of food it serves or what its focus is going to be on."

And eventually, they both say, they'd like to open a restaurant in New York. "I definitely love Toronto and I don't want to leave this city," Mr. van Gameren said. "I'd love to live a double life, going back and forth."

"Maybe New York's like how I opened The Black Hoof," he added. "No one knows you, and, you know, nobody's got any expectations there about me. That's also something I think about."

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