Look, I have to tell you, I love this town – I wouldn’t have opened if I didn’t. What I’ve learned is people embrace good food. There’s a discerning palate here. And I think the people from here are going to Miami and New York and finding us, that’s what I wanted all along. That was my intention.
You think people from Toronto are actively seeking out your restaurants elsewhere?
It happens all the time.Let’s hope we’re doing something that’s recognizable when people leave their own city, that’s all I’m saying.
How much time do you actually spend here?
This project was a little late, and I had openings in Las Vegas and Los Angeles that I was doing as well. So, I had to sneak out and I’ve been travelling a lot. The time I spend in each city is fluid, but I do spend time in all the cities. I can’t carve out time a certain way – I’m in Toronto now, I’ll go on vacation for 10 days, then back here again for five days.
How do you maintain quality in Toronto if you’re not around a lot?
We schedule conference calls all the time, we BBM each other. We’re in constant contact. You need to let people do their jobs.
Your Twitter bio points out that you are “not a douche.” Why do you need to tell people that?
On 24-Hour Restaurant Battle, they really make me look like a nice guy. But as nice as I look on that show, I come across as mean and kind of douchey on Chopped. Honesty is funny; sometimes it stings. The key is always just to be fair and constructive. That said, editing is a hell of a thing. I read what people write on Twitter. I just retweeted a guy who asked where I studied my perfect “dickhead personality.” I found it funny – sometimes you can just laugh and embrace that public persona.
Does it terrify the staff when you wander in and spend time in the kitchen?
I’m not that guy – I’ve worked with people in the past who led by fear. That doesn’t make anything better. I’m a motivator. I walk around patting people on the back all the time and asking questions. Nobody knows how a place functions better than the staff. I’m a big advocate of people showing their personalities on the floor in the dining situation with the customers. As long as it doesn’t go too far – patting [a customer] on the back is a little too much.
What do you look for in a restaurant?
There are a lot of moving parts. But cleanliness goes without saying.
What’s a deal breaker?
Always bad service. How many times have we all been to restaurants where food is spectacular but the service is bad? There’s never an excuse to be rude to a customer. The absolute worst is to show a customer you don’t care. They look up at the wait person and they are looking at a blank face. Forget it, that’s unforgivable. What we do is simple stuff – just make people happy.
Do your friends hate going to dinner with you?
I have one friend who always wants to go to a place called Chirping Chicken in New York – it’s the kind of place where you go and grab a tray and eat your chicken in the corner. I love the chicken and I’ll order it in, but there’s no way I’m going in there.
So do you have them to your place to eat instead?
No, I take them to the restaurant.
Where do you eat when you’re here?
I love Buca – I think it’s awesome. Terroni is really good, it’s a fun place. And there’s this place called Reggie’s, a sandwich spot that is open 24 hours. I’ve done a lot of late-night runs there.
What have you eaten so far today?
I’m a “cup of coffee, triple-espresso and out the door” kind of guy usually. Today, I woke up and went to a Good Morning America shoot. I did a tasting of diet foods, pre-prepared and packaged. That’s a bad way to start. After that I went to the airport and had some watermelon and a tuna-fish sandwich.
What’s the one thing everyone should know how to cook, but usually screws up?
Scrambled eggs. You need a medium-hot pan – olive oil or butter. Wooden spoon. Throw in the eggs that are already whisked and use very small circles to stir. Don’t overcook. I also use one of those immersion blenders to create a nice froth and aerate it a touch.
This interview has been edited and condensed.