rick mcginnis/metro toronto
Address: 44 Gerrard St. W.
Hours: Sun. to Thurs., 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 11 a.m. - 1 a.m.
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip $25
*** 1/2 (out of 5)
Chef jason Symington’s kitchen is thousands of miles away in Abbotsford B.C., but for today he’s set up shop in a small downtown storefront just a short walk from the Eaton Centre, in a kitchen that duplicates the one where Panago Pizza’s corporate chef does most of his work.
Symington is in town to launch the first Toronto location in the history of the west coast chain, the 159th the company has opened since it was founded in 1986. He’s the company’s corporate chef, a job he took years after his working in pizza parlours in high school and college. He went on to two stints working for the Earl’s chain of eateries and some time in the Radisson in Canmore, B.C., before getting the call from Panago.
Symington’s job is essentially to run the chain’s 159 kitchens by remote control, developing and testing new recipes in his kitchen in Abbotsford and sourcing new ingredients and products in quantities large enough to feed the chain’s considerable demands. Since starting with the company two years ago, though, he’s been surprised how much time he’s been able to spend in the field.
“Part of what I really enjoy,” he says, “which I thought I’d miss, is being in the stores — I spend a lot of time in the stores across the country. Part of my role is to be out there, working with the employees, meeting with the customers, talking about our food, meeting with the franchisees. So as much as I’m hands-off in that sense, Panago has some great training programs in place that I was really impressed with when I came on board, and I still get a chance to touch everything a little bit, even when it’s out there in the chain.”
New recipes call for new ingredients, such as two new pizzas that feature goat cheese — a grilled veggies pie and one featuring chorizo sausage. The hunt for a consistent supply of good chèvre took him to Ontario, well in advance of the company’s expansion here. “I worked closely with a farm just north of Toronto on the product. With the amount of travelling that I do, we do source products out west, but we have an office here in Toronto, and I have the opportunity to spend a lot of time in different areas of the country and in the U.S. We try to source as much as we can in Canada, and to work with Canadian suppliers — we have such good products here. The goat cheese is a great example — I went up to the farm, met with the farmers, saw how they grow their own feed, raise the goats, and it was a great experience.”
Like most other pizza makers, Panago offers bespoke pizzas in addition to their own specialties, and I wonder whether Symington has been horrified at some unnatural combination of ingredients ordered up by customers — pairings that he, as a chef, would never dream of making?
“It’s interesting for me to stand in the kitchen at our stores, or listen in at the call centre and wonder, ‘Wow, I can’t believe they’re putting smoked oysters and pineapple together — that sounds a little bit different.’ Because I get a lot of feedback from customers and agents who work our phones, they’ll send me notes saying ‘You won’t believe what someone ordered last night,’ and I’ll find myself in the kitchen putting those things together, just to see where that’s coming from, what are they trying to experience. We’ve actually come up with some pretty good combination from those ideas, and from the employees in the store.”