Great Cooks On Eight
Address: 401 Bay St. (8th floor)
Hours: M — F: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p .m.
Lunch for 2 w/tax & tip: $40
*** 1/2 (out of five)
You have to hunt a bit to find the front door of Great Cooks On Eight, but it’s worth the effort if you’re looking for one of the best views in the city while you eat your lunch.
When it started almost 20 years ago down Queen Street as just Great Cooks, it was just a cooking school, and Esther Benaim has been there since the beginning, moving from manager to owner before the move to the Bay Tower. Along with partner Maggie McKeown, she oversaw the opening of the T Spot downstairs, and then the renovation of an eatery that stares across Queen to the ornate red stonework on Old City Hall.
The cooking school remains the core of their business, however.
“Right now we’ve just finished lunch,” Benaim tells me, “and as it happens we have a group of about 55-60 people coming in to cook tonight, so we’re going to transition into that now. Most of the kitchen staff are instructors — we bring in other people as well who just do that for us. Our staff loves it — they’ll work a long day from 8:30 or 9 in the morning till 9:30 tonight. It’s a part of the business that they really love doing.”
At the moment, the roster of star chefs teaching in the kitchens includes names such as Massimo Capra of Mistura, Jean-Pierre Challet of The Fifth, David Chrystian of Chez Victor and Jason Barrato of Trattoria Giancarlo. Teaching alumni include virtually every big name in Toronto’s kitchens, but after the move to the Bay and the opening of The
T Spot downstairs, Benaim and McKeown decided they needed an eatery to improve their cash flow and utilize some of the talent they had on tap.
Like most quality lunch menus in the city, Great Cooks plays it light and easy.
“Basically it’s things we like to eat. It’s very fresh and not fancy,” Benaim says. “Meat is something we’ve had a very hard time selling at lunch and so we went to fish, and that goes very well. So we try and put in two or three fish dishes.
“Chicken always sells well, as do sandwiches, and we sell a lot of salads, which are very healthy, whether it has a chicken breast on top or whatever. We try to have a varied menu so that when a foursome comes they can all find something to eat.”
Lunch has its own challenges, prime among which is the disappearance of the three-martini midday meal among health-conscious workers, and the loss of that crucial revenue. Benaim and McKeown have kept a steady hand, however, with a small but flexible menu that includes perfectly-cooked salmon with a lightly sweet glaze, and the novelty of their tea menu, which allows you to savour the view — and your last few minutes of lunch — with an aromatic pot of green tea, Chinese black tea, or an exotic blend, served with a helpful timer in a clear glass tea press.
The crowd is mostly drawn from the office towers, and nearby Osgoode Hall, and Benaim says their loyalty has a lot to do with regarding the place as their own little secret. “They love to show it off because it’s hidden.”