rick mcginnis/metro toronto
Chef Marc Dufour, left, and owner Stew Cohen, of Freshman’s Gourmet Foods, in the front of the store.
Freshman’s Food Boutique
627 Mount Pleasant Rd.
171 East Liberty St., Ste. 155
(opening at the end of the month)
It seems that while everyone watches a few hours of food television every week can tell the difference between a stewing and braising, and plans to kit out their kitchens in marble and stainless steel, we don’t have the time to cook, and that’s why the prepared food business is the fastest growing part of the food industry. That would probably be why two new specialty food shops have sprung up in two bustling parts of the city on either side of Yonge Street, meant for discerning diners with taste but little time.
Stew Cohen moved to Toronto five years ago from Manhattan where, as a busy financial planner, he was used to taking home some of the finest prepared food available. He was impressed with the quality of the restaurants here, and the avidity of the food culture, but felt let down by the quality of even the highest-end takeout. “If I was going to go into a restaurant and get served the food that I was getting in some of these places,” he thought, “would I be happy? I don’t think if I went to a restaurant and had that food that I’d be happy.”
After planning for two years, he opened Freshman’s Food Boutique on Mount Pleasant just before Christmas, with Marc Dufour, a young chef fresh from stints in the kitchen at high-end eateries like Avalon, in charge of the open kitchen. Together, they put together a rotating menu that features classic dishes like Tuscan Chicken, Pork Tenderloin and Kafta Tajine, alongside specialties like Cataplana, a Portuguese fish stew, and Gringo Pie, a sort of Mexican lasagna. Everything is organic, if possible, and ingredients are sourced with quality as a priority.
“People can eat so much healthier and still enjoy the food,” insists Cohen, who is adamant that “we’re not a health food store; we’re a gourmet food store.” The key, he says, is taste — the food just happens to be good for you. “We use high-end techniques, but we produce everyday food. We want kids to love our food, and kids love our food.”
Cohen opened Freshman’s in the centre of a distinctly affluent area — “Lawrence Park, Forest Hill, Leaside and Rosedale” — that’s filling up with young families, so he has to appeal to the broadest age range. On the other side of town, chef Marc Thuet is days from opening Atelier Thuet, his own gourmet food shop, in condo-studded Liberty Village, a very different neighbourhood that’s thriving with the arrival of young couples and empty-nesters returning to the city from the suburbs.
“I think it’s on its way to becoming a really attractive part of the city,” Thuet tells me from his King Street West restaurant. “And obviously a lot of these people don’t have time to cook, so it’s more or less an extra service that they get when they come to that part of the city. I signed a lease a year ago and the difference between then and now is incredible. I think it’s the sexiest part of the city.”
The Alsatian-born Thuet made his name at Centro, The Fifth and Rosewater before opening Bistro Thuet two years ago. A sideline baking bread led to opening a bakery on the premises, and his various other sidelines made a gourmet food shop inevitable. He’ll be serving some of his signature dishes for takeout, including his Boeuf Bourguignon and Choucroute Garni, and selling his famous dry-aged beef, raw or cooked to order, for customers. Like Cohen and Dufour, he’s emphasizing organic ingredients and high-end preparation. He’s built a cheese cave to store and age the artisanal cheeses he gets from Northern Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, and he’s even offering a line of dog treats, including bones glazed with a foie gras reduction.
“That’s a little bit my hobby,” Thuet says. “I have dogs, I love dogs. They love it. I have people picking it up here, actually — I always have some at the bakery. I decided in the summertime when people were walking their dogs and coming in and picking up my breads, knowing sometimes what’s in the streets — it’s not very healthy for the dogs.”
Asked if the shop has delayed his rumoured plan to open a high-end fine dining establishment, he says that’s over the horizon. “Let’s open the Atelier first. I like that part of town, so if I do something, it’s going to be there. It’s really, really beautiful. I’m very excited.”