There is a visceral feeling that comes about when holding something in your hands that was made in your community – perhaps by a neighbour, a friend, or a friend-of-a-friend. As Toronto continues to refine its voice as a global cultural force, we look inwards at the individuals quietly working away, creating careful objects of beauty with their hands. It is this entrepreneurial gusto and cultural vision that we believe makes Toronto special.
Our Made In Toronto series is intended to serve as a looking glass into the minds and workplaces of these creative spirits, all with a unified love for craft, who believe in hard-work and creating something meaningful for their neighbours.
Here, we present once again: Made In Toronto with Mark Cutrara of Cowbell.
Mark Cutrara, chef and owner of the Parkdale-based bistro Cowbell, has done wonders for the culinary scene in Toronto. For this installment of our Made in Toronto series we wanted to highlight the artistry that goes into cooking the whole beast. And while confidence with the blade is one thing; launching a restaurant in a new neighborhood is an entirely different matter.
“Five years ago, when we opened Cowbell it was very difficult. As I was turning the key to open for the first day there was a homeless person taking a shit out on the sidewalk,” Cutrara told me. “I was very worried at the time because I was opening a fine dining bistro and I didn’t know if I’d be able to attract people to Parkdale.”
But attract it did, and not just diners. Soon other high-end restaurants flocked to the area. I went to Cowbell with my wife about a year after it opened. She loves old-world cuisine: offal-based meals made popular again by cooks like Anthony Bourdain and Fergus Henderson. She had the steak tartare (fine chopped raw beef) and I had the braised short rib. But it was the asparagus – a superb, paragon of asparagus (white, grown in Barrie) – that stayed with me. And it’s that moment that Cutrara is interested in.
“Thinking about food memories is a very attractive thing to me. Approaching menu items with a memory of your childhood – when did you have your first taste of a fava bean?” he asked. “What really triggers those vivid memories? And I approach the dining room and our menu with the ideas of having the best memory in front of you at any given night and on given plate.”
A meal at Cowbell is not unlike that scene in Ratatoullie, when the jaded critic is swept up in a wave of nostalgia after taking a bite, leaves him pining for the food of his mother’s table.
After our interview, we shot the ‘process’ stage, where Mark took apart a hip of beef in his basement prep kitchen. I learned that throwing around over 120 pounds of bone meat and sinew for an hour is not easy. Despite the multiple cooling fans, sweat poured from his face. But the results were amazing: the joint was expertly cut by into each individual muscle group for each cut of meat.
Mark has an especially close relationship with the farmers who supply his kitchen. But how close? Could he for example, ever find out an animal’s name?
“When I was just getting started, there was one time when we had an order of venison. When the farmer delivered it, he looked kind of down. It turns out that all the deer were particularly frisky that day, so the only one he could get into the truck was the family pet.”
“So yeah, I asked its name, so I could put it on the menu, as kind of in tribute. But it turns out diners do not want to eat ‘Daisy’. Trust me, we never did that again.”