A chef walks into a bar – and never walks out. It’s not the start of a joke; it’s the start of one of Toronto’s most visionary bartender’s career. Frankie Solarik, the brains behind BarChef’s mixology, is a very cool and insanely creative guy who began bartending when he was 18 years old – or 19 years ago.
One of his first bartending jobs was in London, Ontario at a cigar bar. “Being in that environment, hearing the gentlemen talk about different nuances of flavour and aroma and the particular spirits that they were drinking, I kind of fell in love with the industry,” Solarik says. In the early 2000s, he moved to New York and that was where, working as a food runner in the kitchen, he discovered bartending as a professional career. Solarik loved the “energy of the kitchen and the colors of the plates” he was bringing to guests. He began incorporating some of the ingredients he was seeing used on the plates into cocktails. “I went into it with the same perspective as making teas with the idea of steeping ingredients for a particular amount of time to draw flavour out of them,” says Solarik, who met his BarChef co-owner, Brent VanderVeen when they were both working at another Toronto restaurant. VanderVeen is “as passionate about the actual operation running smoothly and efficiently as I am with the artistic expression of the cocktails and the dishes that are coming out of the kitchen,” Solarik says, calling them the “perfect yin and yang.” The two determined to open a cocktail bar with zero restrictions in terms of ingredients.
Eight years later, BarChef is still thriving, but Solarik’s cocktail making process has evolved dramatically. During BarChef’s renovations, the liquid connoisseur came across Anthony Bourdain’s Decoding Ferran Adria video and was exposed to molecular gastronomy for the first time. Solarik, who had entered into the field making regular cocktails, “fell in love with that approach.” It was all about chemical reactions and “creating an immersive, emotional, multi-sensory experience.”
“I had a gentleman in from chicago who was saying if you go to enjoy a very fine dining meal there’s a narrative behind that. It’s like there’s a definitive beginning, middle and end, he said. But to be able to achieve that in a glass with one cocktail is an unbelievable experience and that’s the goal for me. The goal is to tell a story at the end of the day.”
Solarik started behind the bar but as his cocktails grew more elaborate, VanderVeen suggested he move back into the kitchen to take advantage of the added space and light. If you’ve ever enjoyed a BarChef cocktail, you’ll know each one has its own narrative. Take, for example, the Day into Evening cocktail which told the story of the transition from early day into evening in the summertime. Or the Pastels of Pisco, a spring 2017 cocktail currently being perfected which celebrates pastel colors. To create these feats of creativity, Solarik uses traditional knife work cuts such as Julienne. But instead of applying these to food, “it’s the idea of taking a liqueur or some type of alcohol, manipulating that into either an ice or a gel, cutting it into traditional cuts or preparations but then manipulating that into a whole new presentation.” Other more modern techniques include sugarwork, spherification and use of agar, gelatin and liquid nitrogen. But how do you create an experience out of a cocktail when alcohol has no aroma? If you’re Frankie Solarik you use dry ice to give that cocktail an “ambient aromatic quality which essentially takes you and puts you into an experience.” He tells me about the few times his cocktails’ scents resonated so powerfully with patrons that they cried. One time he served the leather-scented Mad Man to a man who was brought back to his first baseball glove and attending games with his dad. The Spring Thaw with its aromas of cedar, grapefruit, orange blossom and soil often reminds people of being in their grandparents’ backyards. Adding scent is a presentation technique achieved by including a scented vessel with the cocktail. “The manipulation of the liquid into different textures allows me to achieve a particular experience for a guest,” Solarik explains.
Now I want to know about Solarik’s own experiences with liquid. What drinks are the best to the King of Cocktail? “There have been some amazing wines. I take a big inspiration from the wine world, as far as the amount of complexity and mouth feel,” he says, but if he could only drink one thing for the rest of his life, he would choose a double jack and coke or a classic martini. “To be honest some of the ingredients we make here take me to a very special place,” Solarik adds, citing a caraway-infused maraschino liqueur which is “otherworldly.” He also recently had some amazing whiskey at a tasting at The Aviary in Chicago.
“My goal is to have Barchef reach an international level of notoriety and create a new genre in the world of food and drink.”
BarChef – the place and the man – begs the question: “is it a cocktail because it’s alcohol based or is it a dish because it’s consumed with service ware?” The BarChef team of 15 in the kitchen refers to their cocktails as dishes. This team is comprised of all cooks and chefs because it is “easier for them to get into that perspective of execution of these types of dishes.” Solarik’s self-proclaimed obsession with his craft and ingredients is written in ink. His arms are tattooed with encyclopaedic representations of the components of his bitters – rosemary, caraway, chamomile, cacao. Ultimately, he will create a full sleeve.
At Barchef you’re never really sure if you’ve gone back in time or forward. On the one hand, Solarik is “utilizing references of nostalgia” and on the other, he strives to be the world’s first Michelin-rated bar. But regardless, there’s something in the air here and it isn’t just the lingering smoky fragrance of his signature Vanilla and Hickory Smoked Manhattan: it’s pure genius.