Executive Chef Stephen Perrin reflects on 20 Years Terra Restaurant
For the past 20 years, Terra has been serving up posh plates north of the core. To celebrate this Thornhill restaurant’s anniversary we caught up with executive chef and co-owner Stephen Perrin to chat with him about Terra, as well as the other establishments he and his fellow Terra co-owners, Ian Chase and Michael De Tommaso, have opened under their Substance Food Group banner.
Q: Back in 1995, you were working with Mark McEwan at North 44 along with Ian Chase, who was managing the restaurant. How did you end up opening Terra together?
A: Terra was originally opened by Franco Prevedello — arguably the Godfather of fine dining in Toronto— but circumstances beyond his control led to him putting Terra up for sale. Shortly after the North 44 team (Ian, Mark [McEwan] and I) acquired the restaurant, Mark decided to leave the business to Ian and I.
Q: Before opening Terra, you worked with world-class chefs (including Rory Kennedy of Le Gavroche). Which of your mentors has most influenced your approach to cooking and how?
A: Chef Mark McEwan. He taught me how to cook great food fast. He also taught me about the business element of running a restaurant. From Rory Kennedy, I learned how to work well under pressure.
Q: In 2008 you, Ian and Michael opened your second restaurant, Rusty’s at Blue. What’s the story behind this casual after-ski spot that’s basically Terra’s antithesis?
A: Rusty’s came about purely by luck. One night the group of us were chatting at Terra with a regular customer and friend of ours. They brought up that the location was becoming available at the base of Blue Mountain. After a couple of notes on cocktail napkins Rusty’s was born.
Q: If you could distill the essence of Substance Food Group, what are you about and what are the common themes that connect the restaurants?
A: The Substance Food Group is united by a common mission: to provide quality cuisine and outstanding service with both confidence and pride. We’re not trying too hard to be trendy with any of our restaurants and we adjust our overall approach and style of service to the restaurant concept to best cater to the clientele. We’re focused on producing the best food possible with quality ingredients in a warm, comfortable environment. The relationship I have with local Ontario farmers allows me to incorporate the freshest produce and highest quality meat, fish and poultry.
Q: How did you settle on a menu for Rusty’s?
A: We wanted to provide the classic après ski fare, but we also wanted to raise the bar and show off our ability to create a sophisticated twist on that style of menu. I also added a 10-foot barbeque smoker to be able to bring that authentic flavour to the menu items.
Q: You’ve won a number of BBQ competitions including the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue where you received a perfect score of 180 in the Chef’s Choice category! When did you fall for BBQ?
A: I fell in love with grilling and barbeque about eight years ago when I was in Whistler and visited a restaurant called Dusty’s. I became fascinated with their smoking techniques. Coming from a fine dining background, I felt challenged by the discovery of a whole new style of cooking that I wasn’t initially good at. I had a personal mission to master it and open up my own location.
Q: You use a lot of seasonal ingredients that are brought in fresh from local Mennonite farms, this means you are always redrafting menus at all four restaurants. What inspires you as a chef?
A: My adventures in Texas and down South through BBQ competitions as well as my experience abroad definitely influence the menus at all my restaurants. Further to that, the menus at all my restaurants inevitably influence one another. For instance, right now the smoking methods that I use at Rusty’s are also popping up on the menu at Terra, as it’s a great way to add an additional flare and subtle flavour to a dish, like the chunky smoked bacon in our Caesar salad.
Q: Up until 2008, you and your partners focused all of your attention on Terra, but over the past seven years you’ve opened three additional restaurants under the Substance Food Group banner, what catalyzed this expansion?
A: The desire to diversify our restaurant catalogue catalyzed the expansion. The Rusty’s concept was polar opposite from Terra, and we loved the idea of doing something different. Everything that we couldn’t do at Terra we were able to do at Rusty’s. After Rusty’s, we wanted to continue to develop restaurants with different concepts that could easily be distinguished from one another yet still had the same outstanding service and cuisine that our customers would trust us to deliver.
Q: Out of all four of your restaurants, do you have a favourite dish that you’re always craving?
A: Definitely the dry-aged, bone-in rib eye steak from Terra that occasionally makes it on to the menu at our other restaurants as well.