GOTTA PAY THE COST TO BE THE BOSK
I love my friends. I highly respect Chefs. And I love having friends that are highly respected Chefs. So, about whom am I speaking? None other than Damon Campbell, the Executive Chef Shangri-La Toronto's flagship restaurant, Bosk. Now, I have known Damon for going on twenty years, I have watched his star rise, but have also been privy to some of the stories of common struggle that either make or break many of the world's great Chefs. It can be a very demanding job, often times thankless, and the hours are long. Yet, in the chosen few, a fire burns in the belly, a longing to explore and create drives them and keeps the daunting apsects at bay.
One of my favourite meals was compliments of Damon when he worked at Diva at the Met here in Vancouver. It was a wonderfully prepared chicken dish that had been smoked with Earl Grey tea; in fact, it inspired the way I make my poultry brine, but that's a different article for another day. Before landing at Diva at the Met, Damon gained valuable experience and education at the famed French Laundry in Napa Valley. Under culinary guru, Thomas Keller, Damon worked those tireless hours that come with the territory, and it bettered him and his understanding of the realities of the industry. I remember bragging to friends, while living vicariously through Damon, that I had a buddy working at one of the world's best restaurants.
It is easy to lose passion for something you love. I have experienced it with music. One day it's all you think about. The next, the mere thought of it twists your gut into knots. Is it fear of failure or fear of success? Either way, for those with the drive to fight back, be tenacious, and face their inner demons, the reward of staying the course is ten fold. Damon faced those pointy horned little monsters, and not only reinvigorated his love for the cooking, he ignited a passion that has made him one of the most prolific Chefs on the planet.
An opportunity to travel to Asia and work at Shangri-la Kuala Lumpur came to light and Damon seized the chance. After years of paying dues, honing a new skill set, and adopting a palette for regional flavours, Chef Damon Campbell was truly born. His hard work did not go unnoticed and the universe rewarded him with the top position at Shangri-la Toronto and Bosk Restaurant. A beautifully designed room on the lobby level of Toronto's Shangri-La Hotel, the environment and the clientele are both conducive to excellence.
My dear friend and very accomplished writer, Karen Bliss, is a mega foodie and my T.O. tour guide whenever I am in town. On this particular occasion, though, I had the pleasure of introducing her to Chef Campbell's wizardry, through the guise of a four course lunch. Before I break down the menu, allow me to say this: the staff were awesome and very genuine. Often in fine dining the atmosphere can take precedent over personality; a balance between the two is a nice chord to strike. At Bosk, they have mastered it.
When Damon came out from the kitchen to greet us, it garnered some attention, and I can't lie, I felt kind of special. We chatted for a few minutes; he suggested some nice wine to pair alongside the meal, and double checked if there were any allergy concerns or non desired items. Once we gave the go ahead I could see the wheels start to turn in Chef's head. I know that look and I was excited for what was to follow.
The first course of Seared Diver Scallops with Pickled Hon-shimigi Mushrooms and Avacado with Crispy Rice was a perfect start. Cooked to perfection, the scallops' buttery texture were complimented by the crunch of the rice, and the pickled mushrooms added salinity and a wonderful earthiness, plus the character of the vinegar brightened the dish superbly. Next up, Butter Poached Lobster with Truffled Potato Gnocchi and Tomato Concasse. Chef Campbell has taken great advantage of his proximity to the Eastern Seaboard and because of this, the lobster he orders is bar none, hands down: Incomparable. One tail and one claw each had our mouths watering. The house made gnocchi was fluffy yet substantial, and the concasse added a nice burst of acidity and colour. After the second course, we switched to red wine, and took a moment to reset our taste buds.
When the Cumbrae Beef Rib-Eye and Shortrib with Roasted Shallots and Parsnips arrived on a bed of Kale covered in jus, I think my cutlery jumped into my hands and started naviagting the dish before Chef could explain the ingredients. My knife and fork literally animated themselves. Damon stated that the Cumbrae ( pronounced KOOM-BRAY ) Beef was the best he had seen, touting it over even Wagyu or Kobe. From the first bite I instantly agreed. In fact, if no one had been watching and we weren't in such a respectable establishment, I would have freed myself of all utensils and gone in with my bare hands. The beef was rich, succulent, and perfectly portioned. The roast veg still had that crunch one looks for when paired with a buttery cut of meat and, well, who doesn't love jus?
I lost my sweet tooth years ago, but when the fourth and, regrettably final course came, I seemed to find it again, and this time it came back with a vengeance. A share plate of Coconut Sorbet with a Mango and Passion Fruit Panacotta on Shortbread, White Chocolate Struesel, Poached Pear with Hazelnut Caramel Cake and, a Ginger Molasses Crumble with Pear Sorbet, was stunning. Karen and I looked at each other, looked at the plate, I looked at our server, asked for a double espresso, then my dear friend and I went to town on the desserts. Not sure how we did it but I don't think there was a crumb left.
After a few minutes slumped back in our chairs, hand over our bellies, eyes bigger than our stomachs, Karen and I settled up our bill and thanked our server profusely. Chef Campbell came out to wish us farewell and even walked us to the door. Karen had to run to another appointment which gave Damon and I a few minutes to catch up. As we stood in the rain, we laughed how it reminded us of a Vancouver day. We talked about our roots and how we were both thankful to be where we were at in life, and then, like good bro's do, we hugged it out. As I ambled out into the Toronto streets with a belly full of good food and a head full of good memories, I was reminded how much I respect chefs, how much I love my friends, and how much I love having friends that are respected Chefs.