If you tune in to a Toronto-based TV show and see a chef like Nigella Lawson or Marco Pierre White or a host like Marilyn Denis reaching for a tomato, chances are Justin Cournoyer bought it and tested the recipe, while his wife, Claudia Bianchi, made sure everything unfolded just right.
So what happens when a behind-the-scenes gastronomic dream team—“two important ambassadors of the food business in Canada,” according to Top Chef Canada head judge Mark McEwan—opens its own restaurant? For starters, expectations are high for Actinolite, a 30-seat eatery named after the Ontario mining town where Cournoyer grew up. After all, it has taken a while to hatch.
For the past 5½ years, the couple, who met in 1999, have been renovating the 125-year-old building they bought on Ossington north of Bloor in between jobs: Cournoyer as a food consultant and Food Network Canada’s culinary producer; Bianchi as a top Toronto food stylist. They also found the time to get married in 2005 and have a son, Toby, in 2010. “Claudia popped out her little baby and was back in the office a few days later with him strapped to her back,” says McEwan.
Cournoyer, 33, lived like Huckleberry Finn for his first 13 years in Actinolite, hunting, foraging for fiddleheads and wild asparagus, and building fires. “Those are good memories for me,” says the chef, part of Susur Lee’s original crew when he opened Susur in 2000. “When we bought this building, there was a lot of character and I wanted to scrape it back—everything has to have a meaning.”
The tables, ceiling and bar top are made with wood from Chisholm’s Mill in Roslin, Ont., which is owned by Cournoyer’s family. And the shelves are stacked with collected culinary curiosities, from old martini glasses from a great-aunt’s china cabinet to vintage silverware from the Canadian Pacific Railway and Royal Doulton plates from a hotel in Vancouver. The menu, too, has been evolving for months. “The weather has changed so dramatically that the dishes I had three weeks ago are too warm now,” says Cournoyer. Think Old World European flavours—nothing too precious—inspired by the seasons. “I’ve missed out on a lot not being on the [kitchen] line for four years, but I had to, in order to get this,” he says, gesturing around the room. “Now it’s time to catch up. I’m going with what I know and what I think is true to the neighbourhood, to the building, and to me. And then once I get myself back up to speed, who knows where it will go?”
The support from the neighbourhood has been welcome: a few doors south, a Chinese neighbour helps out with the garden in their backyard that produced beautiful tomatoes, herbs and fennel last year. “Jamie [Oliver] actually took some of our fennel seeds back with him,” says Bianchi. A sommelier neighbour, Peter Boyd from Toronto’s Scaramouche, told her it was going to be his local joint.
But media attention has made them wary. “It’s hoopla out there,” says Cournoyer. It started on the foodie message board Chowhound last Oct. 24, when people speculated it was a Portuguese restaurant called Action Lite. In January, the Toronto weekly The Grid wrote on its website: “Know of any openings, closings or Actinolite gossip?” And Twitter was aflutter with musings once the window coverings came down. “We had to put the paper back up,” says Bianchi. “When we’re ready, we’ll just unveil it. It’s kind of the way it works on a television show.”
She ought to know. “When a production company hires me,” explains Bianchi, “they’ve got a food stylist, so we can do a cookbook at the same time. I can produce, direct, write and break down recipes. It’s a package deal because Justin and I come together, so you know you’re going to have kick-ass stuff.”
Two days after Actinolite opens on March 28, Bianchi goes back to work. Nevertheless, their peers are confident the restaurant will be a success. Lee says the “hard-working and very committed” Cournoyer “has the heart for it.”
“They’re devoted to food and the sourcing of it,” says McEwan. “They do a good old-fashioned great job all the time.”
To see our Actinolite photo gallery, and to read some delicious interview excerpts, click here.