Get To Know an ACF Ambassador Chef: Rodney Bowers
Throughout our Love Food Give Food campaign, Action Against Hunger will be speaking to our ACF Ambassador Chefs – the culinary all-stars who are teaming up with ACF Canada about their careers in cuisine, their love of food, and why they are joining the fight against malnutrition.
How did you get started in your career as a chef?
Rodney Bowers: I was born into it. My mom and grandmother were cooks so I was always around food. From there, I think it was a natural progression. In any career, you aspire to do certain things, and mine was owning my own restaurant. I just worked at it until I made it a reality.
Is there a style of cooking that you gravitate towards?
Rodney Bowers: We’re very product-driven here, and my cooking has shifted from technique to product. We focus on where our meat, olive oil, or flour, comes from. We steer clear of GMOs and try to buy fair trade when we can, and we work with a good local meat supplier. That’s a process even now with [Hey Meatball!], it’s tracking down those things. It’s where I think cooking is at – a fantastic product for a great value.
You’re originally from Newfoundland. What’s the food scene like there?
Rodney Bowers: It’s tight, b’y! It depends on who you’re around. It could be supper from a can or it could be a well-cooked meal. I grew up in a family that was [lucky], so we had a lot of fish, had a lot of game meat, we picked berries and preserved vegetables when they were in season. I was lucky.
What made you want to open a restaurant dedicated to the humble meatball?
Rodney Bowers: It was just something that grew out of an idea. When I had my restaurant [The Rosebud] on Queen St., it was very involved. Having a full service, getting up at 6 A.M. and hitting the kitchen running until 1 A.M. It takes everything that you have to give as a cook, especially when it’s on a small scale with 35 seats, with four cooks in the back. I wanted to have a simpler restaurant. My food ideal has always been to put the best food that we can on the plate in terms of product. By best food I mean products that have been ethically, locally raised (I’ve always been a bit of a hippie). It’s how we put that on a grand yet easy scale, and it’s easier to do when you have such a small restaurant because you can cook whatever you want. I just like this model because I’m married and have a child, and I thought, what’s a simple restaurant that kids like to eat at that I can send my daughter to and never have to worry. I thought burgers were overdone, and there are only so many food trends out there that kids happen to love. When my wife and I were in Turkey, they had these meat stands called kofta shacks, where they grill a couple of pieces of meat over charcoal and serve it on a plate with a little salad and some fresh sauce or hot peppers. And I thought this would be great in Toronto. But we weren’t sure about Torontonians wanting to eat kofta, so the idea morphed into basic meatballs. The story wrote itself and here we are.
What makes a good meatball?
Rodney Bowers: It’s about balance. You need to have another agent in there besides meat to soften it up, whether it’s breadcrumbs, chilies, or maybe garlic, because if it’s all meat it’ll be like a golf ball. But we are going through quite a bit of meat.
You manage several locations. What are the challenges in operating multiple restaurants in a food scene as competitive as Toronto’s?
Rodney Bowers: The challenges are always day-to-day. One day, the toilet might clog. On another, a cook gets sick. Stuff happens, stuff goes wrong, and you just deal with it. I’ve always said if there were ever a flood or a fire, I’d be a great team leader because I know how to crisis manage. Over the years, when you run restaurants you know how to crisis manage because you learn to deal with things, and in this business nothing gets accomplished when you’re worked up.
In addition to teaming up with Action Against Hunger, you’ve also launched other hunger-focused programs aimed at helping underprivileged people in Toronto. As someone in the food business, how much does the issue of hunger matter to you?
Rodney Bowers: I hope it will have a small impact and bring the issue of hunger to Toronto. Because it’s something we don’t think about, but it’s out there. You don’t have to be living on the street, you could just be not well off and unable to afford good food – it’s not cheap. You asked me about the food in Newfoundland, and a lot of people there eat poorly because they can’t afford to eat well. Fresh produce is a luxury in Newfoundland, because it’s an island and everything is brought in.
What made you decide to participate in Action Against Hunger’s Love Food Give Food Campaign?
Rodney Bowers: We have to be very choosy about what we support beyond our immediate community, and I’m very strict about it. Hey Meatball! is a very family-friendly restaurant and we see a lot of kids in here, so the causes we support are very child-oriented. I think we all have an understanding of hunger in other nations because we’ve been bombarded [by images of starvation] for years and years. Sometimes it comes up then it goes away, we see an image on television or a magazine. So it’s about getting reacquainted with it and understanding what’s going on, and that’s what [Love Food Give Food] is about. The background that I read was fantastic and on our level. It’s minimal and choice-driven, and that’s what I like about it.
Rodney Bowers grew up in Windsor, Newfoundland, where he served his first-ever à la carte meal at age four, helped out in his family’s kitchens and businesses, and, by age 13, was working his first official job at the local pizza franchise. Expanding his culinary horizons, Rodney then hopped from one opportunity to another in Newfoundland, Connecticut and finally Toronto where he worked at the Homestead Inn and the Four Seasons Hotel before moving on to run the kitchen at Massimo Capra’s Mistura. Rodney opened his first restaurant, The Rosebud, in 2004. And, featuring unpretentious service and great food at reasonable prices, followed that success with The Citizen in 2008, and later The Kane Social, a speakeasy style bar. He sold both restaurants in 2010 to go back to his roots — learning, inspiring and creating. In 2011, Rodney opened Hey Meatball! in Little Italy, and has opened two more locations in Roncesvalles and Leslieville, and has appeared on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.