Imagine a food television show where there are no "challenges," nobody shouts orders like a drill sergeant, no action-film soundtrack, and there are no emotional breakdowns. Impossible in this day and age, right? Not quite yet. While the food television landscape is saturated with over-the-top competition shows, one web series making its television debut on Telelatino Network (TLN) this fall has a different, more mellow, take. The Chef's Bar (watch episodes here), produced by Riverbank Pictures, stars Toronto-based restaurant owners, chefs, and BFF's, Craig Harding (Campagnolo) and Rob Rossi (Bestellen, and former Top Chef Canada contestant) as they simply invite a trio of friends to watch them cook thematic meals, chat about food and life, and then eat. Eater rang up Harding to talk about the show's origins, how food TV doesn't have to be gimmicky, and why he'd like invite his Italian grandfather, Mario Batali, and Roger Federer to the bar.
How did The Chef's Bar come about?
We've got this working relationship with Francis (Mitchell) from Riverbank Pictures - also with TLN. It started with the building of the restaurant (Opening: Campagnolo) and then we decided to do these travel shows (Opening: Italy) and we thought: "Let's do something in the studio." Rob and I can hang out with friends and make food that we really want to cook. That set the tone for it. Rather than go to TLN with it, it all came about as a Bell New Media Grant. So the support from them helped to create the pilot and a few episodes that were supposed to be a web series and an app. When TLN saw us filming it and producing it, they thought: "My God, this is perfect for us too." So they decided they were going to pick it up and so it'll be coming out on TLN shortly.
The show runs counter to so much of the food television that we see today. Now that it's going to TLN, are you being asked to amp up the tension?
That's the great thing about the work that we do with Francis is that we get to be ourselves. We don't have to follow any kind of formulaic kind of TV thing. We get to bring on people we enjoy working with. The Chef's Bar revolves around having people that are generally either food lovers or people in the food business. We've had Grant Van Gameren (Bar Isabel), Cory Vitiello (The Harbord Room), Matty Matheson (Parts & Labour), Peter Sanagan (Sanagan's Meat Locker). We've done ten episodes and just been able to hang out with our friends. We just had a blast.
On the website, only Italian-themed shows are featured. But you guys cook other stuff too, right?
We did four Italian episodes and then we went in a different direction. We did an Argentinean episode; we did a Campagnolo/Bestellen episode; we did a burger-off episode – we brought Matty Matheson in because he had just opened up P&L Burger. They're not all Italian-centric. We're keeping the rest of it ready for TLN.
What's the app?
That's something that's still in production as well. That will have all the recipes, really easy to access from your phone. You can watch the show, then go right to the recipes. And not only will you be able to see the written recipe, you'll be able to see the step-by-step cooking of it condensed. So you can work along with the recipes.
What is it about being a chef that makes a good television host?
I kind of think that being a chef – you're sort of in the business of pleasure. The reason I became a chef is that I just love to eat. I love the enjoyment of that and sharing a meal with friends, travelling the world, and learning about culture through food. It just creates great television. It doesn't have to be gimmicky or cheesy or whatever. It can be honest and fun. Restaurants are fun environments. You're laughing; people are enjoying themselves, having a good time. They're feeding their souls. Basically you could just turn a camera on in a restaurant – which, obviously, to some extent people have – and just watch it. It's interesting.
Once you set up a camera anywhere the atmosphere changes. Did you and Rob have to adjust your off-camera friendship once you turned the camera on yourselves?
No. It's almost like there isn't even a camera there. That's why it's so great. Francis just turns it on and lets it roll. He lets us do our thing; lets us joke around; lets us make fun of each other; lets us call each other out on the stupid shit that we're doing: "I wouldn't do it like that. Why the hell would you do it like that? That doesn't make any sense." So we have this ongoing back-and-forth banter and criticism but then we enjoy each other's food. It's just us being us.
Sounds like such a great experience. I'm still surprised you don't have executives on your ass to be more "outrageous."
I think this must be rare for us to be experiencing it like this. So we're just going to appreciate it and enjoy it and see where it takes us. The guys at TLN are soooo supportive. They just say: "You know what? You just do your thing. We don't need to step in." And they love that they're getting exclusive Canadian content from chefs that are actually working in Canada. It makes sense for them.
Okay, last question: If you could invite any three people to The Chef's Bar, alive or dead, who would be your picks?
Wow. I would definitely like to have my Italian grandfather who I never had the chance to meet, Primo Baratto. I just know he had such a passion for food, wine, and hunting. I'd love to be able to cook for him. I'd also love to be able to cook for (Mario) Batali. Because this show is kind of similar to Molto Mario, one of the first Batali shows that was out when Food Network was more of an actual cooking network. I'd love to know what Batali thought of the whole thing and just to know that there's young people following in his footsteps, cooking in restaurants, and doing really great honest TV. Um… that's a good question. As a third person (long pause), it might be interesting to have… (longer pause) I'm a huge tennis fan so I would love to have Roger Federer come in and give me some tennis tips while I cook for him.
Figure out the backhand?
Figure out that beautiful Swiss backhand while we have some fondue or something.
While waiting for The Chef's Bar to air on TLN, watch episodes here, along with the rest of the "Opening" series'.