TORONTO — The secret to the perfect pastrami sandwich is in the carve. The brined, smoked and steamed beef brisket should be neither too marbled, nor too lean. The slices don’t have to be uniform, but each should contain a sliver of the charcoal-black spice crust — a little here, a little there — and must be cut thin, thin, thin.
“This pastrami, just by itself, is glorious,” rhapsodizes Toronto restaurant mogul Anthony Rose, popping a scrap of crimson meat into his mouth.
“I think a mistake that a lot of people make is you can just throw the mustard on there, you can just keep kind of adding things to it, but it’s not important,” he says, hoisting the hunk of pastrami back into its steamer behind the condiment-lined counter at Rose and Sons.
The 28-seat Jewish diner, partitioned into long wooden booths for family-style eating, was the first in Rose’s small empire of restaurants concentrated along Dupont Street, a congested midtown artery that bisects the bohemian Annex and the hillside mansions that surround Casa Loma.
Underneath a red-and-white sign blaring “FOOD,” in the window hangs a photo of a pubescent Rose inscribed “Bar Mitzvah Vintage,” as if he were a kosher fine wine. And despite his whiskey-swilling, gourmand-gone-rogue persona, there are still glimmers of that puckish bar mitzvah boy in 45-year-old Rose.
Given the former Drake Hotel head chef’s stature in the city’s food scene, Rose has no shortage of options when it comes to finding a spot to eat on Friday nights. But on the Sabbath and high holidays, there’s nowhere Rose would rather be than breaking challah bread with his relatives, gorging on his mother’s kugel (a casserole-like dish often made with egg noodles), followed by his aunt’s mint-topped brownies for dessert.
“It’s one and the same, to me, Jewish culture and family culture. It means you come here with a big group, and you have dinner, and you’re surrounded by friends and family,” said Rose. “The familiarity of it, is very important, just like the familial. The familial familiarity.”
Now, Rose wants to bring his signature blend of comfort fare and cultural cuisine to your family dinner table with his cookbook “The Last Schmaltz” — schmaltz, fittingly, being a Yiddish word that can mean excessive sentimentality, or melted chicken fat — co-written by Toronto-based food writer Chris Johns and published last month.
“I didn’t want to do the ABCs, how to roast a chicken, dump and stir,” said Rose. “I like to think that it’s a very personal cookbook.”
The $40 cookbook has the faux-sepia feel of a stylized scrapbook, with hand-drawn marginalia, souvenirs from Rose’s travels, and interstitial essays by Johns. In a forward written by none other than the chef’s mother, Linda Rose marvels that her “shy, introverted little boy” who spent more time taking apart his toys than honing his cooking skills has grown up to be a culinary trailblazer.
But perhaps it’s that childhood penchant for breaking things down into their constituent parts that allows Anthony Rose to take familiar, if not forgotten, staple ingredients and reassemble them in ways that feel both nostalgic and new.
Each section of the cookbook features select offerings from one of Rose’s restaurants capped off by a celebratory meal. There’s a recipe for a whiskey-soaked, rib roast from the Big Crow, Rose’s outdoor grill where he has hosted a chow down for a country musical festival crew. Foodies can make the “rugged” steak tartare from French bistro Bar Begonia, where Rose is photographed clinking glasses with members of an elite wine-tasting club, or try the sweet summer slaw from the backyard burger joint Madame Boeuf.
The cookbook also includes Rose’s reinventions of Jewish staples that had once been written off as old-fashioned, like the schmaltz latkes and Nutella babka bread pudding from his bagel-and-schmear spots, as well as the notorious tahini-drizzled, whole roasted cauliflower from his modern Middle Eastern eatery Fat Pasha.
“A lot of these (dishes) have skipped a few generations,” said Rose. “We like to say that we’re just bringing back good Jewish food.”
However, many of the recipes are decidedly not kosher, like grilled lobster, pork belly fried rice and clam chowder. Some even call for pork schmaltz, which Rose laughs off as “good juxtaposition.”
While he has a strong Jewish sensibility, Rose’s restaurants and recipes are rooted in a cross-cultural understanding that food, regardless of its origins, is meant to be enjoyed together.
“We like to stick with the classics a lot,” said Rose. “We can kind of bridge that gap and be able to do one kind of cuisine, that has been done … in one way for so long, (and) take other cultures and use it in there.”