Michael Kirkwood

Bold decisions in tough times

Veteran chef Michael Kirkwood has overseen a transformation at Toronto’s Bramble amid serious illness and industry trauma

By Tom Nightingale

Nothing has been easy in foodservice during COVID-19. Since March 2020, the industry has been plagued by closures, thinning margins, and the loss of the traditional avenues by which they served their customers and communities. “It’s just been so tough to see and to be a part of,” Chef Michael Kirkwood tells RestoBiz. “I have a lot of friends in this business who have had to shut their restaurant down and it’s incredibly disheartening.”

Michael Kirkwood has seen a lot over the course of his 27 years in the foodservice and hospitality business in Toronto. After developing an interest in gourmet cuisine at a young age and starting out as a line cook, he has since spent time as an executive chef of such establishments as Toro, Grange Restaurant & Wine Bar, Holts Café, and at Novotel in Toronto.

His experience and nous has certainly been in high demand.

Michael Kirkwood

“I opened a restaurant about two years ago called Beaches Brewing Company as a consultant,” Kirkwood says. “I went in, opened the restaurant from scratch, and then helped them find a replacement.” He then worked with a catering company before he and other staff were let go due to COVID-19.

These days, he is chef at Bramble Gastropub on Toronto’s Bloor Street West, an opportunity of Kirkwood’s own making. He explains he approached the owner who was advertising for a chef when the restaurant was under the name of Table 21.

“I sent her an email saying ‘I am your new chef’, which could have been taken as arrogant or could have been taken as a moment that was meant to be,” he admits. “It turns out it was meant to be.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic already raging, the team set about building the kitchen from scratch and renovating the dining room beyond recognition, a process that took about eight weeks. Bramble pushed their opening day back due to the pandemic before getting word that indoor dining would be reduced to 25 per cent, which would have allowed them just 25 patrons. That left a tough decision to be made.

“We discussed as a team whether it was still worth opening up or whether we should wait it out,” Kirkwood notes. “I had bought the food and we’d bought all the equipment and had the staff so we thought ‘why not?’” A key motivation was getting the neighbourhood familiar with the fact a new restaurant was in town at a time when so many establishments were shutting their doors.

The opening went very well, thanks in no small part to the location in Kingsway Village.

“It was beyond our expectations,” he acknowledges. “We had a three- or four-hour wait list every night, lineups trying to get in. We’re offering something that nobody else is doing in our neighbourhood. Even in Bloor West, there’s a lot of similarity in what’s around. In comparison, we’ve got rabbit, Scottish head cheese, pheasant – all these kind of game birds and so forth.  I think people really saw us as a breath of fresh air. They were starving for us.”

Bramble, as Kirkwood describes it, is like a modern British gastropub, building on his past experience working in Edinburgh, Scotland. The chef says he tried to be very creative with the menu while ensuring sustainability and accessibility. “I didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, really just take a grassroots approach. The main draw for us is unique and tasty food that’s tasty, a nice establishment with a comfortable and friendly atmosphere, and something completely different. It’s like the new toy in the box.”

Of course, a significant amount of flexibility has been required. When Bramble could only offer takeaway in the first lockdown, Kirkwood tore up the whole menu and replaced it with something more travel-friendly.

As has been the case with so many local operations during a time when adaptability has been so vital, Kirkwood also looked to diversify.

Bramble opened a marketplace in the front half of the restaurant selling British produce like canned goods and candies. It also launched a takeaway cocktail program, which Kirkwood says were selling “like hotcakes.” That was followed by themed nights – Wednesday is crazy burger night, Thursday is steak night, Friday is fish and chips, and Saturdays offer a four-course tasting menu. “Customers coming to pick up a takeaway now stay here with the British goods shop. After all, why not have them peruse these products and upsell? We sell a lot of cocktails that way. I think it was the best thing we could do because we don’t have five years of tenure. We’re a brand-new business trying to get our name out there.”

Social media has been an invaluable tool in the journey. Kirkwood assesses that spending considerable money on advertising is perhaps not the wisest strategy during a pandemic, and instead credits “positive word-of-mouth.” Things like taking time to take good photos, using social media to promote have made up much of the legwork that has led to the initial success.

Kirkwood and Bramble’s pandemic journey is all the more impressive in the context of the chef’s personal struggles. In the first week of January, in the middle of Ontario’s winter lockdown, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. That necessitated 10 weeks off, during which time his sous-chef ran the show. After emergency surgery, he’s still only been working three days a week on doctor’s orders.

“I’ve been trying to stay as positive as possible,” Kirkwood reflects. “I had to have emergency surgery to remove a 7 cm. tumour. That came out of nowhere. But I’m doing well now and more than halfway through my chemotherapy so I’m feeling like this is a good second chance. We also bought a house and moved at the start of May. My family don’t do anything easily.”

Looking to the future, Kirkwood has confidence in Bramble’s success, although he notes that adaptability will continue to be key. Most of the restaurant’s changes, like the presence of the marketplace and the specific takeout, will remain, albeit with some necessary tweaks. “All these things we started we can’t just take away once we get people sitting inside,” he acknowledges, but he stresses they will have to be managed for the changing situation. The menu will have to change again when indoor dining reopens, hopefully in June.

“But this restaurant is just dying to be successful,” Kirkwood concludes. “It has all the pieces of the puzzle in place, and that’s all you can hope for.”

Find Chef Michael Kirkwood on LinkedIn.

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