On Not Being Cool
The Journey to Tanto
At a time when Torontonians are finding a new, hip place to eat around every corner, Chef Julian Iliopoulos sought to open a restaurant that was decidedly “not cool.” Drawing on his own background and on a variety of different cuisines he encountered while working and travelling abroad, Iliopoulos wanted to create something “a little more timeless” that did not “accidentally fall into [serving] a trendy kind of food.”
Tanto opened its doors in December 2017 to great critical and popular acclaim, offering a convivial, family-style dining experience based on an Argentinian and Spanish repertoire. The original menu was designed around exploring the possibilities of live-fire cooking.
This method of preparation holds special significance for Tanto’s head chef. In addition to being a primal method of cooking, integral to human development, it gives food an “incomparable flavour” and provides him with a constant but pleasurable challenge: “Live-fire cooking is a bit more of a dance where every day it’s just a little bit different—the wood burns differently, it interacts with food differently. It’s a little more free-form than working with other heat sources. You can work your entire life on it and never fully perfect it.”
The abundance of dishes and distinctive flavours (referenced in Tanto’s name) emerged, in part, from Iliopoulos’s own experience of of a “smorgasbord of small dishes,” cooked lovingly from whole ingredients. This style of dining, he explains, is “far more interesting because you get to try more food.”
Over the past year and a half, as Tanto has matured, it has deepened its focus on steak. The process of dry-aging steak in-house, which was initially one of the many aspects of meat preparation employed at Tanto, has become more central to menu design—and rightly so, given the care Iliopoulos takes in sourcing and cooking meat. The assortment of flavours that was important to Tanto’s inception still makes up a significant portion of the menu, but now dishes are rotated on a weekly basis to reflect what is in season and to create the perfect accompaniment to featured proteins. Balance and variety seem to be the guiding principles at work here.
Iliopoulos explains that he wants his restaurant to grow and develop organically. He has a strong dislike for labels and prefers avoiding them, but is quite keen to articulate the guiding principle behind his work-in- progress: “The essence of Tanto is thoughtful food cooked well—cooked purposefully—with gracious service.”
So with all of this going for it, Tanto does appear to be the furthest thing from cool. In fact, one might even say that it is smoking hot!