Hot chef announces new Buffalo restaurant
You’d think the easiest thing to do would be to write about people you know well, people you have written about a hundred times before. I find just the opposite to be true. Once you really know someone, and have been a witness to their journey, it becomes more challenging to write newsy articles without conveying the depth of that experience and the understanding it provides.
That’s the situation I find myself in today, as I attempt to share news about a chef I have known for a long time, a chef I have worked closely with on many projects, a chef I admire. He’s about to open a new restaurant, and while most of the folks who read this story will only want to know the who, what, where, why, how, and when, when, when (!), I will do my best to restrain my desire to examine the impact of this announcement and its effect on the local dining scene. And I assure you, restraint will be required.
I first met chef James Roberts when he brought several of his staff members to a conference I co-organized in 2008. Bringing chefs and farmers together in a slightly rundown resort in Varysburg, we achieved great things that day, and chef Roberts was one of the many engaged and eager attendees. A few months later, he and some of his staff joined me on my annual farm tour, which was then limited to chefs. Again, I was struck by his enthusiasm. Country club chefs are often the last to embrace new ideas (we’ll get to that in a minute), and in 2008, WNY was still in the earliest days of what is now a widespread movement toward the use of local ingredients.
Country club chefs often face limitations due to the lack of foresight and imagination by a given club’s management or membership. Additionally, because of the sheer number of dishes served in a busy country club, trends and practices that translate readily to small restaurants are not always as easily adopted by clubs. These constraints are not steadfast rules, rather they are excuses, but they still hold true.
Chef Roberts is not that chef. His kitchen at Park Country Club arguably produces the best fare of all of our region’s clubs. It does this through an intense mentorship program in its kitchen, as well as an ethos that maintains that scratch-cooking is the only way in which to do things well. This mentorship program has produced many of the most sought after young chefs and cooks in our region. Both the attitude and the programs at Park Country Club that have allowed innovation and excellence to steer the ship are credited entirely to chef Roberts and a management team that allows him to do what he does so well.
Since meeting Roberts in 2008, he’s gone on to earn the respect of his peers through a variety of avenues. He’s spoken at TEDxBuffalo, shared his multitudinous cooking projects on Twitter (see gallery below), and participated locally in everything from Nickel City Chef to Industry Night at Seabar, from Taste of Culinary to Big Fuss, and more, as well as playing a role in Toronto's esteemed international Terroir Symposium on several occasions. Roberts is of the new breed of chefs—those who openly share tips, recipes, trade secrets, and even equipment—knowing with full confidence that their strict self-discipline, adherence to quality control, and relentless quest for excellence makes them relatively peerless.
If Roberts had to guess how many times people have asked him when he would open his own restaurant, he probably couldn’t. His chef friends want to eat in a restaurant where his culinary point of view and commitment to great food and excellent service create an industry benchmark. The same holds true for the many fans and admirers he’s earned during his years here in WNY.
A native of Louisiana, chef Roberts’ new restaurant, Toutant (pronounced too-tawnt), will serve a broad selection of dishes featuring low-country flavor profiles. And, before we go too much farther, no, Toutant is not Cajun. Sure gumbo and jamabalaya will make appearances on the menu, but so will modern dishes that contain the essence of the entire American south. Guests can expect fresh Gulf shellfish and seafood, buttermilk fried chicken, American country ham (both artisanal and housemade), authentic smoked meats and barbecue, cornbread, hushpuppies, and a full library of whiskies and moonshines, augmented by a selection of craft beers, ciders, seasonal frozen daiquiris, and great bottles of wine.
Named after Roberts’ great-grandfather’s trapping and fishing camp, Toutant will be located downtown on Ellicott Street in a building that was once occupied by the Golden Swan. Restored to its structural integrity by Rocco Termini, Roberts is building out an attractive, fun restaurant (I’ve seen the plans and sketches) that makes comfort and clean, modern design a priority. Toutant seeks to serve a broad assortment of clientele—from families and business people to theatergoers and late night revelers—all at a reasonable price.
Construction is currently underway, and Toutant is expected to open in early 2015.
With the ongoing renaissance transforming downtown Buffalo, and the joy with which it is being met by residents and travelers, Roberts and his dedicated, well-trained staff are certain to find great success. I, for one, can’t wait.
Christa Glennie Seychew is Buffalo Spree's senior editor and food editor.