Frankie Solarik: The Visionary Behind BarChef

Ever wonder where Drake goes when he’s thirsty for a cocktail? Vv Magazine’s Isabel Chalmers and Danielle Jobb sit down with Frankie Solarik, co-owner of Toronto’s BarChef and innovator behind some of the best cocktails in town. 

“Have to push the meeting to 5:30 thx,” reads the email from Frankie Solarik, just ten minutes before our interview. As we approach the uber-chic entrance to Toronto’s progressive cocktail bar, BarChef, a handsome tattooed man in cargo pants and a plain black tee leaps out of a cab. Racing us to the door, he wins and holds it open for us. “Hi, I’m Frankie,” he introduces himself and shakes our hands.

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Talking a mile a minute, Solarik ushers us inside and seats us in a cozy booth. “Sorry I was late. My friend Curtis’ documentary just premiered at Hot Docs. I’ve never cried like that in public before.” Overwhelmed by scents of hickory and seduced by the low-hanging lanterns and dramatic black drapes, it’s as though we’ve been transported back in time to a Prohibition-era speakeasy. We nod; his tardiness is quickly forgotten. The documentary in reference is For Grace (2015), and it tells the tale of Curtis Duffy, a Michelin star chef responsible for one of Chicago’s most renowned restaurants, who spent his life in passionate pursuit of his dream. “It’s a really touching story,” Solarik muses. In fact, it’s one that mimics his own.

Solarik’s bartending career began at a quaint cigar bar in London, Ont. “Men would come in and they’d be sipping on their cognacs, ports and whiskeys while smoking their cigars,” he explains. “They’d discuss amongst themselves the different nuances of flavour when paired with what they were smoking versus what they were drinking.” It was there he realized how much potential a career in bar-tending could hold. Not long after the cigar bar, Solarik found himself job hunting in New York City.

“My approach to creating drinks is emotional and multi-sensory.”

“I remember I had set up a grid system to hand out resumés. I was sweating and had this cheap H&M black t-shirt on and everyone was like, ‘No, thank you.’ But Marco was like, ‘Absolutely,’” he says, referring to New York-based chef Marco Moreira, whom Frankie credits as his mentor. “Before New York, bartending was just a means to an end, but Marco showed me what it looks like to have passion in the kitchen.” The rest is history.

Today, Solarik is the co-owner of and mastermind behind BarChef, one of the “top seven new innovative bars in the world,” according to Food & Wine Magazine, and No. 60 on Daily Meal’s “top 100 bars outside of the US.” So don’t expect your oh-so-typical dirty martini here. “My approach to creating drinks is emotional and multi-sensory,” he says. His goal is for the elements of each cocktail to inspire nostalgia within his patrons. This reputation for thinking outside the box has lead him to cater parties for Drake and serve Jay-Z when he’s in town.

We comment on the number bottles in varying hues of amber and gold displayed behind the sexy, wooden bar. Lined up like a mad scientist’s laboratory, about 200 bottles (or 5000 oz.) of from-scratch bitters and syrups are kept on hand to accommodate the extensive drink program. “We incorporate culinary techniques into our cocktails. We serve drinks that are plated like full meals; it’s literally a dish that contains 35 flavour components.” We joke that perhaps these aren’t the beverages one drinks to get drunk. “You can definitely achieve that,” he laughs. But with cocktails starting at $14 and going for as much as $45 a pop, we doubt you’d want to.

Solarik then whisks us over to the kitchen, where we find a team of chefs, heads bent over their work, prepping for the bar to open. “A chef in a kitchen works with vegetables and meats. I chose to work with alcohol in the same kind of way, as far as manipulation of textures and presentation and depth of composition,” he explains.

Like any reputable watering hole, BarChef’s menu changes seasonally. Right now, the program is transitioning from sweeter, richer flavours of winter to fresh, floral aromas of spring, such as chamomile, clementine, grapefruit and basil. “Summer will be focused on crisp fragrances, like cucumber and elderflower,” he spills. “For me, artistically, the idea is to continue to push the envelope and work with new ingredients and new flavours.”

“Some people love what I’m about and some people absolutely despise what I’m about, but that’s why I do what I do.”

The Vanilla & Hickory Smoked Manhattan is a perfect example. As BarChef’s signature cocktail, it has been written up internationally and featured on CNN. “The drink includes super premium rye, vanilla brandy, cherry vanilla bitters, hickory syrup, and hand chipped ice sphere; it all goes in a crystal glass, is presented in a bell jar, and then we smoke it before your eyes … the goal is for the experience, the aroma and the presentation to fully immerse the customer.” We are instantly reminded of summertime bonfires and vanilla soft serve from the ice cream truck. So Solarik’s approach is clearly a success. If you’re still not convinced, this drink also happens to be Drake’s go-to.

As for the future of BarChef, the success of Solarik’s latest venture, Furlough – a more classic cocktail bar with a heftier food menu – suggests that his future is bright. “Some people love what I’m about and some people absolutely despise what I’m about, but that’s why I do what I do,” he says as he walks us back to front door. The clock is ticking closer to opening hour — 7pm — and we can barely hear him over the clanking of bottles and banter between bartenders. Raising his voice over the din, he chuckles, “I set out to cause a ruckus and to create a new perspective on drinks. That’s the idea.”

Click here to see a few of Frankie’s creations.

Frankie Solarik BarChef

All images by Leanne Neufeld

If you’ve checked out Frankie Solarik’s BarChef in Toronto, let us know what some of your favourite drinks are in the comments below or tweet us @ViewTheVibe.

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