ICONINK’s Executive Chef Talks Inspiration and Influences
Being a head chef is difficult, and only suited to certain people with certain personality types, but what kind of person can hand 10 properties and 200 employees? Meet Ben Heaton, Corporate Executive Chef at ICONINK, who manages the team behind Mediterranean-influenced Estia on Avenue Road, skirting Yorkville. You can’t help but be hungry and inspired, while sitting and chatting with Chef Heaton, as the light streaming through the tall windows illuminates the dining room, the kitchen hum in the background, a sign of the busy dinner service ahead, and the wood smoke wafts through the elegant room.
Estia is a seasons-driven restaurant. “I am very in tune with local farmers, and have some great contacts, having been in this industry for so long,” says Chef. Supporting the local food economy is clearly a high priority. “You get the best things when they are in season,” continues Heaton, whose menu consists of products that are at their freshest peak – what Estia stands for. Citing the mutually respected Tamarack Farms, Heaton enthuses, “I love what Nancy does, and of all my properties, Estia is where I can best support her. She knows that the smaller amounts of vegetables she grows can go on my menu here, and she is always growing interesting things, and works with a lot of heirloom seeds from England” (where Ben’s roots are, and also where he spent a significant amount of time cooking, as evidenced in his dishes).
I am very in tune with local farmers, and have some great contacts, having been in this industry for so long… You get the best things when they are in season.
Knowing when and where to gently push people, and in what context products should be used is a prevailing success of Chef Heaton’s restaurants. There’s also no lack of excitement, or outlets for him and his team’s creativity. The palate of his plates is limitless, thanks to his experience with the bounties of Ontario and the world.
At Estia, Heaton directs his creativity where it is most effective: in-house, land and sea-based charcuterie, and ageing techniques, applied to both meat and fish (something well worth experiencing). A lot of his cues are from the forward-thinking food movement of his British origins, and he revisits his British roots often.
“Estia is a temple built to worship simplistic food, where people come to share; it is a gathering place. We don’t like to manipulate the food, we cook on live fuel, and the best ingredients are showcased in simple fashion.” Although, sometimes he overthinks things, he reminds himself: Estia exists to “pick up food and drop it on a plate, and keep things super light, acidic, and fresh. A classic Mediterranean approach to food.”
Beyond the Grecian, Spanish and Italian feel, which play to the loves of food and enjoyment that are Estia’s core, is a distinctly Turkish influence. “Olive oil and lemon on everything, nothing fancy or over the top,” emphasises Heaton.
The philosophy of making everything possible, in-house, is part of Estia’s success, which shows, every night in the full dining room and cosy patio. As his restaurant stands for quality, Chef says that If he sources a better ingredient from abroad, he’ll use it on his menu, without hesitation
Estia is a temple built to worship simplistic food, where people come to share; it is a gathering place. We don’t like to manipulate the food, we cook on live fuel, and the best ingredients are showcased in simple fashion.
Ben Heaton lives in High Park, with his wife and their young daughter, Olivia. A father first, and a chef second, Heaton, as well as his family, loves the quiet of his neighbourhood, and how close but removed it is from the city. Meals together are very simple, with a good-quality grilled steak, potatoes, and green salad. Healthy eating is a focus at home. Having a quiet yard to unwind in is very helpful to the 41-year-old, who lives for time spent at the grill, cigar in-hand, watching his daughter play. Quiet time, when it happens, is appreciated by Ben and his wife. Other times, Ben enjoys a beer, with friends, at The Mugshot Tavern, grabs a quick pizza with the girls at Annette Food Market, or at family friendly Nodo (sister of the St. Clair restaurant), where his daughter can have the run of the place.
We talk about influences, and discover a shared love of the simple brilliance of many of the same restaurants, here and abroad. We also talk about simple eating, curiousity, and exploring.While sharing recommendations, passing staff eavesdrop for hints of what makes their Chef tick. Watching him sit and relax while having a conversation isn’t something that they’re used to. It seems (and reasonably so) that, much like a shark, he never stops moving. That being said, I also witness the undercover humility of an executive chef who actually cooks, and who still loves the process of cooking. Believe me, a lot of them tend to lose touch, suffocated by the trappings of the job, and of being a known entity. The simple joy of working a station at one of his restaurants, and staying connected to the realities of the industry, and to the people who slave away to feed the public. These are important to Ben.
We enjoy comparing the restaurants that he manages, to his children. I’ll never tell you which is his favourite, but rest-assured – like the good father that he is, each one is treated and tended to, equally. Keep an eye on Chef Ben, and ICONINK; there are some very exciting things to anticipate: new births, teenage upstarts, and Estia, where the concept is pivoted to ensure success. And it has definitely been that.
I love peeking behind the curtain, and taking you with me. If there is a chef you would like to see featured, please reach out!