Turning a Global Pandemic into an Opportunity for Change: Chris Locke, Marben Head Chef

One thing that’s for sure is that the restaurant industry of Toronto – like most cities – has been hit hard with the harsh implications of the global pandemic.

What’s been remarkable to observe as a consumer is how this has presented the opportunity for chefs and restaurateurs to band together and pivot their strategies. 

While it was not the year that they may have expected, Marben is one of the restaurants that has done an incredible job of reinventing themselves with their meal kits and collaborations with brands like Stella Artois, West Side Beef Co., and Rally for Restaurants. 

It was a great pleasure to have a moment to chat with Chris Locke, executive head chef at Marben about what 2020 has been like for him, his business, and the future of Toronto restaurants, as we know it.

So, Chris, tell us a bit about yourself 

I’m the executive chef of Marben and The Cloak Bar, the speakeasy. It’s found down the stairwell between the bar and kitchen of Marben.

You started your role at Marben in 2017. What was it about this opportunity that enticed you?

I wasn’t really looking to take a new opportunity at the time, but I ended up meeting the owner and it was love at first sight. I also loved that it was run by a single owner, instead of a restaurant group as well; it was quite a draw only having one person to answer to. Which has been greatly beneficial since March — to have that ability to move quickly and make decisions and not have seven layers of upper management to get things approved. It’s just like a quick conversation.

Upon learning more about you and what makes you unique is your passion, both for food, but also for community. You regularly contribute to Marben’s blog, which is unlike any chefs I have encountered thus far. Is writing your other passion?

It’s not a passion, but I do enjoy writing. I’d say it’s more just the fact that I don’t enjoy speaking that much. Writing is more like an outlet for me and a chance to impart some knowledge or maybe change someone’s perspective.

Marben has an incredible reputation in the city, and the community that you’ve created runs deep. How did the idea of meal kits come about to you?

Back in March, we took a bit of time to recalibrate, so it didn’t really come into action straight away. We came back after seven weeks and we looked at what people wanted and what our community really wanted, and what they needed. That’s why we opened up with grocery, to give what people needed at the time, and obviously to keep the restaurant going. I think the way that we had changed and adapted our offering was a big reason why the community supported us back.

It was remarkable to watch, truly. How are you dealing with at all, emotionally, mentally, physically? The restaurant industry is known for being notoriously taxing on mental health, but 2020 has been a different beast.

I think it’s just kind of a running joke in the restaurant scene that everybody’s lost it. We’re all so depleted in mental energy that we’ve all kind of slipped into insanity. [We both laugh]. It was really emotionally taxing more than it was physical, having to do three waves of layoffs and such. And then having the patio closed again and going back into lockdown has obviously been very difficult. 

It has been a lot to manage, but out of that, I’ve gotten through it. We now have an employee assistance plan in place and we have a health spending account, which can be used towards therapy. We still value our employees, even though they’re not working. There’s not really any support from anyone else, for the rest of that team. It’s really our responsibility to take care of that kind of stuff.

That’s a big cross to bear, but you’re doing it. I’m sending you a lot of encouragement from six feet apart. Talk to us about Rally for Restaurants?

Rally for Restaurants launched back in April to support the hospitality industry. We’ve extended the program as a result of the recent red zone and lockdown measures across the country to continue to support the hospitality industry. Essentially, consumers can purchase gift cards on rallyforrestaurants.ca for any participating restaurant across Canada (many did not have a platform to sell gift cards prior). For every $25 or $50 card, Stella Artois will top up $10 that goes directly to the restaurant at the time of purchase and also benefits the consumer.

Thank you so much for that. I have one final question for you: what’s your favourite dessert to make?

This would be Sticky Toffee Pudding, especially at this time of year. It’s cold outside and you need something that makes you feel good and happy. It’s part of our meal kits!

You can learn more about Chris Locke on the Marben blog.