It is a bright January morning at Tundra, the Hilton Toronto’s signature restaurant, and Kevin Prendergast, Executive Chef, is surveying the room. As the late breakfast crowd slowly clears to make room for couples enjoying coffee and business meetings, the light pours in through the floor to ceiling glass windows. The linens gleam almost as brightly as Prendergast’s pristine Whites.
Prendergast has overseen the evolution of Tundra over the past 11 years, curating the grand dame of the Toronto hotel scene into a beacon for top-quality Canadian cuisine. Born and raised in Etobicoke, he was always interested in food; first and foremost how to eat more of it. “As a young boy my mother used to joke that she had to feed me with two forks” he jokes as he fixes his Americano, “I used to eat anything and everything. Our ethnic background was Irish; that meant a lot of simple veg and simple cooked meat. Chicken stew and dumplings. Cottage rolls. Not a lot of seasoning”. He grew up surrounded by the warmth of home cooking, whether it was his mother’s recipe cards, or his grandmothers mashed turnip and carrot, smothered in butter and covered with brown sugar.
His introduction to cooking was based in necessity, he explains, trading in his other chores in favour of cooking. “I really didn’t want to clean up” he chuckles. But it was television that ultimately reshaped this chore into something else entirely; watching The Galloping Gourmet and Julia Childs, running between the kitchen and the screen in the bedroom to complete a recipe. Working as a butcher’s assistant at St. Lawrence Market during his summers gave Prendergast a first-hand appreciation for the farm-to-table movement, building a deep respect for the farmers that feed us. He knew that this glimpse into what was possible from a local perspective was not the end, entering the Humber College Culinary program after high school. Despite excelling at pastry, Prendergast preferred to cook a la carte, so that his creativity with ingredients and flavours could truly shine through. His skills in demand, he worked at several hotel restaurants in Canada and the States before returning to Toronto as Executive Chef at Tundra.
Under Prendergast’s leadership, Tundra became a 100km restaurant, meaning that the produce, meats, and dairy items on the menu are sourced from farms within a 100km radius of the restaurant, where possible. “We need to keep talking about how good, delicious, and nourishing food can be when grown locally” he explains, describing how he is in the process of working with a local farmer to grown microgreens such as amaranth on behalf of Tundra. “We need to work with our local growing season and keep the menu fresh and seasonal to accommodate our farmers”. Indeed, the menu at Tundra had changed significantly since I last visited in July. The winter menu is weighted towards bison, venison, and beef, traditional favourites to ease the chill. Prendergast points out his top picks, including a comforting mac and cheese with PEI aged cheddar béchamel and toasted truffle bread crumbs. The overall effect is casual and familiar, using top quality Canadian ingredients with a neat international flair. When describing a fish entrée, he proudly shows the Oceanwise seal, awarded for sustainability in association with the Vancouver Aquarium. “It’s important to be seasonal, and sustainable” he explains “it is part of our responsibility to our community”.
The commitment to the community at large is evident in Tundra’s work with Second Harvest, one of only two hotels in Toronto that donate every day to the important food recovery program. “It’s a very simple process” he explains “and this is important to me. All of our fresh food can be used and enjoyed by our community, and it is delicious, good quality, and going to good use”.
Clearly, Prendergast has big plans. He is itching to start on this year’s herb garden, five beds housed on the second floor, overlooking the large outdoor rooftop pool. He intends to start on tomatoes this season, plus the mainstays of thyme, rosemary, mint, parsley, chervil, and coriander. He also is the proud owner of his second sous-vide, and is fresh from experimenting with cooking a whole deboned turkey this Christmas. I press him for his favourite item on the Tundra menu and he cannot commit, passionately extoling the virtues of many of the dishes. Eventually he acquiesces, showing me an appetizer of golden crusted scallops with pickled mussels, lemongrass infused buttermilk and dill oil, topped with watercress and onion dust. “If I was at home” he concedes “I would probably just be happy with a honking piece of meat”. He shows me a picture of an enormous porterhouse, grilled and beautifully plated. I am equally torn.