Restaurateur Owen Walker treats music like a blank canvas

The brains behind Toronto's El Ray draws parallels between cooking culture and music.

October 20, 2017

Creating music and creating a cocktail are processes not far removed from each other. Much in the same way that a bartender relies on a catalog of recipes in their head to create a lineage of bitters, musicians pull from a toolkit of sounds to craft songs.

At least that’s how Owen Walker sees it.

As the co-owner and head bartender of El Rey, the mescal bar he shares with Grant van Gameren, and one of the owners behind Quetzal which will launch in late 2017 and features indigenous Mexican cuisine, Owen is constantly absorbed by these little details. To him, musicality is deeply embedded in South American culture; in their art, in their popular genres of tropicália, samba, and salsa. Music is an integral part of the El Rey experience. The synergies between the culinary and music industries run deep.

On a drizzly morning at Café Pamenar, tucked not far away from where he works in Kensington Market, Owen chatted with us about (among other things) his love of Central America, his earliest memories of music, curating playlists for restaurants, and what his favourite drink at the El Rey would sound like.

© Riley Taylor / A.Side
A.Side: How did you get started in the restaurant business?

Owen Walker: I got really excited about food at an early age. I started cooking a lot when I was 10, really just mucking around. I had a family friend who used to babysit my sister growing up in Simcoe, ON. She opened up a bed & breakfast in her family’s home, and then went to culinary school and returned to convert it into a more formal dining scenario. I started working for her when I was about 12 or 13 — I just wanted to wash dishes and hang out, and that was kind of the initial introduction.

You went to high school in Brazil — were there any culinary aspects that attracted you to Brazilian cuisine?

Brazil is fascinating – I went down there on an exchange program. I had no idea of what Brazil was about culturally. I had no idea that they spoke Portuguese, I had no idea that there could even be Portuguese spoken outside of Portugal!

Being from a smaller town, too: I didn’t have a ton of experience of dealing with anyone from Brazil, so for me, it was like, okay, cool. When you immerse yourself in a culture, you’re either going to find a lot in common there or nothing at all. Luckily, I really aligned myself with Brazilian culture. Food culture is a funny thing there, too: pretty culturally rich, but it doesn’t have the spread or the network that other food cultures do. I feel like Brazilian food is underexplored, both in terms of indigenous foods and culturally consistent foods. We look at Italy, for example: Italy has such a broad sense of culinary tradition. The food is regionally specific, but it’s more developed on an international scale because of the popularity that it enjoys globally. Brazilian food doesn’t have that exposure.

If I were to give the title of cultural mosaic to any country, I’d probably place it on Brazil before I would place it on Canada, because they have a really intense history of cultural integration. Canada has this mosaic aspect in a different context; we embrace cultures from all over, and you find that throughout the entire country, whereas Brazil has these pockets – more isolated groups. And I don’t whether it has to do with geography or the way that it was colonized – in Brazil, colonial application gave birth to massive amounts of food culture through dishes. Whole components of cuisine are relative to the slave trade. That’s a forced institution.

When did you come back to Canada?

I came back when I was 18. It was pretty immediate from there – I started going to school at Ryerson for stage production, and throughout that worked at restaurants and bars in the city. I spent most of the summer down south: a lot of time in Guatemala, Belize, all over Central America. Kind of back and forth.

And you still do that regularly now?

Now my focus is Mexico, and within that, Oaxaca. I’ve been pretty fortunate to be down there five times this year already, researching for the new restaurant. I garner a different experience every time I go there, always finding something new to get excited about. I’m constantly introduced to fresh ideas. There’s a lot of potential to see interesting things when you’re down there, especially when you’re dealing with trades like cooking. I think it’s important to try to immerse yourself in pursuing that education. If you want to learn how to make mole in Oaxaca, go there and coordinate with someone. Go to the market with them. Ask how they select their ingredients, and why. Those questions are important in that setting, as opposed to reading it off a piece of paper and then trying to actualize that. All those little details, the minutiae that is involved: you can’t really just insinuate that from reading a recipe.

What is your earliest memory of music?

My father studied printmaking in school. He took on a lot of odd jobs as an artist in the community, whether it was building signs or helping small businesses realize their visual identity. I remember he worked on the interior of a museum, the Eva Brook Donley Museum. I tagged along with my Dad just about everywhere when he needed extra help. My Mum was a librarian at that time. He always listened to CBC Radio 2, the local jazz and classical station. I just remember that place, and listening to that music while he worked, and being really fucking bored.

Was there a gap between noticing music and appreciating it?

Definitely. I don’t think I really started appreciating music until a little later in life. My sister was a big influence – she’s six and a half years older than me. Obviously, an older sibling’s taste will have a huge impact on your relationship with culture.

What albums can you remember?

I think the early stuff was pretty off the radio. I remember there being a Tragically Hip concert my sister went to. That was exciting for me, so I listened to their stuff. She was also super into the Grateful Dead, which I don’t think really resonated with me at that age.

Right when I went into high school was when I started to gravitate towards sounds – kids were joining bands, and these bands led to concerts, and then inevitably you ended up going to these epic shows at XYZ German Hall, or usually one in Dover at the Legion, or in Brantford – there was a little dive there called The Ford Plant. It was about the size of a barber shop. It could maybe fit thirty or so people. They had a famous house band called The Vermicious Knid. Wintersleep had traction at that time. Broken Social Scene, Q and Not You. People were just starting to hear more about Arcade Fire.

So what do you listen to now?

There’s really never a time when I’m not listening to something! My time is now split a little, with respect to what I’m listening to. I listen to a lot of podcasts. I gravitate quite a bit now towards instrumental music. Lyrics don’t really resonate with me so much as sounds or rhythms. That being said, I’ve been liking a lot of psych rock lately. Ty Segall and Kevin Morby. Los Saicos, this Peruvian surf rock band from the 70s.

Music embodies a lot of parallels to cooking, in the sense that sound is very much the flavour of music and individual notes are the ingredients, the way individual instruments and sequences play upon your ears.

Absolutely. When I went to Brazil, I took all of that knowledge with me, met a lot of people there that were like-minded—as you do when you align yourself with an idea—and then you inevitably find people that align themselves in that same sphere. With Brazil being musically driven the way that it is, it was a very eye-opening experience coming into contact with [genres like] tropicália, bossa nova, even samba.

The strongest component of Brazilian music has to do with its ability to involve. There is a preconceived notion that people will participate in it. It was surreal listening to bands at that time that had the same ideals or values of music that I was having, yet doing so in a way that involved styles, temperatures, tempos, and instruments from Brazil. That hybridization of something that I understood with something foreign was profound.

Toronto has become such a rich hub for music. Are there certain things that excite you about its evolution: not even just musically, but creatively with the people you interact with? And if so, what are they?

Definitely. I think the diversity strengthens our impetus of cultural awareness, and the importance of it. The more people that align themselves with the music, or the more people that are creating music in your city… it feeds so many pockets of creativity, but it also supports the festival, the café, the bar, and the conversations that are happening there.

It’s the growth of those grassroots things that help a city flourish. A lot of my interactions working at a bar and interacting with people stem from that experience – people are wondering what they should do being in the city for two or three days on vacation, and I’m thinking about what places represent Toronto well that I should send them to. Kensington Market is a pretty fine example of that – people are always stopping here for tourists. It inevitably seems to be a place people come to spend some time. It’s exciting when you can reference things that are happening. It makes you proud to live in a city.

And to contribute to that element – bar culture, and the way in which El Rey and what you do offers an interesting take on mescal in Toronto.

Yeah! Part of the concept — if we can take the conversation back to bars and restaurants — is that people don’t go back to a restaurant or bar because they like the color of a wall or one dish, right? It’s very rarely about that. It’s so rooted in the experiential and how you can offer an experience that is memorable in every scenario – whether it’s grabbing a fast-casual grain bowl from wherever, or you’re entering into a fine dining establishment — it’s all about the experience. It’s like painting a picture every time. Layers and layers of sound and taste and aroma and interactions. All of these things are layered on top of themselves to produce these experiences and trigger associated memories. Music is a huge component. The curation of music specifically at El Rey we do so with intent. It’s supposed to be music we hope has no stigma attached to it a lot of the music – music that makes sense within the space but also one that doesn’t have relevant association for a lot of people. I don’t want to play a lot of the same music that you just hear everywhere.

Because then it becomes an archetype.

Exactly — if anything, I prefer you not even notice this music, so then it’s a blank canvas. I prefer it resonate in the background and build in layers.

A lot of your focus in El Rey is spent on cocktails — if your favorite cocktail had a song attached to it, what would it be and why?

Queen’s Park Swizzle. It’s one of my favorite cocktails to make and to drink, with a strong flavour profile. When you use a copper pot still and any kind of cane distillate with the rum, the process tends to pull out these ester cream-banana qualities. It definitely adds this extra level of funk, very present and very loud. I like the way that aspect of how it tastes carries the body of the drink – it definitely would have some kind of horn or brass. The cadences would probably be a little fun, a little loose, and a little groovy – so I’d probably have to go with “Brick House” by the Commodores!

Do you think people in the food industry share any attributes with musicians in terms of how they work?

I’ll use this analogy — I also make perfume. I look at perfume the same basic way I make a drink: the development of these small sets of recipes of which you then use to create larger recipes. Bunches of small recipes built on top of each other as a series, or in a set amount. And they become something complete.

It seems really similar in a lot of instances, in that defining a sound is a lot like defining a flavour. You figure out these constituent parts. Some of them will integrate well with others and some won’t. You have a couple of factors you understand really well — the backbone.

And then there might be something you might be less comfortable with, but that’s where those interesting interactions happen – if like, I substitute something in for this, it sounds a similar to this, or it tastes similarly, or it has a similar intensity of acidity, an herbal note that is evocative but isn’t identical. And then it’s defining all these things that come together and layering them on top of each other. You define those parameters, get comfortable with them, and then lay them out. The exciting bits are the nuanced parts in-between, where you’re trying something new.

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