In the world of culinary arts, where talent and perseverance are the key ingredients for success, one chef’s journey to international acclaim serves as a testament to the power of determination.
Joe Friday is that very chef, a restaurateur and entrepreneur, with a rich background spanning nearly twenty years in the industry, featuring esteemed tenures at top restaurants in Canada and the US.
Throughout his career, Friday has had the privilege of preparing meals for professional athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs and world leaders. Toronto Life recognized him as one of their top private chefs to hire for holiday gatherings.
His latest, and first solo restaurant venture, Friday Burger Company, was two and a half years in the making.The buzz has already begun, with two locations in Toronto: TABLE Fare + Social on the fourth floor of 81 Bay Street at CIBC Square, and 2162 Danforth Ave.
“I’ve always wanted to open a burger place,” Friday tells me. As serendipity would have it, investors came to him looking for a new project that made his vision a reality. In the process of research, he tasted 250 burgers from across Canada and America. That was “a great weight gaining thing—and fun.” Though his signature burger has what he calls a “Southern flare,” the ambience is akin to a French butchery.
“You can go to any spot in Toronto, and they will have their own special sauce,” Friday shares with me, adding that it has to start with high quality meat. “We are serving really good beef. Maybe we are paying too much for it, because it really is the best. That’s important to me, to have high quality products. If you have a burger that’s higher in calories but the quality is higher too, you’ll feel less guilty.” However, the piece-de-resistance is a condiment into which he has put a lot of thought.
“I engineer my burger backwards. We have the perfect grind of short ribs, brisket, sirloin and fat, and then there is the pickle. And the pickle is exactly how I want a pickle to taste on a burger. I didn’t want to put my burger together, and then look for what pickle I wanted to pair with it. Instead, I engineered the pickle for my burger. I created the perfect pickle spice. When customers eat my burger and pickle together, they say it’s perfect. Pickles just make burgers tastier.”
Born in North Carolina and raised in Okinawa, Friday followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, also a chef, and was inspired to enrol in the Culinary Institute of America, in New York, at age twenty. There, he graduated top of class. Afterwards he was one of only ten selected globally to train at the renowned Walt Disney World culinary program.
“I realized I didn’t know anything. I was working with chefs and cooks who had been doing it for 20 years,” he recalls. In the interim, he worked at Epcot Center, and was an announcer-greeter on rides, which taught him the value of the customer experience.
“Being on the mic, you meet people, and get to see that experience. You have families that have saved up, spending sometimes $10,000, for either a week or two weeks. That’s very special to them. Anything that goes wrong will be a lasting memory. If you do it right, and Disney does a good job with this, that family is going to come maybe three times. Then, when the kids turn 18, they are going to come back three times,” he says.
“The customer experience is so important. We thrive off of that. I teach my staff that’s the most important part. We have to read our negative reviews. We have to read them together, because if we have a restaurant, and it’s 5.0, and I step away for 2-3 days, and we get negative reviews, we have to figure out why, and fix it. I learned that at Disney. Customers are all you have.”
Since those early days, work has taken him across Europe, Asia, and the United States, including a role as a Saucier at Nobu in Honolulu; and serving as the Executive Sous Chef at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
Over a decade ago, Friday relocated to Toronto to participate in the opening of Peter Oliver and Michael Bonacini’s ground-breaking venture, Luma, at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
“Toronto is different. It’s a bigger melting pot. The food is amazing here, as are the cultural differences,” he notes of his impressions of Hogtown. “I remember going to Chinatown, to a dumpling house, and washing dishes for a few months to learn the cuisine. In a city like this, you can do that. The restaurants are just as good as anywhere in the world.”
His contributions extended to the launch of Bar Mozza, and he eventually ascended to part-owner and Executive Chef at ViaVai. Friday introduced the flavors of Hawaiian cuisine to Toronto, as part owner and chef of the poke restaurant, Calii Love.
What he learned along the way about managing people has stuck with him since: “It’s about hiring people to do what needs to be done. Not micromanaging, but giving them space, and not looking over their shoulder; not being overbearing to staff; giving them the right tools; training them the right way and then backing off. I need my staff to be just as invested in this place as I am.”
Despite a string of successes, however, in 2016, when he was 36, there were ten days when he was homeless, slept on airport benches to stay warm, and finagled hotels to let him sleep in the lobby. “It was rough. I don’t know if it was if I couldn’t ask anybody, or too much pride.”
By day ten, he was ready to throw in the towel and ask his parents for a ticket back to North Carolina. On the day he was going to give up, he received a job offer to make sandwiches at a salad shop. Eventually, the owner paid him a full-time salary to cook for him privately.
Three years later, Friday inaugurated Friday Roots in Toronto, a tribute to his North Carolina birthplace, and it ranked within BlogTo’s top 10 Toronto bars. It closed amid the pandemic, but shortly after, investors came to him looking for a new joint venture, and Friday Burger Company was born.
Fortunately, everyone knows how the story unfolds: Friday held firm to his vision, and the hard work ultimately paid off. “I tell people: just don’t give up on your dreams. Have a plan. I didn’t have a plan, but I would tell anyone, that’s what they need to start.” While some might say it’s risky to open two restaurants at the same time, he retorts: “It’s ballsy to have dreams and follow them too.”