They feud about food

. . . with aloof dignity bf course, befitting proprietors of two of Canada’s most expensive restaurants,where steaks are an art, the hamburgers sport French names and a nod from DuncanHines is barely tolerated

Eric Hutton April 14 1956

They feud about food

. . . with aloof dignity bf course, befitting proprietors of two of Canada’s most expensive restaurants,where steaks are an art, the hamburgers sport French names and a nod from DuncanHines is barely tolerated

Eric Hutton April 14 1956

They feud about food

. . . with aloof dignity bf course, befitting proprietors of two of Canada’s most expensive restaurants,where steaks are an art, the hamburgers sport French names and a nod from DuncanHines is barely tolerated

Eric Hutton

In the early 1940s there operated in Toronto, a few doors apart on King Street West, an old hotel and a new lunch counter. Each was indistinguishable from scores of its kind in a city whose dining-out amenities had not improved notably since Governor John Graves Simcoe found cause to complain that Muddy York provided “not so much as a pheasant for my table.” In the hotel’s dining room scurried a short, plump German waiter named Hans Fread; between the coffee urn and the hamburger grill in the nearby lunchroom loped the waiter-chef-proprietor, a relatively lean Hungarian named Oscar Berceller.

Occasionally in the midst of the noon rush Berceller would mystify customers by ducking under the counter after taking an order and remaining incommunicado for a minute or two. Years later he explained this strange behavior: he knew so little English that he kept two dictionaries under the counter, one at either end for quick consultation. Nevertheless he often got orders mixed, and in retrospect tends to attribute the survival of his business to the fact that in those days Toronto office workers would eat virtually anything placed before them. Fread, who also faced a language problem in communicating with his customers, was meanwhile acquiring his own brand of stately English by spending his free time doggedly listening to radio soap operas and singing commercials.

His name is FREAD

The two men never met, and the coincidence of their proximity in those humble days is of interest largely because Fread and Berceller were presently to loom large on the Toronto scene. They became proprietors of the most discussed (and two of the most expensive) restaurants in the city—and opposite numbers in as lively a gastronomic rivalry as it is possible for two temperamental souls to engage in at thirty city blocks apart.

Of the two factors which make Fread’s Sign of the Steer and Berceller’s Winston Theatre Grill subjects of interest to such Toronto residents and visitors as happen to be interested in good foods or feuds (or both), their simultaneous and meteoric rise is easier to examine than the accompanying rivalry. As indications of the acquired status of the restaurants it might be cited, for example, that in theory the only people who can get into Berceller’s are an elite of his own choosing to whom he issues keys to the front door; and that although Berceller still serves hamburgers they now come with a French name and fancy fixings at $4.50 instead of the standard product he once dispensed on a warm bun for a dime. And it might be pointed out that Fread, a waiter until 1947, recently moved the Sign of the Steer into new half-million-dollar quarters and added a marine section called the Sign of the Sea which features a fish pond where the customer catches his own lobster to be broiled at $4.25 per two-pounder. Perhaps the most eloquent testimony of their material success, though, is that both men have become almost a little ashamed of that erstwhile honor: Rec^namehfted by Duncan Hines.

His name is BERCELLER

OSCAR, owner of the Winston, dismisses large quarters like Fread's, claims no really good place serves more than 80 at a time. (The Winston seats 80.)

The remarkable« feature of the Fread-Berceller feud, on the other hand, is that it isn’t a regulation feud at all, since the two men have never met or spoken. Moreover, each experiences great physiological difficulty in uttering the other’s name. The nearest Fread can come to pronouncing “Berceller,” for example, is “the person downtown.” Consequently, most of their thrust and counterthrust is both inspired and relayed by gossipy gourmets who patronize both places. This gives the bout approximately the tempo of a chess contest played by mail with an opponent in Australia.

Only occasionally does the rivalry flare up to the extent of becoming visible publicly—like last December when Fread opened his plush new dual restaurant on Dupont Street in midtown Toronto, to the accompaniment of considerable publicity. In the midst of it, though, Berceller appeared in the news with the announcement of his appointment as a Grand Officer of the Cercle Epicurien Mondial, otherwise the International Epicurean Circle, of London.

The appointment not only suggested eminence in international gastronomy, but empowered Berceller to confer the rank of Chevalier of the Cercle on persons he deemed to have performed services for the cause of good eating.

Fread shrugged off the interruption by commenting, “There are so many of these little clubs.” But the fine edge of his triumph was a trifle blunted.

It was Fread, anyway, who d started the honors-winning race V/.•> years before when he was selected as one of the two Canadian delegates to the great food conference and exhibition of the Hospes Cercle des Chefs de Cuisine at Berne, Switzerland. The other delegate from Canada was Jean Zonda, chef to the governor-general.

Berceller, meanwhile, was collecting the Culinary Grand Prize of the Canadian Restaurant Association and a travel magazine’s award. Fread countered with a citation, beautifully engraved, from the Dutch fish industry, and with the selection of his restaurant as the meeting place for the Toronto chapter of London’s Food and Wine Society.

Mostly, though, the spectator needs certain inside information to appreciate the subtlety of Fread vs. Berceller in action. One must know, for example, that Berceller is inordinately proud of the number of visiting theatre personalities who eat in the Winston, to appreciate c Bread’s to-whom-it-maycogji^rfe' Ö6$»nent: “So you sit at the fcâtilë'ttèXt^'Marilyn Monroe and you â’Mëâihhre' steak—you’ve still got a mediocre steak, haven’t you?”

One must know that Bread’s new restaurant seats two hundred in the main dining room and another three hundred in special dining rooms to appreciate Berceller’s declaration that no restaurateur can run a really good place if it caters to more than eighty people at once. (The Winston seats eighty).

In becoming the rival high priests of haute cuisine in Toronto, neitfHëï'Pread nor Berceller can claim the iad^^ërttëèe of family tradition or evert? I£éifsbtíal experience in serving food. rtdptbfSin fact, were rank amateurs WhöGhadnever so much as put hand» tífcjfctóhet until they were close to forty yeàrs*lds> Both were grown men in prosperous;; settled ways of life when the; rise, of Hitler pitchforked them into pÉnpl known country of Canada, Fread from'; Germany in 1936 and Berqelterfrom Hungary in 1940. A

di%ead’s grandfather was cattle trader who founded.>4 ,j§ani'ly ferjB&gtfCorporation by ta&íSgK.ó^r bankrupt properties. By,dthe tipie grandson -Hans grev> up ttye finally corporation was big enough to require a lavvyer. Hans spent eight ht.ppy years a§;the family’s attorney. Then came Hitler and fids atrocities. Fia^cj’g L,were k$ed

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speak German, and spotted about his own age. He himself and asked bluntly, “Wn^jd^s one do to make a living

“Get a job in a restaurant,” one ó? the men told Fread. “Then you are sure to eat.”

So Fread got a dishwashing job in the old Kerhulu and Odiau restaurant, hours 5 p.m. to midnight, for twelve dollars a week, and also worked until 6 a.m. bundling and delivering the Montreal Gazette for an additional seventeen dollars. His fellow workers considered him a phenomenon, making twenty-nine dollars a week. Yet Fread himself insists he was not interested in getting ahead.

“I was only marking time,” he says, “waiting for the inevitable overthrow of Hitler so I could regain the family properties. I took no real interest in Canadian life or culture. I was only interested in surviving until I could return to Germany.”

Soon Fread acquired enough English to get a job as bus boy in the grill of the Windsor Hotel in Montreal. He became a waiter and worked in a. dozen restaurants in Montreal, Quebec City, the Laurentians and Toronto without tak ing much interest in the food.

But his indifference to his surround ings developed one notable exception?® he nourished a consuming dislike for one overbearing, loud-mouthed employer. For years Fread dreamed revenge—and it finally came. When the Sign of the Steer became a fashionable place to go, his ex-employer telephoned to reserve a table. Fread lay in wait for him in the restaurant lobby, confronted him and his party, told his former boss in clear tones and in great detail what he thought of him, and ended by pointing dramatically at the door and declaiming, “Get out! Get out! Get out!” Fread says the incident cleared his soul of all the insults and frustrations he had suffered during his first decade in Canada.

Fread’s interest in what went on in a restaurant’s kitchen was finally piqued by a temperamental chef named Louis Schultz, who now presides at Larry’s Restaurant, behind the King Edward Hotel in Toronto. “Schultz,” recalls Fread, “guards his cooking secrets as closely as if they had to do with the atom bomb. I remember that if he wanted to add so much as a pinch of salt to a pot he would send you on an errand before doing it. He taught me cooking—but most unwillingly. I had to spy on him to acquire much of what I learned.”

Fread and Schultz worked together in two restaurants while the former gradually absorbed cooking lore.

Then, almost simultaneously, two important events happened to change Fread’s plans: Hitler was overthrown, but the property of the Freads was in East Germany and behind the Iron Curtain, farther from Fread’s reach than ever. The second event was meeting his future wife, Mrs. Shirley Levine.

Shirley, the widow of Tommy Levine, a Toronto newspaperman, had two sons. She married Fread in May 1947. Fread soon discovered that his comfortable bachelor’s salary did not go far in supporting a ready-made family. “There’s only one thing for it,” he told Shirley, “I must open a restaurant of my own.”

Shirley was firmly opposed. Her own parents, Mr. and Mrs. Herman Altman, had been in the restaurant business. It had been eminently successful—in fact, Altman’s on College Street had been one of Toronto’s first gourmet restaurants—but Shirley could remember her parents coming home exhausted. “It’s '•'"'‘ for a family,” she insisted.

Her father, though, came to Fread’s support, and even advanced money when Fread took over a small restaurant named Sign of the Steer in an old house near the corner of Dupont Street and Davenport Road. In search of a gas stove Fread visited the Salvation Army salvage salesroom. The price asked was so moderate—seven dollars —that Fread took two, explaining, “Maybe I’ll expand and need the second stove some day.” On the other hand the stoves were so decrepit that later when Fread bought new ones and tried to return the originals, the “Salvation Army wouldn’t take them back as a gift. The other basic pieces of kitchen equipment were a charcoal broiler, a refrigerator large enough to hold twelve steaks, and a small sink.

The Sign of the Steer opened on Feb. 15, 1948, with a paid staff of one dishwasher. The rest of the staff was Hans Fread, who described his duties thus: “When the doorbell rang I would take off my apron and put on my coat and show the guests to a table. Then I would take their orders and rush tcí^Áe kitchen, take off the coat, put on the (apron, cook the orders, dish them up, then take off the apron, put on the coat md serve the guests.”

Actually, he was not nearly as busy .s that recital sounds. For several [reeks there were nights when the Sign f the Steer served two customers, nights when four dined there—and more than one dreadful evening when nobody came. And one unexpectedly good night caused a crisis. That was the night that Edward Murphy QC, a Toronto lawyer and sportsman, telephoned that he was bringing a party of five for steaks. Fread had been congratulating himself on already selling ten of his dozen steaks that night, and knew that there were two lone steaks reposing in his icebox. In his best maître d'hôtel tone, surveying meanwhile his totally empty dining room, he said, “We’re packed at the moment, Mr. Murphy, but we can serve you at eight-thirty.”

Then, frantically, he began telephoning restaurants—to beg the loan of three steaks. None, it seemed, had heard of Fread or the Sign of the Steer, and none was interested in lending out even three steaks. Finally Fread thought of the Duflferin Grill, an ice-cream parlor and lunchroom not far from his home in the Parkdale district, where he and his wife made occasional purchases. The proprietor recalled Fread, and agreed to lend him some steaks. Fread then telephoned his wife to pick them up and rush them to the restaurant by taxi. She arrived as Murphy and his party, having eaten the preliminary courses with which the desperate Fread plied them, were beginning to become a little impatient for their steaks. It wasn’t until months later that Fread told Murphy how close he had come to an unfinished dinner that night.

Should a cook try to talk?

The item that made the Sign of the Steer, the steak, is simply treated by Fread. “In the first place,” he says, “the loin of beef from which the steak is cut should have been aged for not less than three weeks. The steak should be at least one inch thick. Immediately before cooking it should be dipped in oil or lightly but thoroughly coated in oil—any good cooking oil will do. This has the effect of closing the pores of the meat immediately the heat reaches it. Ideally, a steak should be broiled over glowing charcoal, and positively should be turned only once. How long the steak should be cooked is, of course, a matter of personal preference. But I would suggest to persons who have got into the rut of ordering their steaks medium or well-done, that they try medium-rare or even rare for a change. Not, perhaps, as rare as one customer who always tells the waiter, ‘Just walk slowly through the hot kitchen with my steak.’ ”

For a memorable year and a half in 1953 and 1954, he had an opportunity to combine food and talking, when he starred in a weekly CBC television program, Hans in the Kitchen. For half an hour every Tuesday night, starting at 10.30, Fread puttered about an improvised kitchen, wearing white apron and white shirt (he rejected the traditional chef’s puffed hat as “corny”) and talked in flavorful tones about philosophy and food, meanwhile whipping up something out of the ordinary like kidneys in mustard sauce, chilled cucumber soup, beef Stroganoff or jambalaya.

Because Fread’s TV kitchen was improvised, he fought a running engagement with minor mishaps and frequently delighted his audience with his imperturbable handling of emergencies. Once, preparing to make pea soup, he warned the audience that the salt pork must be well washed before being cubed and fried. Thereupon he turned the tap on a piece of saltencrusted pork. The tube that attached the sink faucet to a remote tap slipped off, flooding the TV kitchen but yielding no water for the pork. Hasty repairs, embarrassingly visible to the audience, still produced no tap water. Finally Fread shrugged, cubed the pork and tossed it into a pan. “So the soup will be too salty,” he philosophized, “but—life’s like that.”

By all odds the most unforgettable of Fread’s TV half hours was the program that celebrated his fifty-second week on the air. Present was a special audience of semi-celebrities who would be regaled later with the products of Fread’s cuisine, augmented by a buffet. Fread’s major project was to convert a large leftover turkey into a hot savory turkey pâté, not only to feed the studio audience but for the edification of a home audience plagued by a leftoverturkey problem.

“Of course,” said Fread chattily, waving at the array of pots, pans and gadgetry that surrounded him, “you cannot all, alas, have at your disposal such magnificent wares as these the CBC kindly provides for me. Take this machine—” he patted a gleaming porcelain mixer with food chopper attached. “At the flick of a wrist this will produce all the minced turkey we need for our pâté.” Fread fed several handfuls of turkey into the chopper’s maw and turned on the switch. The machine ground doggedly and loudly, but nothing came out. Fread inserted more turkey meat, but still the grinder yielded nothing. Fread rose to the occasion. “You see,” he told his home audience brightly, “just like at home— it doesn’t work.”

Finally he coaxed a small amount of ground turkey meat from the machine and announced he would make a small “token” pâté instead of a large one. With this in the oven Fread gave a sigh of relief and turned to the next item on the menu, cherries jubilee. He assembled the ingredients—ice cream and cherries—and explained that they would be of a quantity sufficient only to be consumed by himself and the program’s announcer, Gil Christie. Once more he mentioned the completeness with which the CBC had furnished his kitchen.

“We will now select the correct bowl for our dessert,” he said, opening a cupboard door and peering in at emptiness. Other cupboards proved equally bare. “We will,” said Fread decisively, “make our cherries jubilee in a frying pan.” Having concocted a tasty-looking dessert in that unorthodox container, Fread reached into a drawer for spoons so that he and Christie could regale themselves. Spoons, alas, were also missing—except for some wooden mixing spoons which served the purpose, perhaps not quite in the spirit of cherries jubilee’s prestige.

As the program moved to its eventful conclusion, the studio audience was torn between admiration for Fread’s resourcefulness and fascination at the sight of the first few wisps of smoke curling from the oven where the small turkey pâté was all but forgotten. This oversight apparently was noticed by some home viewers, too. Shortly after the program went off the air a viewer in London, Ont., despatched a frantic wire: “For heaven’s sake take that turkey pâté out of the oven !”

Fread’s TV career came to a rather abrupt end. On his return from his triumphal visit to the conference of chefs in Switzerland in 1954, he was informed that air time was no longer available. He was, however, given a segment of time on a variety program known as Living, on which he shared space with a pair of puppets named Uncle Chichi mus and Hollyhock which had also been demoted from a halfhour program of their own.

“I loved them on their own program,” Fread says now, “but when it came to having puppets peering into my pots, that was too much.”

In any case Fread was facing a new problem which would leave little time for such diversions as television. He started planning a restaurant of his own, across the intersection from the old Sign of the Steer building. The kitchen and service layout was a matter of special pride to Fread: his elder stepson, Ronnie Levine, was at Cornell University studying restaurant management, and the planning department of the faculty, famed for its design of all Statler Hotel kitchens, undertook the same assignment for the Sign of the Steer and made it a class project. “Naturally,” Fread says, “I couldn’t swing a half-million-dollar deal alone. My partner is my wife’s brother, George Altman.”

Today Hans Fread, somewhat more slender than in the old days but dapper as ever, is a host who can devote all his time to being genial to his guests. But he’s not sure that he’s personally happier than when he had to switch quickly to an apron to cook the customers’ orders. “Now I am an executive,” he moans, “with an efficient secretary who tells me what I have to do every moment of my time.”

Fread has one problem that most other restaurateurs would gladly borrow from him: the fact that on his peak evenings, Friday and Saturday, four hundred persons are served in his two-hundred-place main restaurant between 5.30 and 9 p.m. “That’s a little more than an hour and a half per serving,” says Fread, “and I don’t think anyone should take less than an hour and three quarters.”

The desirability of leisure dining is one opinion Fread shares with Berceller, who maintains that “eating is hard on the body, a task from which it probably doesn’t recover for a couple of hours—so don’t run away from the table.” Berceller is even happy when occasional customers come in at six and linger over food, wine and conversation until past midnight.

Another belief the two men share is that the all-important factor in improving eating out in Ontario—in fact, in making restaurants like their own possible at all—was the legalizing of drinks by the glass. “I couldn’t run a place like this a week without serving liquor and wines,” Fread admits.

Berceller says, “Some millionaire could operate the Winston without a license, for a hobby—but it would be an expensive hobby.” For that reason, the first Chevalier of the Cercle Epicurien Mondial Berceller has created in Canada is George Drew. The Conservative leader, once described as “no gourmet, but a hearty eater who likes plain food and revels in loggingcamp meals,” might have been surprised at the honor, but the explanation is that he earned it away back when, as premier of Ontario, he legalized liquor-by-the-glass. Berceller credits Drew’s liquor policy with being a prime factor in converting Winston’s from a hamburger café to a place that serves what Gourmet magazine has described as “the most superb food in the North American continent,” and in which the average dinner cheque per couple, with wine, is fifteen dollars.

Until he came to Canada in 1940, Berceller’s only contact with good food had been as a consumer. As a young man in Hungary he played top-flight tournament tennis and traveled extensively. As an amateur he received no pay, except the best accommodation available in each city on the tennis circuit. There he acquired a taste for expensive food and drink.

His subsequent career was a chequered one. At nineteen he was a grain broker. At twenty-six he owned a broom factory. Hitler’s economic policies, he says, drove him and his wife to France and finally to Toronto. “When I saw the lovely homes in Toronto,” he says, “I asked myself where were the fine restaurants in which these people ate. I did not know then that Toronto people didn't eat out. By the time I found that out I had already opened a restaurant. So in selfdefense I had to try to change Toronto’s eating habits.”

Berceller does not claim that his first lunch counter was a gourmet’s paradise. In fact, what he remembers best about it now is the incredible speed with which his customers ate. “The fastest I had ever seen. A customer would order pie and coffee. I would put the pie in front of him and turn to get the coffee. The pie would be gone. Then I’d write the check and hand it to him. The coffee would be gone—and sometimes, unhappily, the customer also.” Berceller called his café the Winston Grill for a reason that was logical in 1940—in honor of Winston Churchill.

Porgy and Bess in a grill

The Winston’s first timid step out of the lunchroom class came in January 1945, when Jack Grogan, an actor appearing at the Royal Alexandra theatre, wandered in for a late cup of coffee. Ernest Rawley, manager of the theatre, remembers Grogan mentioning the café and adding, “It’s no great shakes, but it’s open late, the food isn’t bad—and Oscar, the man behind the counter, sure is crazy about theatre people.” Even the show’s star, the late Elissa Landi, came in, spoke to Oscar in Hungarian and made him forever the friend of all theatre people. Soon the Winston Grill became the Winston Theatre Grill.

And Berceller was able to expand. He rented a vacant store next door from his landlord, the Globe and Mail, put in more tables and installed a piano.

Once when Porgy and Bess was playing in Toronto and the engagement did not include a matinée, Berceller complained that he would have to miss the show because of his working hours. Thereupon the cast gathered in the Winston after hours and ran through the entire musical for the benefit of an entranced Berceller. It was not long before the theatrical flavor of the Winston started to attract wider attention. Margaret Aitken MP, Toronto Telegram columnist, occasionally mentioned the place as “the Sardi’s of Toronto,” in reference to a Manhattan restaurant favored by theatre folk.

After three or four renovations to its present state of discreet luxury, the Winston “key gimmick” became a controversial topic with Toronto’s fledgling café society. (The fiction was that you had to have a key to get into the restaurant.) Some people to whom Berceller awarded door keys thought the idea wonderful; some indignantly returned the keys and refused to be part of any such nonsense.

“Actually,” Berceller says, “there was nothing snobbish about the key idea. When my place was still a lunchroom it used to be invaded when the beverage rooms closed at - 6.30 by drunks marking time until the pubs opened again. For the price of a cup of coffee they’d make a shambles of my washroom and the restaurant itself, and keep respectable customers out. So, in self-defense, I hit on the idea of locking the place when the pubs closed and giving each of my real customers a key. That became a sort of symbol or trade mark. It’s still that, but anyone who behaves himself and has the price of a meal is welcome to come here.”

Some are undoubtedly more welcome than others, and Berceller has set up other standards by which these are judged. There are, for example, more than two thousand keys in circulation, but only four hundred glasses with the names of esteemed customers and their wives stand ready and waiting for them when the patronize the Winston.

Even fewer cherished customers can be honored by having a table marked with their name plate. After all, there are only twenty tables, and scores of celebrities have signed the Winston guest book with such comments as “Oscar, darling, love and kisses: Danny Kaye;” “Food was not important to me until tonight: Jane Powell;” “Au

revoir: Raymond Massey;” “This is it: Bob Crosby;” and “Almost a fantasy: Ezio Pinza.” Oscar admits placidly, though, that each name plate is easily removed and replaced by a more strategic one in case of the unexpected arrival of a celebrity.

But although Berceller admits his restaurant is a pretty atmospheric place, he says he never forgets that good food is the reason people come there in the final analysis. The customer is, of course, free to ruin his dinner by drinking a carbonated highball before eating, talking during the all-important main course, and smoking through the meal. Berceller won’t order them to refrain. “But what I do,” he says, “is to stand there willing them not to do these things.”

His restaurant has several gimmicks. The waiters, for instance, sport white gloves and are selected for small stature (so they can’t look down from a height on seated customers). Waitresses must be “appetizing” but not plump (there just isn’t room enough). And visiting theatre people get an automatic fifty percent cut on the bill.

Fread, who does not coddle customers by price discount, complains that “sometimes theatre people expect me to treat them the same as the person downtown.” One evening Maxie Rosenbloom, prize-fighter-turned-actor who^was appearing in Toronto, brought a pfc.cy to eat at his restaurant.

“I had seen the show,” said Fread, “and it struck me that Maxie was incapable of conveying emotion by the expression on his face. In my restaurant, though, I saw him register pain and chagrin in a way any Barrymore would have envied. That was when! the waitress handed him the cheque and he discovered it wasn’t half price.”

On that subject of price, the Winston is somewhat out in front of the Steer, as the following random comparisons show: A Châteaubriand steak for two, with all the accessories of the fullcourse dinner, is $12.50 at the Winston, $8 à la carte at Freads. Sirloin steak is $4.50 at Fread’s, $5.75 at the Winston; filet mignon is a dollar more at Berceller’s restaurant, and half a roast spring chicken comes to $3.25 at Fread’s and $4.50 at the Winston.

Only people who happen to eat in both places are aware of respective prices, of course. Certainly the principals are unconcerned.

“I have no competition,” Berceller says flatly.

“I wish I had some competition,” Fread says almost wistfully. “It would keep me on my toes. I hate to succeed by default.” -jç