The Iron Skillet Collingwood: Stars on TV, and with Customers
Foodservice operators often dream about a discovery by a national TV cooking show. Their dream is to reap a whirlwind bonus of customers from free publicity.
Well, this is the dream happening to Tony Sensenberger (right) of The Iron Skillet in Collingwood. Ontario. Collingwood is next door to Blue Mountains ski hills for winter, and nearby lake visitors in summer. Collingwood is on the southern point of Georgian Bay, as part of Ontario's seasonal playground.
Needless to say, being recently featured as a program item on You Gotta Eat Here, on Canada's Food Network is a huge boost for Tony. The broadcast is rewarding recognition of Tony's unique, artistic foodservice management approach.
"I have one rule as a chef. I don't do it unless it is authentic. My customers know this to be true, and they appreciate my restaurant for that fact", says Tony.
For Tony's customers, it is always a taste adventure to eat there as the menu specials vary by country of origin. The menu tasting adventure results from Tony's restless chef's eye on a novel menu item. He is constantly looking for a new country and menu dish culture to experiment with on his daily menu board.
In the finest European dining tradition, a customer at lunch will see a large table side chalkboard at order time. The lunch board offers four to five lunch specials, and dinner is double that number of unique dining options.
Tony says that his patrons have come to expect a large selection of very different menu items.
" We still offer the standby menu items as there are always customers for standard menu fare. But we find that many of our first time visitors are looking for something special", says Tony.
And special they get. View the TV program's video (skip to 14:20) to see how varied and special. In one plate, he prepares it as an exotic foreign fare and for the other it is a Canadian staple of roast beef with Stuffed Yorkshire Pudding. If the excitement of the TV program host is any gauge, Tony nails the taste and texture.
"Jambalaya is popular on our menu and we do offer a lot of Latin American influenced and sourced menu items."
Tony travels widely to understand the where, why, as well as the how of different food plate menu items, and how they came into being. The development of a recipe fascinates him as does the culture that allowed its evolution as a staple.
Talking to Tony is like talking to a museum curator or antiquities evaluator. He knows his spices, his ingredients, and his cooking preferences by country, culture, and their location source influences.
It has allowed Tony to turn his passion for foodservice as a business into food preparation as an art form. Like all artists, he keeps pushing the edge of the envelope in taste trials, and in customer appeal trials.
"We do miss a recipe execution from time to time. We have to back off a plate until we get it mastered. But I am fortunate because many of my best customers are willing, and taste bud ready, to experiment along with me."
If you view Tony's current Iron Skillet menu online, it is a trip Around the World in 80 Plates. The famous movie version was a race Around the World in 80 Days while the Iron Skillet features fare for every occasion from nearly as many countries. The Iron Skillet menu is influenced by the cooking cultures that Tony finds as being representative of multiple countries.
"I have always been fascinated with why a certain recipe came into being, and why it started in one country as a staple and not in another."
Traveling into foreign chef's kitchens over the decades has taught Tony the elements of menu dish creation. He learned that what could be grown or hunted easily in the local landscape determined a lot of what became a country's menu staple.
On this day in April of 2015, Tony is trying to find a highly specialized pottery artisan. He wants a custom made version cooking device called a clay tagine. A tagine is a specialized cone shaped cookware for a special foreign country dish he wants to prepare.
The impossible to find at a reasonable cost tagine will allow Tony to create a sensational unique dish for an upcoming menu feature. With it he has the original country's perfect cooking tool. Tony searches out a local potter who is willing to cast the tagine cookware. He is ecstatic at the potential opportunity to create something unique for his customers.
Ask Tony why such attention to detail and seemingly unnecessary complexity for his menu and he explains that the dish will be unique for the diner who orders it. It is what he lives for to be in the foodservice industry as an artistic taste-by-design chef.
"The bottom line for my restaurant is not my only focus. I am offering my customers something that is unique to them. A dining experience that they would have to travel far and wide to enjoy as a taste experience. Tony says he is in the "foodtainment" business. His food menu is a customer entertainment menu.
Later this year Tony is headed to Morocco, to investigate the native dishes and cooking meal culture of this exotic locale. He will spend 12 days eating and visiting every willing kitchen chef that will take him in and explain why and how they cook the way they do in Morocco. Tony can hardly wait.
Tony is a veteran in the kitchen, as well as being a husband and father of four children. The children have experience in the discipline and labor it takes to make a 128 seat restaurant with 30 patio seats work. They have opted to acquire an education and do something else, so far.
The Iron Skillet Collingwood has been operational in this new format for the past three years and employs a staff of 12 full time and the same number part time. An earlier Tony's Iron Skillet restaurant was operated in the area for a number of years before Tony sold it to go adventuring in menu research.
Before he launched his current "Iron Skillet Collingwood" restaurant, Tony took a five-year sabbatical from food service. He gained first-hand knowledge of cooking and meal preparation customs in Mexico and Latin America.
Tony has Austrian family roots that influence his personal taste buds. You can find European sourced menu items on his Iron Skillet menu, right beside the Asian, or Latin American dishes.
His current menu reflects those years of travel experience. "Jambalaya is currently our largest seller on the menu."
"However, we do get a lot of customers who come in for what you would call our Canadian staple menu items, which we are happy to serve. But if you have a stomach for adventure travel dining, I can deliver comfort food that borders on gourmet", says Tony.
"We are fortunate in our location. We do not have a real slow season here in our region. We also enjoy a strong clientele who frequently return from around the region, which keeps us busy."
"Right now, we are planning a series of special theme meals that will be paired with wine from that country of origin. For us, what has worked well is to present the food as entertainment".
“People that are spending money to go out and purchase a meal want something very different from what they prepare at home. They want to experiment and to be entertained by what they taste, and from what they learn about the origins of the dish.
I have been able to make a good business out of that sensibility on the part of our customers. They must like it because they keep coming back”, says Tony.
The Iron Skillet Restaurant & Pub
20 Balsam St, Collingwood, Ontario