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The Ultimate Christmas Dinner

Toronto chef Victor Barry on cooking holiday feasts with soul.

Thirty-four-year-old Toronto chef  Victor Barry of Piano Piano (formerly: Splendido) is one of Canada’s finest cooks, and a connoisseur of fine dining and casual pizza dinners alike. Here, the father of two shares his insights on imbuing a holiday meal with joy, regardless of what’s on the menu. 

Christmas morning, to me, was all about my father. My dad always knew how to light up a room with his playful inner child and his huge love for friends and family. He loved Christmas and spoiled us rotten, even though I know now he spent every last cent he had to see the smiles on our faces when we tore open all of our favourite things from under the oversized Griswold tree.

But while Christmas gifts were always nice, what I remember and cherish the most are the things money can’t buy. I don’t have a huge house, a brand new car, but now, as a husband and father of two beautiful baby girls, I carry on my father’s rich Christmas traditions—most of which are based around food. Surprise, surprise—the Barry family loves to eat.

Growing up, on Christmas Eve, our family would cook up what we called the “Barry Christmas Tasting Menu”—a mega-feast for which each family member would select one dish that everyone had to eat. I kept my choices simple with either Kraft Dinner, grilled cheese, or pizza, while everyone else was choosing luxuries like lobster, caviar, and oysters. Leading up to the big night it was always so fun to see the menu requests come together on a scrap piece of paper that was taped to the side of the fridge. One year, my sister Jenn requested a whole roasted lobe of foie gras. There were no limits to my father’s Christmas Eve menu, whatever you wanted, you got.

I think I understand more about where my passion for food and family comes from now that my father is gone. His approach is reflected in my own—I enjoy the luxury of a tasting menu but understand there are no limits to or judgments about to what a tasting menu can be. It can be Kraft Dinner cooked eight ways, or a good grilled cheese, or a 30-course tasting menu like the one you would have seen at Splendido. Whatever it is, the key is that it’s… fucking delicious. “No limits…” my dad would say, and now I say the same.

Everyone wants their version of “Christmas morning” or “feel good holiday magic”, and this is mine.

Serrano ham and Riopelle grilled cheese sandwich (a.k.a Victor Barry’s Fancy Grilled Cheese Sandwich)
Makes one sandwich.

One of the classic dishes I like to cook on Christmas morning is a traditional grilled cheese sandwich with lots of ketchup. Heinz, to be exact, and of course, white Wonder Bread and Kraft Single slices. So many people assume I’m always stirring up something fancy at home, but when it comes to traditions, you can’t mess with the nostalgia of household recipes that have been working classics for years.

Keep it simple if you want. But for an elevated version, here is something a bit special…

2 slices seeded sourdough bread (we use loaves from Blackbird in Kensington Market)
4 slices Emmental cheese
60g serrano ham
60g Riopelle de l’Isle cheese
Normandy butter

1. Leave butter out overnight to soften.
2. Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees Celsius.
3. Heat cast iron pan over medium-high.
4. Butter one side of each slice of bread.
5. Make a sandwich on the unbuttered side of your bread, with two slices of Emmental cheese, followed by one layer of serrano ham, followed by the Riopelle, followed by another layer of serrano, followed by the last two slices of Emmental.
6. Place buttered side of bread down in warmed cast iron pan and place the second slice on top. Buttered side up. Cook until golden brown and the same on the other side.
7. Put sandwich on a cooling rack (so bread doesn’t go soggy) and place in the oven until cheese has melted
8. Slice and enjoy.

This article was originally published December 12, 2016.


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