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culture

Historicist: Hans in the Kitchen

Hans Fread, Canada's first celebrity television chef, rarely kept opinions to himself.

Hans Fread showing off the RadaRange microwave used at Sign of the Steer  Advertisement, the Toronto Star, November 24, 1955

Hans Fread showing off the RadaRange microwave used at Sign of the Steer. Advertisement, the Toronto Star, November 24, 1955.

“I am sometimes like a little boy with a big mouth—when I am angry, I talk too much and it comes back to hurt me,” admitted Hans Fread. While his opinionated nature could backfire on him, it also provoked admiration and amusement. As Canada’s first celebrity chef of the television age, Fread took advantage of a growing postwar audience for gourmet food, especially if it involved slabs of meat.

Fread offered his definition of fine dining during a 1958 interview with the Globe and Mail:

I firmly believe there is a great difference between eating and dining. When I think of eating that means a quick meal, over which there is no time to reflect or enjoy good company. To these meals cater the majority of our eating places. But dining, that is something else entirely different. To me, that means not the time of eating but the manner in which it is done. It is done leisurely, and almost inevitably means good conversation. To dine well, you must be a good conversationalist.

Born in Germany at the dawn of the 20th century, Fread trained as a lawyer and practiced in Leipzig. When the Nazis assumed power in 1933, a friend advised Fread, a Jew involved in anti-Nazi groups, to flee the country. His escape route involved a train to Berlin, followed by combination of car and foot until he reached the Swiss border. Arriving in Montreal with only $63, Fread was hired as a dishwasher. He advanced up the restaurant ranks one position at a time, and was a chef by the time he moved to Toronto in 1944 to work at the King Edward Hotel.

Around 1948, with $4,000 and eight tables, Fread opened Sign of the Steer in an old house at 161 Dupont Street. The house specialty was steak, which, depending on the source, was either pan-fried and branded with a poker to simulate grilling, or charcoal broiled. The steaks were refrigerated but never frozen, as Fread declared that eating thawed meat was “like kissing a woman through a veil.” After making several cuts to prevent curling, Fread seasoned the steaks with a mixture of salt, pepper, MSG, and garlic powder. Before hitting the grill, the steaks were dipped in vegetable oil to seal the flavour. After being turned once during grilling, the steaks were placed on a plank, brushed with butter, and garnished with mushrooms or deep-fried onion rings.

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, October 29, 1953

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, October 29, 1953.

Sign of the Steer quickly drew customers. Raves in the press helped, as newspaper columnists were drawn by the food and Fread’s vocal resemblance to French actor Charles Boyer. When the restaurant expanded in December 1950, Maple Leafs goalie Turk Broda turned the key for its grand re-opening. Demand rose for Fread to demonstrate his culinary talent—he frequently appeared at homemaking shows at Simpsons, preparing fancy dishes like pressed duck. He participated as a judge in international cooking competitions. His name was dropped in newspapers, whether it was a tidbit in an entertainment column or detailing his fishing trips. Celebrities like pianist Victor Borge dropped in to dine, and ads included testimonials from culinary luminaries such as New York restaurateur Vincent Sardi, Jr.

With all of this attention, CBC brought Fread’s expertise to its new television service. Hans in the Kitchen (also known as Good Eating) began a year-and-a-half run in January 1953. The half-hour show relied on Fread’s European charm to show viewers how to make gourmet meals from everyday ingredients. Since cooking shows were still in their infancy, not everything ran smoothly, as producer Ross McLean later recalled:

It was not a model of precision. Perfect organization eluded him. Each week a guest came to share a recipe or a meal. The social niceties often interfered with the cooking. Studio conditions were primitive. The viewer could never count on glimpsing the finished dish. Too often time ran out leaving Fread brandishing a soggy soufflé, conceding that it was, perhaps, a few minutes short of perfection.

When McLean brought Frank Lloyd Wright to Sign of the Steer, Fread couldn’t resist the opportunity to show the famous architect a sketch of the new restaurant he planned for the northeast corner of Davenport and Dupont. Wright glanced at the drawing, asked “What’s this got to do with a cow?” then resumed eating. According to McLean, Fread “was only momentarily disheartened.” In the long run, Fread should have contemplated Wright’s skepticism.

Sign of the Steer restaurant, northeast corner of Davenport and Dupont, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 504.

Sign of the Steer’s new home was lavish. Costing $250,000, the two-floor building sat up to 600 and spared little expense to make diners feel special. In the main dining hall, the walls were decorated with leather panels of sculptured steer. “At the end of the room,” the Globe and Mail observed, “Egyptian artwork has been introduced into charcoal cork walls by the inlaying of a herd of stampeding steer.” In line with the growing popularity of South Pacific-themed restaurants, the banquet rooms on the second floor were decorated with images of Balinese dancers. In the kitchen, Fread invested in a RadaRange, an early microwave oven that baked potatoes in two minutes, lobsters in four. Dignitaries at the new location’s grand opening feast on November 21, 1955 included Mayor Nathan Phillips and provincial travel minister Bryan Cathcart. “After all that food,” reflected Globe and Mail entertainment columnist Alex Barris, “I think it was a struggle for some of the guests to get up.”

At first, all went well. Fread made money during the new location’s first two years, and was hired by Hamilton’s CHCH to host another cooking show. He remained an in-demand speaker, encouraging housewives to experiment less with glamorous recipes in favour of building upon on their own creations through imaginative uses of spices. But the restaurant proved too large to remain profitable, and wasn’t helped by its location. Its site lacked sufficient parking and was adjacent to a traffic bottleneck. “At a curved and busy intersection backed by a railway with underpass, with little parking except through the help of car jockeys,” sometime fishing companion Gordon Sinclair noted, “it could have the best food in town and still wither on the vine.” Fread also faced stronger competition, as newer steak houses like Barberian’s, Carman’s, and Le Baron drew away customers with American-inspired grilling. “Time had passed him by,” Harry Barberian noted decades later. “But he didn’t realize it and blamed the world.”

Or he blamed Premier Leslie Frost’s wife. When Fread shuttered Sign of the Steer in June 1960, he felt the province’s restrictive liquor laws ruined his business—he was refused permission to apply for a cocktail license. “It was dying a slow death,” he raged. “I tried to keep the restaurant open as long as I could in order to be fair to our creditors. The closing is a victory for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.” He lashed out at Gertrude Frost, whom he alleged influenced the premier to maintain rules preventing drink sales after 11:30 p.m. on Saturdays and all day Sunday. Mrs. Frost was amused. “I have never heard anything so silly or foolish,” she told the Star. “I don’t influence my husband. He’s quite able to decide for himself. I have nothing to do with liquor laws. I have never been in the Sign of the Steer. This is one for my scrapbook.”

Source: the Toronto Star, June 29, 1960

Source: The Toronto Star, June 29, 1960.

Fread didn’t stop there. “I’ll sell hot dogs, hamburgers and fish and chips,” he declared. “I’ll not be a party to the bigotry and hypocrisy in this province.” He vowed to “never again run a place in this province where a white tablecloth is used.” The Sign of the Steer site operated under a succession of concepts and owners (Italian eatery, dinner theatre, branch of the Rib o’ Beef chain, go-go dancing, cabaret, topless steakhouse) before it settled into its current incarnation as a furniture store. The building earned the nickname “Hans Fread’s Folly.”

Little was heard of Fread until October 1960. The Star found him in Winnipeg, where he ran the Four Seasons restaurant at the Downtowner Motor Inn. He criticized Torontonians for their inferiority complex and ultra-Britishness. “A multitude of Lady Plushbottoms are there but they are not patronizing the restaurant operators,” he griped. “Torontonians like cubbyhole restaurants. They think a candle on the table makes good atmosphere.” Fread’s former competitors saw his complaints as sour grapes, noting that his prices were too high. A Star editorial noted the increasing diversity of the city’s culinary scene through postwar immigration. Fread’s complaints were “dyspeptic aspirations.”

Ultimately Fread discovered he was happier in Toronto than elsewhere. With little fanfare, he returned in 1962 to run the kitchen at Regency Towers Hotel on Avenue Road in Yorkville (currently Howard Johnson). After a short stint in Ottawa, he revived his old banner (“for old times sake,” an ad declared) with the Little Steer restaurant at 525 King Street West in November 1963. That venture was doomed when he was denied a liquor license. There was suspicion that Fread was being punished for his remarks after the demise of Sign of the Steer. The chair of the Liquor Licensing Board of Ontario, W.T. Robb, indicated Fread’s new application was rejected due to slipping sales, and promised to reconsider if business picked up. It didn’t, and by spring 1965 ads touted his personal preparation of Caesar salad at The Salad Bowl restaurant in Yorkville.

Source: the Globe and Mail, June 12, 1969

Source: the Globe and Mail, June 12, 1969.

As the 1960s ended, Fread taught culinary courses at George Brown College. He saw his classes as a “social get-together” where he passed on his expertise. In one course, 40 students met twice weekly to learn the art of grilling on the college’s roof. “Barbecue cooking belongs outside,” he observed. “It’s no fun at all in a kitchen, but out here, it is such a delightful thing. Look at the skyline.” He believed most purchasers of outdoor grills lacked the proper knowledge to avoid ruining their meal. Fread also taught a 10-week course on “Cooking for the Budget Minded,” where he stressed his belief that the world’s best food ideas came from poor countries.

Fread, who died at age 70 in 1971, was proud of his achievements as a restaurateur and television pioneer. Yet at heart, he downplayed his talent. When asked why he never wore a chef’s hat on the air, he responded, “I have too much respect for the profession. I am a rank amateur.”

Additional material from the October 23, 1952, October 29, 1953, July 5, 1954, November 17, 1955, November 23, 1955, April 9, 1956, May 15, 1956, October 1, 1958, June 30, 1960, October 28, 1964, October 29, 1964, March 6, 1965, June 12, 1969, and August 9, 1986 editions of the Globe and Mail; the December 4, 1950, June 29, 1960, October 17, 1960, October 18, 1960, October 19, 1960, October 28, 1961, December 19, 1963, February 28, 1964, September 12, 1969, November 20, 1971, and November 1, 1975 editions of the Toronto Star; and the June 1996 edition of Toronto Life.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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