John Toler, Chef/Owner
By Paul Savery
Photos by Davies Photography
For the past 22 years John Toler has been the owner/chef at Bloomsbury Bistro at Five Points, northwest of downtown Raleigh. An assumption that the restaurant was named after the famous literary group in London – Virginia Woolf, etc. – is quietly corrected by Toler, a history buff who clarifies that the restaurant is located on the edge of Bloomsbury Historic District. After a little research he discovered that just north of Five Points was the 100-acre Bloomsbury Amusement Park, opened in 1912 on a property that is currently the site of the Carolina Country Club.
Reared in rural West Virginia as the fifth child of a coal mining family, Toler helped with the family vegetable garden which included a rhubarb patch. He hunted in the woods with his father and they always ate the game they killed, which included deer and turkey. He learned to honor and respect these animals, using the whole animal in the kitchen and leaving little waste.
In the late ‘80s he received formal training at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland, and after graduation worked with some of the best chefs in America in the late eighties and early nineties, including the late French chef Jean Lois Palladin, who cooked at Watergate in Washington DC. Today Toler employs French cooking techniques in his restaurant as he explores cuisines from around the world. The depth and complexity of flavors in his dishes are derived from good, rich homemade stocks and sauces. Above all he is determined to keep his food “unfussy”.
When he moved to North Carolina he quickly found a position as sous chef at the Mondo Bistro restaurant in Chapel Hill, and left in 1995 to open his own place in Raleigh. Despite the long hours and hard work, Toler appreciates the freedom he is afforded by owning his
He likes “the luxury of being able to cook whatever the heck I feel like cooking every day of the week. My menus are prone to venture into lots of nooks and crannies of global flavors. But, I have never wanted to get cornered into a labeled style of cooking that I have to adhere to.” Toler, referring to his relationship with his customers, says: “I am flattered that my customers have come to trust me over the years when I stray off the beaten path now and then. They trust that I will deliver a dish to them that is approachable and understandable.” Like his mentor Jean Louis Palladin, he rejects the hidebound orthodoxies of cooking.
Toler considers himself very privileged to be part of the early Triangle food scene. From his early days at the Bloomsbury Bistro he has supported the farm-to-table movement, but chooses not to list on his menu the name of every farmer, fisherman, and cattle herder who supplies him, stating: “It should be assumed that a good restaurant is striving to work with the best ingredients available at any given moment, which, inherently, is something local.” The first menus at the Bistro featured “fish caught daily by my buddy Hannon from the Outer Banks and goat cheese from the famed Celebrity Dairy.”
The Bloomsbury Bistro’s menu currently offers starters like Crab Ragoon and Thai Lobster Bisque, and main dishes such as Pot au Feu and Proscuitto and Fig Stuffed Saddle of Rabbit. On the dessert menu a favored English dessert, Lemon Posset, is included alongside the likes of classic Rhubarb Crisp.
Since his three children, Vaughn, Ross, and Aubrey were young, Toler has liked to cook simple meals for the family. “One-pot meals like corned beef and cabbage, cassoulet, or a really hearty soup are my go-to dishes.” As a single father, he does frequently cook for them at home. “I made the decision several years back about where I should spend the bulk of my time. I forced myself to pull away from the Bistro kitchen and stay focused on raising my children.” He adds, “An evening meal together is as important to my family as anything else I can do for them. It is extremely satisfying to cook for them; it’s what I am good at.”
Rhubarb holds a special place in Toler’s heart, and he considers it “magical”. Rhubarb is technically a vegetable producing bright pink to red stalks. Rhubarb is naturally very tart, so it is routinely cooked with a lot of sugar. He adds, “My childhood sweetheart’s grandma called it ‘pie plant’.” Toler has selected his mother’s rhubarb pie for the recipe for Sunday Supper. As a child, he recalls eating it straight out of the garden with sugar dusted on it, adding that it was equally as good eaten as a savory, with just a sprinkle of salt.
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup vegetable shortening (ice cold)
8-10 Tbsp ice cold water
1. Stir together the dry ingredients.
2. Cut the shortening into the flour with a pastry blender, or 2 forks.
3. Work the dough together until it resembles course meal.
4. Add about ¾ of the water and gently work the dough into a ball.
5. Take a small ball of dough and squeeze it together. If the dough crumbles apart, gradually add a little more water. Squeeze another ball of dough together. Keep adding water, just until the dough will cling together.
6. Divide the dough into 2 pieces.One ball should be about 60% of the dough, and the other about 40%. The larger ball will be for the bottom of the pie. Shape the dough into 6-inch disks and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling it out.
Anita’s Rhubarb Pie
Chef’s note: I prefer to use a basic Crisco pie dough recipe for this pie. It is a very simple, rustic pie, and it needs a basic crust.
4 cups chopped Rhubarb
1¼ cups sugar
¼ cup kraft Minute Tapioca pudding
½ tsp grated orange zest
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
Double batch pie dough
1. Mix fruit, sugar, and tapioca in a non-reactive bowl and stir well. Let stand for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Line a 9-inch pie pan with the bottom layer of dough.
3. Fill with fruit mixture, and dot the top with butter.
4. Cover with top crust, crimp the dough together and flute the edge. Cut 4 narrow slits in the crust to allow steam to escape.
5. Bake in preheated 400° oven for 45-50 minutes. If the crust browns too quickly, cover it with foil. The pie is done when the filling starts to bubble up through the slits.