In a tent under an open sky, Bloomsbury Bistro chef-owner John Toler pondered what to do with his life. It was the late ‘80s; he traveled around the country replanting forests for a living, so he had a lot of time to think about his future. He kept returning to the idea of food—of cooking meals to share, of one day opening his own restaurant. It was a hazy dream he had held since he was a child, watching “The Galloping Gourmet” and Julia Child on television and testing out recipes from a children’s cookbook, a gift from his older sister.
So the West Virginia University graduate and U.S. Forest Service alum returned to school, enrolling in the world-renowned cooking school L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland. He learned traditional French cooking techniques from the masters, both in school and during his half decade in the kitchens of D.C.’s toniest restaurants, including Jeffrey Buben of the Occidental and the late, two Michelin-starred Jean-Louis Palladin of his eponymous restaurant at the Watergate Hotel. Toler moved to North Carolina, where he worked with Rick Robinson as sous chef at Chapel Hill’s Mondo Bistro.
Then he had a moment of truth.
“For everyone in this business, after six, seven, eight years, there is a crossroads,” says Toler. “I was considering getting out—it’s a hard life.” But right then, as he toed the precipice of a career outside of the restaurant industry, he was offered an opportunity to buy Five Points Bistro, where Bloomsbury now stands. “I was at a point where I thought, ‘If I’m going to stay in this business, I’m taking the jump now.’ I wasn’t ready for it, by any means. I knew a lot about food, I knew how to run a kitchen, I knew how to manage people, but taking that business responsibility…if I didn’t do it then, I would have never done it.”
That was in 1995, and in the intervening years, the 53 year-old Toler has mastered the business end. Most recently, he updated the restaurant’s interior to reflect the tastes of a new generation of diners. But it is in the kitchen that he really shines, creating modern dishes with choice ingredients built on a foundation of classical French technique, such as Fossil Farms venison over mashed acorn squash; prosciutto and brie-stuffed Ashley Farms chicken breast over spice-roasted sweet potato; quail over green gumbo with crispy cornbread-wild rice salad; and stir-fried shiitake mushroom and local tofu steamed dumplings over coconut red curry.
“I cook what I believe people close to me want,” Toler says. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. You’re not going to find any tweezers in my kitchen; there’s no liquid nitrogen back here. I’m fascinated by it, but it’s just not what we do. My basic philosophy is to get the very best ingredient and do the very least to it.” He feels a responsibility toward food, a love of creation but not ownership. The food he cooks belongs to the bistro and the community.
Toler’s way of thinking about the meals he prepares is tied to his childhood in rural West Virginia. He recalls Sunday dinners at his grandmother’s house, where she fed 20 of his uncles, aunts and cousins every weekend.
“She could have five different meats out, salads, three different pies and three different cakes in her cellar,” Toler says. For her, it was all about pleasing others, and Toler feels the same way. Along with a strong work ethic and a passion for cooking, he believes that what makes him or any chef successful is the desire to make people happy through food.
“There’s really nothing else like [being a chef] on Earth, where you can use your own hands, spend just a couple of hours, and make someone happy,” he says. “I mean, what else is there? Cooking for your family, cooking for friends, there’s a sense of responsibility that comes with that. And if you’re a chef, you have to realize how important it is to people. If they’re on a budget, going somewhere like this is a huge splurge and to let them down is just not acceptable.”
Toler asks his new hires and apprentices, many from the Culinary Arts program at Wake Tech, which he regards highly, to read Thomas Keller’s “The French Laundry Cookbook.” Keller writes, “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy; that is what cooking is all about.”
At Bloomsbury Bistro, it’s a philosophy Toler has unreservedly taken to heart.