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How a faulty alarm clock led to a career in cooking MEET YOUR RETAIL NEIGHBOUR

Otta Zapotocky

Otta Zapotocky

Otta Zapotocky arrived as a visitor in Vancouver from the Czech Republic as a 19-year-old, on November 5, 1999. How is it that he is now the owner of both L’Avenue and Val d’Isère (with a grave accent on that middle e, please) on Bayview? It’s a bit of a story for such a relatively young man.

Otta grew up in a small town about an hour north of Prague, near the German border. His mother and her four sisters were all chefs. His father was a locksmith but could rebuild anything that had wheels and gears. Otta’s mother, who worked at a restaurant, walked her young son to school the first day, but relied on an alarm clock set on a plate with cutlery to wake him and get him moving after that. Almost inevitably, the clock was not fool-proof, so his mother decided to bring young Otta to work with her when he missed school. In theory, he was supposed to sleep on the benches of the restaurant and stay out of the way. In fact, he decided it was more fun to be in the kitchen, chopping. So began his culinary career.

While studying practical subjects at school in the Czech Republic like economics, accounting and marketing, he also worked in restaurants – starting as a server, then graduating to bartending. His “honourary uncle” (actually the brother of his mother’s second husband) was working at the Hotel Georgia in Vancouver, and that sounded more exciting to Otta than staying in the Czech Republic, so off he flew.

As he was trying to decide what jobs might be open to someone like him with a distinct accent, and, at that time, limited English, he met a sommelier, who suggested that “wine” might be a good fit for him. In short order, he acquired a raft of designations through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust that led to his being asked to teach in Victoria. Then it was off to San Francisco and Portland where he became a certified sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers. From there, there were jobs at Araxi in Whistler, Vincor in Vancouver, and choosing the wines to pair with the sauces at Sooke Harbour House, with a different menu every day.

But Toronto beckoned. More employment in more upscale restaurants…Splendido, the opening manager and sommelier at Nota Bene, and general manager at Wildfire on Yonge. But in the back of his mind was always the desire to run his own show.

He really didn’t know the Leaside area, other than having driven up and down Bayview a few times, but Segar had closed, and its location was available. Otta rented the space on February 15, 2012 and decided what type of restaurant would fit the neighbourhood. “French-inspired” was what he came up with. His first customer, on looking at the menu said, “This isn’t going to work for me.”

She couldn’t explain what she wanted, just that what he was offering didn’t appeal to her. Otta listened. With a few menu tweaks, L’Avenue has become a hit.

As if that weren’t challenge enough, when the space where The Mad Italian became available across the street, Otta envisioned setting up a tapas restaurant, called Tinto. In the summer, Tinto does well with its small plates. In the winter, not so much. So, this winter, Tinto is morphing into Val d’Isère, serving hearty foods on large plates, or as Otta calls it, “Alpine chalet cuisine”. A big key to his success is his belief in strong local relationships. Otta sources many of his products from other local merchants, including Badali’s, Alex Farm, Epi Breads, WhiteHouse Meats and the Academy of Culinary Arts.

A benefit of working where he does on Bayview is that it takes him all of eight minutes to get home to his wife and young son in the Scenic apartments overlooking the Don Valley.
This charming host, talented sommelier and wise hand in the kitchen has quickly become a Leaside favourite.