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Former Ottawa rapper channels creativity into food at Erling's Variety

“I'm an artist at heart, pretty ADHD, but that works well in the restaurant,” explains Liam Vainola.

Liam Vainola's taking the same approach to food as he used to with song writing: keep it simple.

“I wanted to create a restaurant where I want to eat everything on the menu,” says the 37-year-old, once known as rapper/MC Flip Kuma. “It's about giving the customer something delicious. I go to some restaurants and order the least weird thing on the menu. It's silly food. Good food shouldn't be that complicated. Keep it simple. Put some lemon, butter and wine in the pan, it's delicious.”

Every morning, Vainola goes to the markets and buys whatever looks fresh. That's how he writes his menu at Erling's Variety. Some menu favourites are mushroom toast, oysters fresh daily, scallops, homemade pasta, steak tartar and lots of veggie dishes.

“I want the classic stuff,” he says. “I don't need a weird take on steak tartar. I want a classic tartar. I don't want your deconstructed take on a pie. Bake me a pie.”

The food at Erling's may be home comfort food, but there's no avoiding the edgy personality leftover from his previous career.

Named after Vainola's grandfather, Erling's Variety resembles a nightclub. The kitchen in the middle of the restaurant so that customers can see Vainola the chef perform, and he can see the look on the customer's face when their meal arrives.

“Seeing the joy in customer's faces when the plate hits the table is my favourite part,” Vainola says. “Feeding people makes me happy. I started cooking when I was a teen. Anytime I felt down, I started cooking dishes I loved for friends and family. I enjoyed watching them eat my food. It started something in me. I realized I could make people happy with my food. It's where this all began.”

Vainola was a promising voice on the local music scene after recording three albums and had plans to run his own rap label by the time he was 25. Then, his ambitions caught up with him. Burned-out by touring and family issues, he quit performing to stay close to home and build a new career.

He explains that he picked up his kitchen and management skills working at The Ritz, 73 North and The Fourth Avenue Wine Bar, in time, earning enough, along with a grant from Invest Ottawa and support from his dad, to open Erling's Variety on Strathcona Avenue in 2013.

“I'm an artist at heart, pretty ADHD, but that works well in the restaurant,” he explains. “I'm all over the place. I do the wine, the menu, the music, food, lighting. I'm a jack of all trades. I found a business I can be creative in, and make a little money.”

“I do what I want,” he adds. “I don't overthink things. If I like it, I serve it. I used to put my ego into every dish I made. I was trying too hard. These days, it's very simple. I get my creativity less out of the food and more out of the music now.”

With seating for 54 inside, 28 outside on the patio, Erling's has become a fixture for regulars in The Glebe. Former Senators captain Erik Karlsson and his family used to eat there. Justin and Sophie Trudeau were regulars at the counter before becoming Prime Minister.

Like almost every restaurant, the pandemic hit Erling's hard.

“COVID was a roller coaster,” he says with a sigh. “I was a nervous wreck. But either out of sheer stupidity or determination, I was not going to fail. Dedication, meditation and good wine got me through the sleepless nights.”

Erling's Variety is open Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. for now, and is expected to run Tuesdays through Saturdays once patrons are allowed inside. Sunday brunches are scheduled to return in the fall. Details will be posted on the restaurant's Instagram and Facebook pages.

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