Over the last decade, chef David Lee has been credited with putting Toronto on the culinary map. His oeuvre ranges from fine dining (Splendido) to the contemporary and distinctly anti-white-tablecloth Nota Bene, which he opened in 2008. He’s shifting gears once again with his latest project, Planta, an upscale plant-based restaurant in Yorkville.
Toronto’s Thai food obsession has matured during the past 10 years, thanks mainly to Nuit Regular. The executive chef and co-owner of Sukhothai, Pai and Sabai Sabai moved to Canada 11 years ago and has been fervently converting the masses to the wonders of traditional Thai cooking practically ever since. Regular has single-handedly expanded Toronto’s palate beyond pad Thai.
Donna Dooher, chef and co-owner of Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, is largely credited for kick-starting Toronto’s brunch craze nearly three decades ago. Dooher put her 30-plus years of expertise to good use authoring two cookbooks, the bestselling Market to Table and the award-winning Out to Brunch with Mildred Pierce.
A former pastry chef, Elia Herrera has had a culinary career that has placed her in some of Toronto’s most revered kitchens, including those of Canoe and Mistura. Today, she’s executive chef at Los Colibris (Mexican fine dining) and El Caballito (Mexican casual). Part chef, part ambassador, Herrera focuses on introducing palates to authentic regional Mexican cuisine.
Though distinct in their respective approaches, Lee, Regular, Dooher and Herrera have all raised the bar on the city’s dining scene, making names for themselves in the process. We sat down with the four chefs to get the lowdown on what makes our chefs tick and our foodies talk.
You’ve all been cooking in Toronto for many years. How have you seen the city evolve?
David Lee: Ten years ago, restaurants were fairly generic. They were all wearing one hat, and no one was really focusing on things like charcuterie or plant-based food. Now there are specific restaurants—chefs are narrowing the type of food they want to serve.
Elia Herrera: People are adventurous now, compared with a decade ago. We go out to eat for fun, and we go out often. I notice that my diners are willing to spend more money for the full experience.
Nuit Regular: When I first moved here, I found that people didn’t really know about authentic Thai food. When I started cooking, people would question it because they didn’t believe me that it was authentic Thai! It was a struggle to show people how traditional dishes were made. Over the years, people started to get more and more educated about international food.
What defines Toronto’s food culture?
NR: Toronto’s strength is its diversity. When I moved to Canada 11 years ago, I got the chance to try so many different types of foods, from Ethiopian to Indian. Everywhere you go, there are so many different cultures represented in food.
Donna Dooher: The diversity of the city, for sure. Our country’s open arms welcome new cultures that bring wonderful flavours to the nation’s table.
DL: It’s the story of migration and of people moving from place to place and bringing something along with them. Especially young chefs: they travel a lot and bring back a lot of inspiration with them. It’s also the nature of genetics in Toronto: there are a lot of people cooking what they were taught—what their grandmothers cook.
Is there a “Toronto flavour”?
DL: Our flavour keeps changing. It’s changed a lot in the last 10 years and continues to change. But I think multiculturalism is at the core.
NR: Toronto’s food scene is reflective of the people who live here and who want to share their culture. There are a lot of Asian communities, so there’s so much Asian food! We have so many different foods, it just shows us how diverse Toronto is.
EH: People are definitely more educated about food now than they were a few years ago. So I would say that there is no specific flavour, but there is a mix of flavours from various backgrounds.
Where do chefs and restaurant types gather after their shifts end?
DL: We [Lee and staff] go out a few times a year, usually to Chinatown. Peoples Eatery has great cocktails. My staff love it. I’m also a big fan of pho, so I go to Pho Tien Thanh, at Ossington.
NR: We [Regular and staff] love to go to places on Dundas West near Ossington. We go to Hanmoto a lot for snacks and drinks. Kensington Market reminds me of home, so I love it there as well. And we also like the Entertainment District, because it’s walking distance from Pai, and at the end of the night, we enjoy getting drinks and snacks while hanging out with our staff.
DD: When I first came to Toronto in 1984, the booze cans were popular with the after-hours scene and Liberty Village was not what we know today. The Orbit Room was always a favourite, as was the Bovine Sex Club. Now I go home to bed. [Laughs.]
What are Toronto’s best foodie-pleasing neighbourhoods?
EH: Kensington Market! It’s so amazing: it’s become Little Mexico.
DL: I’m fascinated with the casual, cool feel of the west end, from Bar Raval westward [West Queen West, The Junction, etc.]. The food scene has developed so much there. We are living in the age of independent restaurants, and the west end is the breeding ground for a lot of little hipster restaurants.
DD: I’ve always lived in the west end. Before Roncesvalles was hip, it was chockablock with eastern-European restaurants, food shops and bakeries. Many have moved along, but a few of the good ones still offer great borscht and cabbage rolls.
Where do you eat with your family?
NR: I am lucky that my kids like to be adventurous with food. They want to try different things. We go to Little India for family meals, or sometimes we will go to Chinatown.
DD: Our kids have grown up in the restaurant business, so they know and love great food. We’re always trying out new places. From diners to white tablecloths, we love it all.
What’s next for Toronto?
DL: Plant-based eating is going to take off—not to be trendy, but rather that people will realize that it’s inevitable that we are conscious of what we eat. I think full-service restaurants will start to come back as well: restaurants that have good acoustics, where you can hear yourself having a conversation.
NR: We’ll see more micro-regionalization of food. People don’t want a country’s food anymore—they want food from a specific city or village. People also want to see refined international food, not just street food.
EH: We’re going to see more fusion-style food, with cultures mixing and inventing new styles here in Toronto. This is especially so with the young chefs, who are learning and cooking with one another.
DD: Toronto is an incubator for hospitality innovation. Toronto, as well as the rest of the country, is a food and agriculture mecca. We grow, process and cook some of the very best.