Our next Chef of the Week is the young gun leading the kitchen at Yorkville’s favourite cocktail and snack bar.
Allow us to introduce you to Omar Ma.
Working as Bar Reyna‘s back-of-house-hero, Omar Ma has been leading as Executive Chef since the Mediterranean lounge’s inception back in the summer of 2016. Prior to that, he trained at George Brown College and had the opportunity to gain experience working under some of the city’s top chefs, including in kitchens like Cava and Buca.
Today, he spends his day mastering artful dishes, fusing Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours with tastes from his travels. We had the opportunity to chat with him about the three restaurants you must try before you die, why your next brunch should be at home, and why you need to stock up on mason jars. Take a look at our interview below.
How did you get your start in the industry?
It all started in 2008. I was young, needed a job and had no direction or experience. My mother came to me one day and informed me that she saw a billboard outside of a Casey’s that stated they were looking for dishwashers.
I went in with nothing but a smile and nice shirt on, and asked to speak to a manager who informed me that the position had been filled, but that they were looking to fill a salad cook position. I quickly took the job and discovered my love for the culinary world. I then went to culinary school and worked for as many top Toronto restaurants as I could so I could garner as much creative experience as possible. But it’s ever since that day at Casey’s that I’ve been in love with food and knew this was the perfect career choice.
How would you describe your culinary style?
I would say Modern Mediterranean. The idea of taking experiences, whether food related or just the inspiration of a region I travel to, and transforming it into something extraordinary on a plate is what I thrive on the most. I always want to create dishes that stand out from what people are used to.
What’s your favourite dish on your current menu and why?
The fried olives are one of my favourite items on our current menu. The combination of the tangy labneh, the briny olives and the complexity of my sweet and spicy shakshouka filling always reminds me of the many experiences and places I have travelled. It also doubles as a great bar snack, and personally, I love to pair them with spirit-forward cocktails or a light glass of white wine.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about the restaurant industry?
That anyone can do it. Overall, the restaurant industry is hard, but many people believe it’s a very “cool” job and don’t realize how gruelling it is. And that talent is a must. Chefs and cooks have a lot of pressure to ensure that food is consistent, allergies are paid attention to, and that food comes out tasty, beautiful and on time. It’s a lot harder than it looks.
What’s your go-to meal to cook at home?
I’m Lebanese so my go-to is jewelled ancient grains with pomegranate, carrot jam, walnuts and herbs, served with a piece of fresh white fish or shrimp and a side of charred lettuce.
What are three restaurants our readers need to try before they die?
- Damas is an amazing Persian restaurant in Montreal and is a must-visit if you like a Persian/Mediterranean food. The whole experience is amazing.
- When I was in Miami I went to La Mar, the Peruvian restaurant by Chef Gaston Acurio. The food, the ambiance and the cocktails were all on point.
- Mourad in San Francisco is a fantastic Moroccan restaurant.
What’s one tip our readers should know to up their own game in their kitchens?
Always keep a couple of mason jars handy. They come in handy for so many applications and I use them all the time. They’re a great way to pack delicious meals (soup, salad, stews) and can also be used as a vessel to preserve or pickle any leftover vegetables or fruit.
If there were one thing in the restaurant industry you could change, what would it be?
I love brunch, but it’s too bad more people don’t enjoy a comfortable weekend breakfast at home. Growing up, both my parents worked, so our family could only sit down together on Saturdays or Sundays, which we all looked forward to. My entire family would participate in making an amazing brunch from the comfort of our own home. It helped bring us together.
How do you think Toronto (and/or Canada’s) culinary scene will evolve in the future?
Toronto is quickly becoming a mecca of food, if we aren’t there already! We have so many cultures interconnecting and shaping our city. I think if we continue to grow and evolve, we will easily become a top food destination in the global landscape. With so many influences and influencers, we are only destined for greatness.
Are there any other chefs you’d like to see profiled? Let us know in the comment section or tweet us at @ViewtheVibe.