This week’s feature is a distinct character on Toronto’s food scene, the free-spririted and outspoken Nicholas Wong.
While leading a relatively normal office life by day, Nicholas spends his nights and weekends surrounded by the tastiest of comfort foods and submerged in his own cooking. With an unmistakeable affair with food and years of experience in the kitchen as a chef’s apprentice, he has certainly cooked up a hearty helping of life. Not only does he run his own T.O blog, Baguettes and Butterscotch, he is also the founder and host of Diner en Blanc Toronto.
Let’s get a taste of what Nicholas has to share with us…
When and why did you start writing about food?
I started writing about food back in March of 2011 on my personal blog, Baguettes and Butterscotch. I was encouraged to write as a creative outlet for my passion of all things food. Being that I am a certified Chef de Cuisine, I have always had a passion for food. I started my apprenticeship at The Breakwater Restaurant under Chef Dirk Noort, currently an instructor at George Brown and was taught by a French Master, Chef Robert Orsi who competed at Bocuse d’Or and medaled in the fish category. After I completed my training, I was headhunted to work in the United Kingdom, where I worked at the Michelin starred London Street Brasserie which is a fond highlight of my culinary career. I guess I’ve always had something to say about food and a huge passion for it.
What do you love most about food?
What I love most about food is how it is such a big part of everyone’s culture, it is best prepared with love, and it brings people together to share and enjoy life. It is truly inspiring and amazing that something that can at times be so simple in preparation can evoke such a sense of cultural identity and passion.
What do you do when you aren’t writing about or eating food?
That’s a big question for me! My day job (if I truly just had one day job) is currently a Certified Risk Manager for an Insurance and Financial Services Brokerage. I am the Principle for a new start-up called Strata Group Inc. which encompasses a consulting division as well as a luxury concierge division. I am also the Founder and one of the hosts of Diner en Blanc Toronto which originally started as a dinner amongst friends in Paris and has transformed to a global event occurring in over 22 cities all over the world including Barcelona, New York, Chicago, Montreal, etc.
This year’s event was held at Old Fort York in celebration of its Bi-Centennial and the attendance was capped at 1,400 people but the response was so overwhelming as we had almost five thousand on the waitlist and our event reached millions of people worldwide through all forms of media. I still can’t believe it!
I’m currently elbows deep into the planning of a new food event in Toronto to be held June 2013. I can’t say too much right now (top secret) but it will certainly be a premier food event for Toronto and plans are already in the works that will grow across Canada in the following years. I have a great team in place and plans are most definitely heading in the right direction. What is it? You will just have to wait and see, but I am certain you will hear about it soon!
Do you cook? If so, what’s your specialty? If not, why?
I do cook, quite a bit actually. I cook at home more than I eat out at restaurants. My life is pretty full and I am often just happy to whip something up at home and play with my dog Maddox. I am always on the go and it’s not fair to leave him alone for too long. I love to have friends over on the weekends quite often and save restaurants for special occasions and when I am working in the city. As you can imagine with my current schedule, I find that my time is at a premium so when I go out to eat, I love to go to places that I hear about on Twitter and know will satisfy.
Do I have a specialty? Hmmm, that’s a tough one… When people learn that I am a chef, they always seem to ask what it is I’m good at making. I am constantly reading, researching and learning about food. Obviously, it’s my passion! So to answer, my response is that I was trained in French techniques and I can apply them to almost all forms of cuisine and I can say trying to be humble… I can cook most anything. *wink*
What’s your favourite type of food(s) and where do you go to get it?
As much as good food can be glamorous and pretty to look at, I would honestly say that when it comes to my favourite types of food, I gravitate towards comfort food. It can be something as simple as breakfast for dinner. It can be a roast chicken or something as delicious and simple as a nice bowl of pasta and meatballs. At the end of the day, I believe that if you were to ask many chefs what their fave food is, many including myself would say that a great home cooked meal trumps a restaurant experience most of the time. Food is an opportunity to cook and spend time with the people that I love. One thing that I am searching for and haven’t been successful yet is perfectly fried chicken! Any suggestions would be very helpful…
What’s your hidden gem?
I’ve been lucky and have had the opportunity to travel across the world and have experienced many different cuisines. I have learned the best ways to find great food is to find where the locals eat. If I had to pick my true hidden gem, it would be in Venice. There is this little hole in the wall, off the beaten path, where the locals congregate in the afternoon for a bite. They sell beautiful wine and spirits, they make the best Aperol spritz I’ve ever had and I have had more than my fair share. This lovely little hole in the wall sells Venetian tapas or Cicchetti, small plates of tasty bites like marinated grilled mushrooms on crostini, grilled sardines straight from the seafood market down the street and a beautiful selection of cured meats. It’s lovely chatting with locals, mostly older gents, and ladies sharing stories and laughs! No tourists, and authentically the Venice that I have fallen in love with.
If I had to pick my hidden gem here in Toronto, I would fall on my roots and would have to pick Beef Noodle Soup in Scarborough. Their menu consists of traditional Northern Chinese cuisine like pot stickers, fried rice cake, steamed soup dumplings. It’s all quite good but if there is one thing that gets me coming back, it’s their Beef Noodle Soup! It’s legendary and so good, stick to your ribs satisfying. There are others that make this but none nearly as good… that’s a promise.
What’s your go-to restaurant?
I can’t truly say that I have a single go-to restaurant; I would have to say that it depends on my mood and the company that I’m with at the time. That is usually how I decide where to go. I love food so much and so many places do something good almost always, it is a tough decision. I have categories of faves such as brunch at Table 17, fave pasta place Ascari Enoteca. I have my fave dive burger joint, C & Dubbs. My fave bistro for special occasions and to meet with my Mentor Chef is Merlot in Bloor West Village. Those are my solid choices that I have rarely if ever been disappointed.
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?
To be honest, I am still on the hunt for the most memorable meal. I think that if I had found it, I would be a bit sad but I am certainly going to look forward to it. I have had many meals in my life that do stick out, I would have to say the French Laundry was a beautiful meal, Treadwell: Farm Table to Cuisine brings back great memories, but if there was a candidate, I’d have to say any meal created by my late Grandmother. The meals that she cooked would be near perfection; as her only grandson she always cooked with me in mind. Every meal would consist of all and I do mean all my favourites. She took mental notes of what I loved and it was sure to appear at the next meal, not one dish and then alternate with another the next time… I mean every dish at once would fill the dinner table! It got a bit crazy but I loved her, we didn’t speak the same dialect and it was at times hard to understand each other, but we understood each other through her cooking. Photos of the table filled with food make me laugh and miss her to this very day. So, maybe dinners at my grandma’s home are the most memorable meals that I have ever had.
What’s the one restaurant you have to try before you die?
To be honest, I am not certain. I think it’s a tough call, possibly because it is one that I have yet to hear about. Maybe it’s the one that I am about to discover just around the corner? I love and have a passion for food that I believe is quite rare, my eyes and ears are always open and my taste buds are ever craving something new and exciting. I think I could only answer this question when I’m truly on my deathbed and look back and say “Yes!”, that was that one singular bite, morsel or taste that just did it for me. Food is a constant adventure that we all go on, some with passion, some with a utilitarian view of food as sustenance. For me, the adventure and the seeking of new tastes is what drives me and my passion for food.
What’s your biggest restaurant pet peeve? (play nice)
I’d like to think that I don’t have too many but I am not a fan of loud music in restaurants. It’s nice in the background, but I came to dine and to have great conversation, not to listen to the billboard top whatever. I am certainly not a fan of automatic gratuity being added, especially if they don’t tell you and it’s obvious that you didn’t mean to tip 35%. I don’t think that I should have to ask for water, it should naturally come with the option of still or sparkling. Lastly, from a service point of view, servers that don’t know how to time courses. On a food pet peeve perspective, I am not a fan of foam anything. Never was and I don’t think I ever will be! It is pretty to look at but most of the time it is more of an aesthetic touch, not a flavour enhancer. I also don’t like too many touches on the plate. I would take a simply presented steak frites cooked to perfection rather than the prettiest plating of something that it doesn’t even resemble.