If you’ve been on a food tour in Toronto, there’s a good chance you may have bumped into this handsome guy. Steven Hellmann is the co-founder of Foodies on Foot, a Toronto food tour and social dining experience. With the help of his partner, Gloria Czomko, Foodies on Foot has orchestrated everything from communal dinners to dine crawls within Toronto’s immense restaurant scene.
Growing up in an Italian/German family, Steven learned the value of eating as a family unit. Even at an early age, he realized his mother’s fresh ingredients and from-scratch cooking made all the difference; something he has carried through into his own life and has transferred to his Foodies on Foot venture.
Following by example from his own family, which he defines as, “the original communal dining” experience, Steven and Gloria has made it their passion to showcase a housewarming approach to food tours. With regular events scheduled, such as the upcoming 501 Streetcar Tour (we all know that Queen Street boasts some of the best vibes), Steven just wants you to feel like you’re part of the family…
When and why did you start writing about food?
I formally started writing about food when Foodies on Foot was launched in July 2012. Prior to this, I traveled the world in the pursuit of the best food for the last 15 years. I would always write about my food experiences on any website that would allow me to review the restaurants or stores I visited. What I found was that within the last few years, the more I traveled, the more I found myself saying that we had just as good food, if not better, in Toronto. As a result, my partner and I took over a year to dive into the food scene and taste our way through several hundred restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, and specialty food stores in Toronto before launching Foodies on Foot. We had to ensure that we took the time to taste our way around the city, as one of the key components of our business is that we have personally tasted and approved each restaurant that appears on our tours and events.
What do you love most about food?
What is there not to love about food? The variety, never-ending possibilities of flavour combinations, and the fuel it gives our bodies are all important, but what I love best about food is the way it unites people. At a dinner table, everyone is equal and is there to share a memory and experience. A meal should be unpretentious and inclusive. A meal should be about people coming together, over a common interest, sharing their life experiences, and forming bonds with one another. I fondly recall the large Italian family gatherings I would have as a child, with over 20 people crowded into a basement with course after course of food on the table, as everyone laughed, shared stories, and enjoyed the company. A meal would last hours and always end with a game of cards for pocket change. We try to recreate this experience with every event and tour we put together, minus the gambling. Once we meet you, you become part of the Foodies on Foot family.
What do you do when you aren’t writing about or eating food?
Figure out ways to burn the calories! In all seriousness, since we have launched Foodies on Foot, and with all the plans we have for Foodies on Foot over the next few years, there has not been much time outside of eating, planning events, and writing about food. When the time allows, I love to travel, spend quiet time and get lost exploring the city with my partner (Gloria), and stay active by playing beach volleyball, tennis, hockey, and pretty much any other sport that comes my way. As well, it is very important to try to keep the mind focused and find peace by taking some time to yourself alone, to meditate or do yoga. In my spare time, it is about finding a balance between mind, body, and soul.
Do you cook? If so, what’s your speciality? If not, why?
While my partner cooks the majority of the time, I do love to cook when the time allows. As for a specialty, I would not say I have a specialty per se, but I love to cook classic favourites using the best ingredients that I discover from all the amazing food merchants I come across through Foodies on Foot. I also just love re-creating the recipes from the LBCO Food and Drink Magazine. So many of the recipes are just incredible and really easy to re-create at home.
What’s your favourite type of food(s) and where do you go to get it?
That is an impossible question to answer. There is just way too much good food to have a favourite. My favourite food changes day to day, season to season. In the winter, I love more hearty foods and soups. In the summer, I tend to go for lighter, fresher options. If I were to name a few everyday favourite places that really stand out right now, I would include the fresh plant powered food from Feel Good Guru, any sandwich from Cafe Plenty, the BBQ coming out of Leslieville Pumps, anything from Rock Lobster Co. or Fidel Gastro’s, the purple rice sushi from Sushi 67, the doughnuts at Glory Hole Doughnuts, the chocolate from Odile Chocolat, and the veal sandwich from Fusaro’s. Really, this list can go on and on and changes day to day, depending on my mood. There is just so much great food in our city right now.
What’s your hidden gem?
I have so many hidden gems, but, there is a “hidden gem” that I feel very inclined to share. It is not a restaurant, but rather a company that is passionate about creating the best with one type of food, which is distinctly Canadian. It is the secret maple food lab of Richard Brault and Dianne Croteau, called Ninutik [Maple Sugar]. Coming from an industrial design background, they are elevating the way we view maple syrup.
Gone are the days of the traditional maple leaf and pioneer inspired bottles and products. This is replaced with elegant, modern, distinctive maple syrup products and packaging. They do AMAZING things with maple syrup, and have more knowledge about this Canadian gem than anyone I have met. From maple cubes, to maple syrup lollies, to maple butter, they keep coming up with amazing and unique edible goodies made from maple syrup. This couple deserves a world of recognition for their passion and unique product. I love to support people and businesses that offer something unique that helps promote the food scene and all things Canadian. For the rest of my hidden gems, you will have to come out to our tours and events to discover them. There are so many hidden gems to discover in the city. It is time to step outside of our neighbourhoods and become tourists in our own city.
What’s your go-to restaurant?
I have a few, but on the top of that list it would have to be Ici Bistro. I always have a special place in my heart for French food. Ici Bistro provided me with my most memorable meal in Toronto to date (on my top 5 list of all time as well), and is a go-to when I want a special night out. Their whole concept is just perfect. Unrushed service, passionate staff, “half sized” plates that are still more than enough to share with a partner while tasting your way around the menu, 3 oz pours of wine that are perfect to pair with the half plates, and exceptionally executed cuisine. It is a perfect experience from start to finish.
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?
The most memorable meal of all time had to be Le Cinq at the Four Seasons in Paris. Gloria and I were able to try it on our most recent visit to Paris in September 2011. Albeit the most expensive meal I have ever had, it was so over the top that I will never forget it. From the time you arrive to the time you leave, you are treated like royalty. Your handbag even has its own stool. I am a big fan of true French cuisine, and the entire meal was perfectly executed. As well, the service was on top of every need, always, and the entire experience was unrushed. We love to take our time eating and often like to sit and chat once we finish a meal. We got so carried away that we realized that the restaurant had already been closed nearly an hour and we were the last to leave (some staff had already left), yet we were never rushed out.
The menu was as follows:
- Duck foie gras with white miso and kalamansi peel / daïkon radish
- Pig from the Franche-comté
- Grilled breast / browned onion
- Simmered cheek with aromatic herbs
- Breaded pig’s trotter and ear
- Half-cooked salted caramel biscuit, milk chocolate mousse / earl grey granita, chocolate ice cream
- Selection of 4 cheeses
- Two bottles of Billecart-Salmon
Ah, the memories. Can’t wait to return and try out the beautiful courtyard at the Four Seasons in Paris the next time we are there. It is just breathtaking.
What’s the one restaurant you have to try before you die?
There is something about Alinea in Chicago that has piqued my interest. I feel very drawn to experience it the next time I visit. As well, I am totally excited to try out Cabane a Sucre Au Pied De Cochon this April. A friend was able to secure a reservation and invited her best foodie friends to join her in this experience. I am grateful that she chose to invite me and am excited to have the chance to try out this once in a lifetime experience.
What’s your biggest restaurant pet peeve? (play nice)
It definitely comes down to two things: the lack of seamless service from beginning to end, and the lack of reservations. There is truly no reason for a dining experience to not be perfect from beginning to end. The passion taking place in a restaurant must come through from the second you walk in the door to the second you leave. That is what creates a memorable experience and a loyal client base. When a restaurant has a passion for what they are doing, it comes through with all of the staff and the entire experience cannot help but be perfect. It is also important for the servers to have strong knowledge of the menu. If the servers cannot answer questions properly, it all breaks down from there. Vertical is a perfect example of a restaurant that gets it right. The entire staff is passionate and executes the vision of the restaurant perfectly. As for the lack of reservations, well, I can get quite cranky when I am hungry (come on, you know you all do as well), so I like to know that when I get to a restaurant, I can eat.