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While celebrity chefs are nothing new, Toronto seems to be ushering in a new era of our own star-studded chefs, creating a microcosm mishmash of reality TV hosts, cookbook darlings, and chef about town sitcom stars that are eclipsing the very art form they ought to be known for: cooking.
The rise of the celebrity chef comes piggybacked on the popularity of cooking shows, cooking videos, and glossy magazine spreads outlining what cooks are eating when they’re not feeding us. Getting to know your favourite chef is an appealing prospect in this oversharing society we’ve enabled. But, consider for a moment, what are their influences? Who’s feeding them when they get a night off?
Here’s Vv Magazine’s list of Toronto’s most underrated chefs. These are the chefs who have an unbridled culinary creativity, those that are devoted to elevating their plates and have dedicated their time to being not the most tattooed or televised, but good honest cooking.
The Edible Story
Only open for two years officially, Chef Alanna is on her first chapter over at The Edible Story, her cooking school/catering company with partner Brian Cheng. Recently she’s executed tasting menus during a partnership at The Chase, making her menus sought after for not only her clients but that of some of Toronto’s swankiest dining rooms. Previous to opening The Edible Story, Alanna studied at the world renown Le Cordon Bleu before doubling down on her culinary career with George Brown College’s Culinary Management program proving she has the pedigree and panache to keep this momentum going. Dishes like Hamachi with Bonito Aioli with Corn Puree and White Soy or Roasted Ricotta Cappelletti with Braised Short Ribs highlight Alanna’s education, showcasing her years studying in the kitchen.
One look at Bar Reyna’s eclectic eats prove that Chef Omar Ma has his finger on the pulse of what Yorkville wants to eat, even though he’s likely about half the age of most of his clientele. Still in his twenties, this accomplished chef has taken Mediterranean eats to new heights, challenging Torontonians to forgo the falafel for more inspired offerings. Formerly of THR&CO and Buca Yorkville, Omar has his roots down and doesn’t depart (or dumb things down), instead forging ahead and offering food we aren’t expecting, like Lamb Shank Baklava or the newly minted Spiced Pumpkin Labneh. He’s transformed tapas from everyday bar snacks into a glorious (and glitzy) menu molded for the masses, carefully eschewing the burst bubble that seems to have plagued most other Mediterranean restaurants, with Bar Reyna leading the trend instead of following it.
Francesco Venditti has been quietly working with the city’s finest chefs for decades now – starting with O&B notables like Jump and Canoe before bouncing over to King Street Food Company’s Bar Buca, and after, Jamie’s Italian. Francesco is ‘The Chef’s Chef’, the go-to guy when friends like Rob Gentile want someone else to do the cooking for their friends and family. His restaurant regularly streams industry insiders in on their night off; Ufficio has made its mark on Dundas West as a destination for dining, largely due to Francesco’s flavourful fish menu, studded with crudos, handmade pastas, and sustainably sourced seafood. Francesco’s arancini showcases his creativity, filled with Octopus Bolognese and Buffalo Boccincini, all served on top of warm bagna càuda. Bucking the conventions of cooking and combining cheese and fish are just some of the standouts of Francesco’s menu, as is his biography in a bowl, Insalata Di Francesco, which combines shaved Brussels sprouts, dried currants, pistachios, ricotta salata, and bottarga.
Working her way through the ranks and quickly rising through the corporate culinary world at O&B, Julie Marteleira has made her life around her love of food and cooking, since growing up at her family’s restaurant in Libson, Portugal. Idolizing her chef mother from a young age meant Julie knew that a culinary career was calling, so she enrolled in George Brown College’s Culinary program after moving to Toronto. After graduating she worked under Chef Richard Andino at Yorkville’s (short-lived) Flow, before moving onto her new family at O&B where she’s making her mark as Executive Chef at Leña. Many of the dishes she serves here are a direct tribute to her mother and her restaurant, like the Salt Cod Fritters, a direct homage to her mother’s own recipe.
Han Ba Tang
Chae came to Canada from Korea just over a decade ago in search of a better education for her children. She found that, as well as gainful employment as a co-owner in Seoul House, on Dufferin, a restaurant she helped manage with her sister until 2013. Chae envisioned a new restaurant designed for more daring palates so she forged a path of her own and opened Han Ba Tang at Yonge and Sheppard in 2014. The first year saw the menu change seven times, tweaking and modifying the Korean menu into something she felt both excited about and something that was unique to the city. Korean Tacos are a fan favourite, as are the Kimchi Fries. She makes her kimchi from scratch which requires its own fridge to keep the temperature stable. She loves marrying Korean flavours like Gochujang with western influences like Mac n’ Cheese, never holding back on spiciness. Her fellow cooks are encouraged to try their own dishes out in the kitchen, too – a hallmark of any good Chef is knowing how to collaborate.
Doug’s Public Kitchen
Doug’s mantra is Kale is the new Beef, and as a devout chef of all things vegan, he’s serious about his shtick. The author of three cookbooks, Doug is a force in the vegan culinary world, a household name to most Torontonians adopting a plant-based diet, but should be on the tongues of everyone as we are reminded again to cut meat consumption and add more greens to our plates. His restaurant on Marlee is a destination worthy brunch spot that’s worth the trek to Yorkdale south. Even the staunchest carnivores can be satisfied by his plates, with portions of proteins that subscribe to his organic and sustainable philosophies.
While it’s hard to walk down any Toronto street without tripping over some form of Italian restaurant, ARDO on King East is a noteworthy exception. Yes, it’s Italian, but it’s more specific than merely a country. ARDO is a love song to Sicily, where Chef (and owner) Roberto Marotta hails from. After stints at Enoteca Maialino (now closed) and Nodo, Roberto was ready to showcase Sicily’s regional cuisine, with a spotlight on seafood. Starters include Acciughe, a classic dish of anchovies, crusty in-house made bread and herbed butter, and Polpo, a sexy dish of grilled octopus and a rich caponata base. His family recipe for Cannoli delivers a Dolci-esque finish to a memorable meal.
Apprenticing at North 44 gave Luis his start, before jaunting over to Mark McEwan’s other restaurant, Bymark for three years before following his roots to Mexican and Spanish cuisine. Now partner and Executive Chef for the 20 odd seat darling that is Queen West’s answer to tapas, Carmen is authentic and full of energy, with a stellar and concise menu showcasing Chef Luis’ excellent paellas and tasty tapas, brimming with ingredients that are a homage to his heritage, like the showstopper Paella Negra, roasted Mediterranean bass with grilled octopus and squid ink, a daring dish of whole fish contrasted against black rice. His tapas are legendary, with Mejillones En Su Jugo, steamed and shelled mussels in vinaigrette served with crusty bread.
Macho Radio Bar
Tex-Mex gets a bad rap with food critics, but it’s the execution of the plates that makes Chef Guillermo Herbertson one to watch. Born and raised in Acapulco, Mexico, Chef Guillermo honed his cooking skills in his homeland before transplanting to Toronto, where he most recently worked as Executive Chef of Barsa Taberna. At Macho Radio Bar, the usual gimmicks of Tex-Mex cuisine have been shunned for a more mindful method, blending the two food genres together in a way that resembles something approachable, exciting and not at all expected. Standouts like the Verde Fresca prove worn-out Kale can still be a hot ingredient. Cheesy Queso Fundido shows the union of both his roots and his journey into Canada’s culinary scene.
This cozy Cabbagetown restaurant draws the crowds in for its inventive Northern Italian take on brunch. Chef Mario is a force behind the creative dishes that put this spot on the map, particularly his inventive wood fired pizzas, like the venison ragu, fior di latte, and fennel puree. Mini personal sized lasagnas give a special touch to a homey dish. All the pastas are cranked out by hand daily, and Mario’s brunches are the most sought after in the hood. His take on Eggs Benedict with Fried Gnocchi perfectly presents his Italian flourishes, pairing well with traditional Canadian staples.
Did we miss any underrated chefs in Toronto? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below or tweet us @ViewtheVibe.