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A Taste of Valentine’s Day at Fabbrica

8 Feb
Mark McEwan Fabbrica Toronto

Dining with Mark McEwan at Fabbrica

Jenny and I aren’t huge fans of Valentine’s Day. We rarely mark the occasion with cards or flowers, and definitely steer clear of restaurants offering (usually overpriced) Valentine’s Day-themed prix fixe menus.

So, when I was invited to have dinner with chef Mark McEwan at his newest Toronto restaurant, Fabbrica, to preview the kitchen’s Valentine’s Day menu, I was initially skeptical. But, then again, it’s not every day the chance comes along to sit and break bread with a man who is one of Toronto’s best-known chefs and a host of Top Chef Canada on the Food Network.

As we sat and read over the special Valentine’s Day menu that will be available to Fabbrica diners between February 14 and 17, McEwan put me at ease by saying that he’s not a fan of Valentine’s Day menus built around “cheese” like heart-shaped food and chocolate incorporated into each dish for no good reason. The dishes on the $55 prix fixe ($85 with wine pairings) were developed around the same ethos McEwan says Fabbrica’s regular menu is built: good, honest Italian food done right.

Veal Mark McEwan Fabbrica

Seared veal tenderloin on braised brisket raviolo and carrot-parsnip puree. A great dish!

Since graduating from culinary school at George Brown College in 1979, McEwan has been at the forefront of Toronto’s dining scene, owning and/or running the kitchen at some of the city’s most popular restaurants and hotels—many of which count wealthy residents and visiting movie stars as frequent diners.

But despite the flashy clientele, McEwan says he’s always made sure his menus focused on the classics rather than what’s trendy. And he thinks that’s what diners want. Even in the food trends that have taken Toronto by storm over the past year or two—think tacos, Southern barbecue and rustic Italian—McEwan says the key elements are authenticity and time-honoured technique.

McEwan Fabbrica Budino

And for dessert, caramel budino topped with espresso gelato

McEwan says that even the projects that have brought him into the national spotlight—his Food Network shows The Heat and Top Chef Canada—have been real and honest. Of the former, which followed him as he worked to open his eponymous, upscale Toronto grocery store, McEwan, he says the show was an honest portrayal of the experience, giving viewers a glimpse at the opening of a business and the mistakes made along the way. And he says he’s enjoyed working on Top Chef Canada because, unlike some other food-based reality shows, this one is focused on good cooking and passionate chefs; “It’s not about a basket of weird ingredients,” he says, referring to Chopped—a show I admitted to him that I’m a pretty devoted fan of.

Like his restaurants, there’s a definite polish to Mark McEwan, a sense that he’s always ready to perform. But after spending a couple hours with him, talking about food, sports (he’s a Buffalo native and, like me, a long-suffering Bills fan) and ideas for Toronto’s future (he’s a big believer in the current plan for a downtown casino), I was definitely left with a feeling of authenticity in both the man and his food.

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Toronto Taste Preview with Chef Roger Mooking

15 May

Roger Mooking Toronto Taste

Less than two weeks to go before Toronto Taste takes over the Royal Ontario Museum! On Sunday, May 27, more than 60 of Toronto’s best chefs and 30 wine, beer and other beverage producers will gather at the ROM to serve Toronto food lovers in support of Second Harvest.

Earlier this month, Communal Table spoke with Chris Zielinski, executive chef at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, about cooking, Toronto and why he’s participating in this year’s Toronto Taste. This time around, we connected with Roger Mooking – Juno Award-winning musician-turned-chef, Food Network personality and this year’s Toronto Taste co-host (with Bob Blumer).

How many times have you participated in Toronto Taste? What do you enjoy most about it?
This is my second year. I most enjoy seeing all the chefs there with their proudest dishes on display, and knowing that we get to hang out once a year and feed many, many people in the process after the event is over.

What makes you, as a chef, want to participate in Toronto Taste?
We play a part in feeding 700,000 meals over the course of a year. That is important. It also showcases the best of the city’s culinary scene in one place. I participate because I’m sympathetic to families in need and we are able to help them and have a fun day all at the same time

What have been the biggest influences on your cooking, in terms of people, places, cuisine styles, etc?
My biggest influence has been curiosity. I’m forever curious about food, ingredients and techniques, and this drives me forward every single day.

Before you became a chef, you were a Juno Award-winning musician with Bass is Base. How is making music like cooking?
Music and cooking are creative outlets. Sometimes the recipe has instruments, musicians, and lyrics. Sometimes the song has ingredients, pots, pans and some knives. In the end, all the artists’ tools are used to make something to consume, either with the ear or your mouth.

Over the past two years, you’ve sold your stakes in both your Toronto restaurants, Kultura and Nyood. Besides Toronto Taste and the Food Network, what other projects are currently keeping you busy and inspired?
My album that I just finished; my show Heat Seekers; new show Man, Fire, Food; recipe testing; and many other things that will be coming out over the next while… can’t let out all my secrets. Stick around – I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeve.

Toronto Taste Preview with Chef Chris Zielinski

17 Apr

Chef Chris Zielinski MLSE e11even Toronto

Toronto Taste is coming. On Sunday, May 27, more than 60 of Toronto’s best chefs and 30 wine, beer and other beverage producers will gather at the Royal Ontario Museum to serve Toronto food lovers in support of Second Harvest.

To help draw attention to one of Toronto’s best food events and most important fundraisers, we’re going to be chatting with some of the participating chefs over the next few weeks. Up first is Chris Zielinski, executive chef at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. With MLSE, Chris is part of the team that oversees game day food at the Air Canada Centre and BMO Field, as well as e11even and Real Sports Bar & Grill at Maple Leaf Square.

A big part of your job at MLSE is creating food that can be eaten while walking around or sitting in a seat. What are the keys to doing this successfully?
At the Air Canada Centre and BMO Field, we are constantly charged with reinventing hand-held cuisine. It has been proven over and over that fans prefer to avoid utensils whenever possible. The keys to success for hand-held foods are not at all unlike the keys to any great dish. The combination of quality ingredients, likeable and recognizable flavours and a variety of interesting textures are the true barometer of any great dish. The other very important piece is to practice it over and over and to make sure that you test it out for other people, not just chefs.

What are you planning for Toronto Taste? What are important things for participating chefs to consider in creating successful dishes?
This year, we will be serving up E11even’s famous Nova Scotia lobster roll. I think, after participating in and attending Toronto Taste so many times, the most memorable moments have come in the form of two bites. Guests have a great deal of food to get through and, unlike a restaurant, you don’t want to have someone hand you a plateful of food, no matter how it tasty it might be. Two memorable bites with layered flavours and contrasting textures always wins!

What do you enjoy most about participating in Toronto Taste?
I have participated at least 10 times, and have attended other years. Toronto Taste continues to be Toronto’s premier culinary event.  As exciting as it is to taste all the great food, my favorite part of the event is the sense of community that comes from getting all the chefs under one roof/tent. As most chefs can attest, we rarely step outside our kitchen and communicate with our peers, and stand beside our city’s top restaurant supporters, the customers!

What drives you to participate in Toronto Taste?
It’s hard to imagine our city without the profoundly important work that Second Harvest does day in and day out. We should be proud that our citizens have taken these matters into their own hands to help the people who need it the most. We should never take their work for granted. There will always be a need for this type of program and hunger will always be an issue. As the chef of one of the largest food outlets in our city, I feel that it’s my civic duty and responsibility to not be wasteful. I would hope all chefs would share that sentiment.

How do the tastes and desires of Leafs, Raptors, Toronto Rock and Toronto FC fans differ in terms of gameday food?
Leafs fans are very tried and true. There is a great mix of business and pleasure, and they love their red meat. The Raptors draw a very multicultural crowd that likes to test the nether regions of our menus. They also seem to be more in tune with some of our healthier options. The Rock crowd is all about family fun. If it’s TFC, it has to go great with beer. The Triple Threat says it all; BBQ pulled pork, smoked beef brisket and grilled peameal bacon all peacefully co-existing on one bun!

What was the draw for you in coming to MLSE?
Over the past 25 years working in fine dining restaurants, I had the opportunity to work with and manage people from all walks of life. It has always been my personal challenge to “make all the pieces fit”. Opportunities to execute that on this scale are few and far between. I’ve always been a fan of the teams, so this was a no brainer. After touring many other sporting facilities, I’ve grown to realize that what we do here, doesn’t really exist anywhere else, and it is a true testament to Richard Peddie’s DIY vision and all the ground work laid out by my predecessors, Brad Long and Robert Bartley.

What have been the biggest influences on your cooking?
Having the chance to work with Susur Lee, back in the day, was a truly eye opening experience. His perspective on food offered a completely different construct that you could never learn from a cooking school. It also was a window on Asian food as a whole. I love the simple magic of Japanese food. So many of my most memorable meals have been based around exceptional pieces of raw fish. Really, any meal that was made with love, from Jose Andre’s insane Bazaar in Beverly Hills, to my Italian mother-in-law’s dinner table in Toronto, are inspiring in their own ways. More than anything, I love to eat!

Chef’s Plate at Royal Playa del Carmen Resort, Mexico

12 Apr

Royal Playa del Carmen Chef's Plate

When Jenny and I decide to treat ourselves to a vacation, my obsession with research inevitably kicks in. Whether we’re headed to a big city like Rome or a small town like Picton, Ontario, I’m determined to track down the best food in a place. And while we love travel, we’re not necessarily all-inclusive resort people. In fact, before I met Jenny I’d never been to an AI. But in our first year together, she convinced me to go to a resort in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, and it turned out to be pretty amazing. Of course, the beach was great, and we were lucky to get good weather. But one of the things that impressed me most was how good the food was at the resort we ended up choosing after my endless hours of research (the Valentin Imperial Maya resort). I was expecting mediocre meat, no veggies and a week of stomach issues, and we got the exact opposite.

It was only a couple years later, after more research (and a bad experience at a Punta Cana resort that shall remain unnamed), that I figured out that a lot of Mexican all-inclusive resorts offered dining choices that were generally of a higher quality than in some other countries. And so, when we decided to head back to Mexico for some R&R at an AI this past winter, I was determined to find another great resort with high quality food. We settled on the Royal Playa del Carmen, and it definitely didn’t disappoint. Not only does RPDC have six different restaurants and a coffee shop, but guests also have access to the restaurants at sister resort Gran Porto Real just across the street.

RPDC also has one “exclusive” restaurant for guests staying in oceanfront or higher rooms, called Chef’s Plate, which we were offered the chance to check out. The Chef’s Plate is smaller and more intimate feeling than most large all-inclusive resort restaurants, with an open kitchen that allows diners to see what 28-year-old head chef Felix Dzib May and his team are cooking. The restaurant offers 7 different rotating menus, each focused on a different cuisine: Iberian, Brazilian, Italian, French, Middle Eastern, British and Mexican. The night we had dinner at Chef’s Plate, they were serving the British menu.

Royal Playa del Carmen Chef's Plate Kitchen

Like many molecular gastronomy restaurants, the cohesion here between the main components of the dish and the more science-focused touches was a bit muddied at Chef’s Plate. And some of the elements promised on the menu didn’t actually end up on the plate – a problem we’ve noticed at several otherwise great all-inclusive resort restaurants. But overall, what was served was artfully plated, well-executed and, most importantly, tasted great.

Here’s a look at what we had. We have a general policy of not using flash for restaurant photos – one of the main reasons we don’t do a lot of restaurant reviews on Communal Table. As a result, the first photos are a bit unclear – eventually we gave up and resorted to using our flash in the mostly candle-lit restaurant. RPDC Chef's Plate Ravioli

Course 1: Fried lobster ravioli, served with a light and flavourful tomato consomme and topped lime lime “spheres” that didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the dish.

RPDC Chef's Plate Soup

Course 2:  Cream of leek soup, topped with bacon “powder”. More proof that you really can’t go wrong with bacon.

RPDC Chef's Plate Scallops

Course 3:  Scallops Mousse. To be honest I didn’t really get the connection between the description of this course and what I was actually eating, and I’m not entirely convinced it was the same scallop course promised on the menu. But what we did get was really good. The scallops were nicely cooked, which isn’t always a given in any restaurant.

RPDC Chef's Plate Beef Wellington

Course 4: Beef Wellington. As you can probably tell, this marked the point where we started using the flash on our camera. A wise decision, considering that this was easily the best course of the evening. I loved the presentation of this, along with the fact that the beef was almost perfectly cooked and really tender.

RPDC Chef's Plate Grouper

Course 5: Grouper. Another dish where what was presented didn’t match what was on the menu. But as a take on the classic battered English fish, this was great – really tender fish in a flavourful coating.

RPDC Chef's Plate Dessert

Course 6: Chocolate Souffle. I love souffle, and it’s not something I’d expect to get at an all-inclusive resort restaurant. While this wasn’t the best souffle I’ve ever had, it was certainly moist and chocolatey, and a great end to a surprising and delicious meal.

Ultimately, while I’m not sure I’d pay the extra cost to stay in the room categories that offer access to the Royal Playa del Carmen’s Chef’s Plate (our Oceanview category room was pretty amazing), we loved our meal and the opportunity to get a glimpse at one of the more innovative and high-end dining experiences you’d find at an all-inclusive resort.

Touring the Mediterranean at Mideastro

31 Jan

Mideastro Toronto

My background is Italian, and Jenny is Jewish. In the five years we’ve been together, we’ve learned that our cultures share a lot of similarities—family is important, people tend to talk loudly and passionately, and food plays an important role in bringing families together to eat, talk loudly and share stories.

Another key similarity lies in the fact that both Italian and Jewish cuisines vary broadly depending on geography. In Italy, northerners will commonly cook with meat and dairy as central ingredients, whereas in the south, the availability of great seafood and the proximity of Greece, parts of Africa and the Middle East influence the flavours of many dishes. Jewish cuisine is even more diverse, influenced by both dietary laws and the food traditions of the various countries where Jews have settled over the centuries.

Last week I had the opportunity to sample the menu at Mideastro Yorkville, which opened last July following the success of the restaurant’s initial Thornhill location. Heading the Yorkville kitchen is chef Benny Cohen, who presents dishes that are Israeli-focused while also incorporating flavours from the many Mediterranean countries that have influenced Jewish cuisine.

“Both my parents are Moroccan Jews who raised me in Israel, where I was exposed to cuisines and flavours from all over the world by the travelling and migrating Jews,” Cohen told me when I asked about what has influenced his cooking style. He says his passion was sparked as a child while learning about Moroccan cooking in the kitchens of his grandmothers, and was furthered by studying at a branch of the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Israel and then working in restaurant kitchens in Spain, Greece, New York and Mexico before coming to Toronto.

mideastro lamb soup

The food at Mideastro draws upon all of these cultures. We started with a tomato-based Moroccan lamb soup, which, despite the Middle Eastern spice profile, reminded me of a much richer version of the classic Italian minestrone – a soup I’ve never particularly liked, while I’d gladly eat Mideastro’s lamb soup again.

Mideastro appetizers

The next plate offered two dishes from the restaurant’s appetizer list. Cohen described his Baladi eggplant as a sort of “bruschetta salad,” combining smoky grilled eggplant, chopped tomatoes, Israeli feta, roasted garlic and herbed tahini. And Lahma Ba’ajin is a Damascus-style flatbread topped with ground lamb, chickpeas, tomatoes and sheep yogurt tahini. Cohen said the flatbread’s origins date back more than 500 years.

carpaccio Mideastro Toronto

We also sampled Cohen’s take on carpaccio. He wraps 12-week-aged waygu beef tenderloin around arugula and thin slices of parmesan, slicing the rolls maki-style and drizzling balsamic and black truffle oil over top. He called this the “lazy” version, because it saves him from having to compose the dish on a plate. But I enjoyed being able to pick up everything in one bite. Also on the plate was a grilled calamari dish, served atop an oxtail lentil pot au feu.

Already feeling full, it was on to the mains. The first we were served was chef Cohen’s take on chraime, a fish, tomato and vegetable casserole with Sephardic roots that he told me is his signature dish. In Cohen’s version, baked snapper is plated on risotto flavoured with harisa, and topped with a tomato-root vegetable sauce flavoured with smoked paprika and fish stock. This was easily the best dish of the night, and it’s definitely something I’d go back to Mideastro to eat again.

Mideastro Toronto chraime fish

We also had Mideastro’s lamb and beef kufta. The spiced ground meat dish is popular throughout the Mediterranean, taking the form of either meatloaf or meatballs and with slight spelling variations depending on the country—kufta in Hebrew, kefta in Morocco and koobideh in Iran. Cohen serves his ground meat on a stew of tomato and eggplant, and tops the dish with a thin, crisp layer of focaccia that the diner breaks open to reveal the meat and vegetables. It’s served with a yogurt and tahini sauce on the side.

kofta Mideastro Yorkville

Finally, we had dessert—a nutella parfait with frozen nutella cream, caramelized bananas and a piece of salted pecan brittle; and Fig Kataiv, which was layers of spiced mascarpone, fresh figs and pistachios sandwiched between crisp layers of shredded phyllo dough. I really enjoyed this one, as the flavours reminded me of both baklava and tiramisu.

desserts Mideastro Toronto

Cohen told me that he thinks the Toronto dining scene has lacked a proper representation of Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine. “People tend to think of Middle Eastern cuisine exclusively as the fast, street food that can be seen in Toronto,” he said, noting that even the quick Middle Eastern eats so popular here – falafel, shawarma, etc – are pale imitations of the originals due to the fact certain ingredients aren’t available here.

To that end, Cohen says he’s trying to bridge a gap and offer this city a better idea of the dining options, both fast and formal, they’d find around the Mediterranean. “I’m hoping to bring a truly unique experience to Torontonians by bringing the flavours of the Middle East mixed with my expression, my knowledge and my technique in a fine dining setting, and also showcasing a 2,000-year-old voyage of the Jews through history, time and space.”

We Have a Winner…

30 Jan

S. Pellegrino almost famous chef competition

Congratulations to Natalie, who won the $150 gift certificate to Lee in our Almost Famous Chef Competition draw. Here’s what she had to say about her most memorable food experience:

“My top food experience I can remember is a gnocchi dish I had at a little restaurant in Rome. My sisters and I had been backpacking through Europe for a couple of weeks and hadn’t treated ourselves to any “good” food in order to save money, but once we got to Rome we decided to go to a nice restaurant to treat ourselves. There I had the best gnocchi I’ve ever had in my life – I remember wiping every single drop of sauce off my plate. I hope I can remember where that place is if I ever get to go back one day!”

Thanks to everyone for the great comments about your food experiences. I’m glad that we chose a winner at random, because having to pick the best entry from all the stories submitted would have been a difficult task. Natalie’s entry was one of five we received that drew upon an experience in Italy. Others mentioned memorable meals in other parts of Europe, while some had interesting stories to tell from even more exotic locations (Bora Bora, Bali, Peru). One commenter mentioned Treadwell restaurant in the Niagara region, where Jenny and I had one of our most memorable meals a few years ago, and another talked about Chicago, where we’re hoping to finally visit together this year (hopefully we’ll get to eat at Charlie Trotter’s iconic restaurant, which is closing this August after 25 years). For some, the most memorable food experiences took place in their own kitchen. Ultimately, I think the range of stories we read serves as proof of something Jenny and I both believe – wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, food will always be a central part of what makes it special.

I have so many great food memories. But Italy – where Jenny and I travelled together in 2010 – stands out for so many reasons: taking a cooking class in Florence taught by June Bellamy, a native of Burma who’d relocated to Italy in the 1980s to teach both Italian and international cooking; discovering the Florentine delicacy lampredotto – boiled cow stomach served on a bun with salsa verde (sounds awful, tastes incredible) – at Nerbone in Florence’s amazing Mercato Centrale; and a meal at Ristorante Papa Re in Bologna that was life changing (a term I don’t throw around loosely).

Thanks again to everyone for entering – and don’t forget to come back in a few days to see Jenny’s look at all the action from tonight’s Almost Famous Canadian regional finals.

Almost Famous Chef Competition and Win Dinner at Lee Restaurant!

25 Jan

S. Pellegrino almost famous chef competition

Last year, Jenny and I were invited to the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition’s Canada regionals in Toronto. The event brought together culinary students from schools all across the country, all vying for the chance to represent Canada at the Almost Famous Chef Competition final in Napa Valley, California. We loved the chance to see some of Canada’s next generation of chefs showing off their skills under pressure, and we were amazed by the dishes they produced for judging.

This year marks the 10th S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition, and the Canadian regionals are coming up next Monday, January 30. We’ll have a rundown of all the action after the event. But in the meantime, we had the chance to chat with Cole Nicholson, a culinary student at George Brown College who’ll take part in the competition.

We were also given a great prize to give to one of our lucky readers: a $150 gift certificate to chef Susur Lee’s Toronto restaurant, Lee. Keep reading to find out how you can win. But first, check out my interview with Cole Nicholson.

Cole Nicholson George Brown

How long have you been cooking?
I’ve been cooking for about three years now. I started working in a restaurant when I was 17 years old and I took the culinary management program at George Brown when I finished high school. I’m usually one of the youngest people in the kitchen, if not the youngest, so it makes it kind of fun and a lot more people are open to teaching me new things.

What first inspired you to get involved in the kitchen?
The high school that I went to was originally a trades high school when it was opened; it had professional auto shops, carpentry labs and a full production kitchen. Part of the curriculum was to take a trade class. I decided to take cooking because nothing else really interested me and I thought it would be a good life skill to have. I ended up taking it all through high school and I really learned a lot. In my grade 11 year, the school got a new cooking teacher. He was completely different from any other teacher at the school – he was only 27 years old and this was his first teaching job. He was fresh out of the industry and was up on modern cooking techniques and styles. He made me realize that cooking could be cool. He changed a standard cooking class into something so much more; we learned how to make fresh tomato sauce, veal jus, homemade pasta and ravioli, even butchery. If not for him, I would have chosen a completely different career.

Why did you choose the culinary arts program at George Brown? How have the curriculum, instructors and interactions with others in Toronto’s food community helped you expand your skills in the kitchen?
When I first started researching culinary schools, George Brown really stood out to me because of the number of people that have graduated there and gone on to be successful. Almost every great kitchen in Toronto has someone that went there and I thought it was a great way to make connections. The teachers are amazing. Every one of them knows a lot and they are passionate about teaching. Many of them have great connections and are open to helping you with your career.

What cuisines and/or ingredients are you most passionate about?
I just got back from working and living in Italy for four months as part of my Italian program at George Brown. I worked in a great restaurant called Il Baluardo in the Piedmonte region of northern Italy. It was extreme culture shock at first, but being back home I miss everything about Italy. They have an amazing respect for food and ingredients and their lives revolve around their daily meals. I learned so much while in Italy and I came back to Canada with a lot of passion for Italian food and culture.

How would you define your cooking style? 
I don’t really think I am old enough or experienced enough to really have my own “style” of cooking yet. I love to learn new techniques and try to figure out new ways of preparing something. My favourite styles to learn from are chefs who use a lot of old school techniques and flavours in their cooking, but done in a modern way to get the most out of their product.

What current food trends are you most excited about?
The trend that excites me most right now is chefs having relations with farmers and purveyors and really promoting them in their restaurants and on their menus. I think this all really started with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, but many other great chefs around the world and in Toronto have gone on to do the same.

How are you preparing for the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition?
I was first notified that I would be competing in the competition by my teacher back when I was in Italy. I was notified in October and had to have my menu submitted in November. I had no way of practicing while in Italy, so I did a lot of research on seasonal products of Canada at the time of the competition. I put a menu together using seasonal products that I find interesting and challenging to work with. I was a little homesick at the time, so my dish is pretty Canadian. When I got back to Canada a few weeks ago, I started practicing at the school and the dish came together. I’ve been practicing two or three days a week and refining the dish.

Have you heard much about previous years’ competitions to get a sense of what to expect and what’s worked for the competing chefs?
I had not really heard much about it until the student from George Brown (Jean-François Daigle) won the Canadian regional competition last year. His coach, who is now my coach, was one of my culinary instructors last year and I expressed interest to him in competing this year. One of the students in my program, Brian Cheng, competed two years ago and once he found out I would be competing he gave me a lot of helpful advice. He told me a lot of basic considerations to take into account when preparing the menu: proteins that I shouldn’t use, things the judges look for.

What are you hoping to do with your career once you’ve graduated from George Brown?
I really want to work in the U.S. I think that they have a lot to offer and I could learn a lot working there. Chefs there are combining some amazing skills and techniques with great products to produce some of the best food in the world. I have a list of places that I want to work at: The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Le Bernardin in New York City and Alinea in Chicago.

What chef would you most love to cook with?
If I could cook a meal with any chef, it would be Thomas Keller. I had the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak when he was in Toronto a few years ago. He completely changed my outlook on food. His whole approach to food and respect for ingredients and people is something to learn from. The French Laundry cookbook is like my bible, not for the recipes necessarily, but for the philosophy and wisdom. I had the opportunity to eat at his restaurant Per Se in New York City last year and it was a life changing experience. I knew after that meal what I wanted to do with my life.

WIN A $150 GIFT CERTIFICATE TO LEE RESTAURANT!

For a chance at this great prize, here’s what you need to do:

Click here to leave a comment, telling us about your top food experience. It could be a great restaurant meal you had, a food adventure like taking a cooking class in a foreign country, something amazing you cooked in your own kitchen, or a food memory from your childhood. The possibilities are endless. Whatever your favorite food experience is, we want to hear about it.

We’ll take all the comments we’ve received by 11:59 p.m. this Sunday, January 29, assign each a random number, and then choose a winner at random using random.org.

**You don’t have to live in Toronto to win, but the prize includes the restaurant gift certificate only (no travel expenses, etc), which means a winner from outside of the Greater Toronto Area must plan to be visiting Toronto in the near future to use the gift certificate.

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