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Beer and Food at Aphrodite Cooks

3 Mar

Aphrodite Cooks Toronto

If you’re living in or around Toronto, you know that the past month or so hasn’t been kind, weather-wise. But before we know it, the snow will finally disappear and those of us who’ve been hibernating to avoid the cold will be on the hunt for fun things to do.

In the fall, Jenny and I had the chance to attend a couples cooking class at Toronto’s Aphrodite Cooks, a culinary studio run by chef Vanessa Yeung. From a loft space in the city’s west end, the Aphrodite team offers catering services, hosts food events such as the Reel Eats dinner we attended recently, and offers themed cooking classes throughout the year aimed at couples and singles looking to learn new skills and explore different cuisines.

Our couples cooking class was focused on pairing beer with food. Chef Yeung had invited Roger Mittag, aka the Beer Professor to share his expertise and help determine which beers matched with the meal we were going to prepare: butternut squash and apple bisque; German potato salad; beets with stout and sautéed beet greens; a spicy chipotle beef stew; and, for dessert, pear, almond and cream cheese galette with cinnamon caramel sauce.

Pear galette raw

As we walked in and were each handed an apron and a glass of beer, it was immediately clear the cooking classes at Aphrodite are hands-on, which was great to see. There’s nothing like actually being tasked with chopping, stirring and cooking if you really want to learn how to prepare new dishes. And all the work makes it all the more satisfying to sit down together as a group at the end of a cooking class and eat the food you helped create, as we did at the Aphrodite Cooks class.

Aphrodite Cooks Toronto
Mittag is an actual beer professor – he teaches at Humber College’s School of Hospitality. As we prepared our meal, he gave us a crash course on beer, the beer-making process and how different malt roasts affect the flavour of the finished product. He brought along five different beers for us to sample with our meal. As a beer lover, I’m always happy to discover a new beer, and Roger’s selection helped me do just that: Dominus Vobiscum Lupulus, a Belgian-style microbrew that’s lighter and hoppier than most Belgians I typically turn to, and surprisingly easy to drink considering its 10% alcohol content.

Roger Mittag beer Toronto

Of course, a great cooking class is incomplete if you’re not given the tools needed to recreate the meal at home. Attendees at the Aphrodite Cooks couples class were emailed digital copies of recipes for all the dishes we prepared, as well as a list of all the beers sampled. No note-taking needed!

Check out the Aphrodite Cooks website for a listing of upcoming couples cooking classes (new ones are added to the schedule throughout the year), as well as some of the other great cooking workshops planned (if you’re looking for a fun Mother’s Day experience, for example, consider taking your mom to the upcoming Portugese Mother’s Day brunch).

S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition: A Showcase of Culinary Promise

20 Feb

S. Pellegrino almost famous chef competition

For the past couple of years, we’ve been lucky enough to attend the Canadian regional portion of the annual S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition. The competition brings young culinary students from around North America together to compete and showcase their skills as the next generation of great restaurant chefs.

This year’s Canada regional competition is taking place next Monday in Toronto. I had the chance to chat with Timothy Van Ryzewyk, a culinary student representing Toronto’s Humber College in the competition, about what drives him to create great food. You can read his thoughts below.

But first, an exciting contest: We have a $150 gift certificate, good for dinner for two at Mark McEwan’s Fabbrica restaurant in Toronto, courtesy of S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition. I recently had the chance to eat at Fabbrica and chat with Mark McEwan, and I can vouch for the food.

To win, leave a comment below telling us what your most memorable restaurant meal was in the past year. We’ll draw a lucky winner from all comments left here by 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, February 23.

UPDATE: Congratulations to Victoria, who was randomly chosen as our winner with the help of Random.org!

 

S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef

What drew you into cooking?
I have always been passionate about cooking; my mother still brings up photos of me as a child helping in the kitchen. Everyone has to eat, so my goal is to give them a dish that they want to keep eating over and over again. I love the kitchen atmosphere – whether it be the long hours, hard work and dedication everyday or the occasional stressful day, it all comes with the job and I just couldn’t see myself behind a desk.

Who is your biggest culinary influence?
From the industry standpoint I would say Chef Susur Lee is my influence. His extremely hard work throughout his career got him to the point he is at today. From a food standpoint my biggest influence is my Mom. If it were not for her allowing me to be a part of cooking family dinners and holiday meals, I never would have discovered my calling.

How would you describe your preferred cooking style?
I enjoy the fusion style of cooking because you can take bits and parts of different styles you have learned and bring them all together to make a very ”out of the box dish” using very different cooking techniques. Introducing and discovering new food combinations and preparation techniques is definitely something that really appeals to me.

How are you preparing for the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition?
I have been practising my signature dish at Humber College and at home at least twice a week. When I sleep, I dream of my dish so that on the day of the competition, I can close my eyes and produce my dish.

You write comedy in addition to training as a chef. How do you think your creative and humourous side helps in the kitchen?
The comedy I write is based upon sketches. I am currently working with a few friends on writing and acting in a sketch comedy show that we plan to have ready to send out by the end of the year.

Comedy writing is a great utensil in the culinary world because there will always be moments when you’re in the heat of things and someone loses their cool. Being able to defuse that tension can really save the day during a busy service – especially in my case, where I am currently the head expeditor at Lee Restaurant.

Having a constant creative outlook makes it very fun creating menus for school projects or for a competition. You don’t limit yourself; at the same time you’re being logical with the food choices you make.

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.

Food, Film & Stories of Unrequited Love – An evening at Reel Eats “Like Water for Chocolate”

9 Dec

Reel Eats Like Water for Chocolate

Everyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for a great story. When unrequited love is on the menu, you’ve got my undivided attention twofold. Throw in beautiful food, a cozy setting and good company and you’ve got the makings of a perfect evening.

That’s how I felt about our very first experience attending Reel Eats, a monthly movie-themed dinner and storytelling event that “seeks to celebrate the art of a good story through every frame, plate and experience”

The events take place monthly in Toronto and are the brainchild of a dynamic group of chefs and foodie folks: Mary Luz Mejia and Mario Stojanac of Sizzling CommunicationsVanessa Yeung and Domenic Ubaldino of Aphrodite Cooks and Sang Kim – restaurateur, writer and cook behind Sushi Making for the Soul.

We were treated to a delectable authentic Mexican meal by Mexican-born Chef Francisco Alejandri, inspired by the extraordinary film Like Water for Chocolate.

Reel Eats Mexican

Chef Francisco Alejandri cooking for guests at Reel Eats

Seated at communal tables in the inviting and cozy Aphrodite Cooks culinary loft space in the west end of Toronto, about 40 people, a mix of strangers and friends, enjoyed a special meal with the film playing silently in the background to set the mood. Through the evening, three storytellers entertained us with unique tales inspired by the movie’s theme of unrequited love & loss. Dinner theatre with a twist!

Neil and I are so enamored with real Mexican food and flavors, and the meal we ate convinced me that I could step into any family home across Mexico and be treated to the very same mix of dishes. I realized afterwards that interestingly, it was the first multi-course Mexican meal I’ve ever eaten that didn’t include any corn product or ingredients whatsoever.

Chef Alejandri

Chef Alejandri’s menu may have sounded simple, but each dish was layered with complex flavors that made for a really surprising and enjoyable meal.

We started with “Mama Elena’s Sopa de Fideo Aguada con chorizo” – Vermicelli Pasta cooked al dente and finished in a spicy chorizo tomato broth, served with ripe banana. A few people seemed thrown by the fresh banana slices but I was giddy about the flavor and texture combinations. This was superb.

Chorizo Soup with Banana

Next came the main dishes, served family-style at the table. “Pedro’s Almond Chicken” included dark and white meat finished in a mild almond sauce. The almond sauce was so decadent and delicious I dreamed about it for days afterwards.

Reel Eats Mexican dishes

“Pork in Spicy Revolutionary Mole Sauce” consisted of fall-off –the-bone pork ribs cooked in a spicy red mole served with rice. One of the storytellers focused his tale around the importance & identity of mole in Mexico and how it differs from region to region, family to family. Chef Alejandri’s mole was like none I’ve ever had before. You could taste the hours of cooking and multiple ingredients that went into it. It was perfection!

The mains were served with a side of earthy sautéed mushrooms & potatoes with wilted spinach, a delicious accompaniment.

Reel Eats Mexican Meal

The dessert course really spoke to the themes in the film. “Tita’s Passionate Deep Chocolate Torte served with sensual rose petal ice cream” forced me to eat every bite very slowly to take in the decadence of the dense chocolate torte and the delicate flavor of the rose ice cream (one of my favorite flavors!). It was such a gorgeous end to a beautiful meal.

Chocolate Cake Rose Ice Cream

The event was BYOB and the organizers sent suggested wine pairings via email a few days prior. They served two different kinds of ‘agua fresca,’ which Neil and I really appreciated after learning about and enjoying different varieties at a Mexican cooking school we visited last year. The deep green, fire-quenching cucumber and parsley agua fresca was a great accompaniment to the meal, and helped to put out the scorch of the spicy mole.

We had what I can honestly describe as a memorable and enchanted evening, and I really encourage anyone living in the greater Toronto area to attend a Reel Eats event if you’re looking for a unique, entertaining and delicious night out. Join the Reel Eats Facebook page to be kept up to date about future events.

Storyteller Mary Luz Mejia at Reel Eats

Storyteller Mary Luz Mejia at Reel Eats

A Father’s Day Tribute & Contest from Fiesta Farms

12 Jun

I could listen to people’s personal stories about cooking and eating with their families for hours on end. Food truly does bring people together and bonds family members.

I’ll never forget witnessing the intense feeling of sadness and regret when Neil’s aunt passed away and his cousin, her son, came face to face with the reality that he would never taste her hand-made lasagna ever again…That moment touched me deeply.

Our family recipes, food rituals and meals should never be taken for granted.

Father’s day is coming up this weekend and Fiesta Farms is running a really awesome contest in honor of dads and grandfathers and the food memories that surround them.

The 2012 Apron Strings Contest is a call out to Torontonians to share your stories, recipes and food memories about your dad or grandfather for a chance at winning one of three gift certificates to the store. All entries will be posted on the Fiesta Farms website and the top 3 will win the prize. You have until June 30th to share your story and you can enter here.

On top of that, the good folks at Fiesta Farms have put together Father’s Day cooking videos featuring families sharing recipes and cooking together for our viewing pleasure. They’re very cute and fun to watch.

The contest inspired Neil and me to think about our own personal stories and we both decided to write separate entries for the contest.

As a tribute to our dads, we wanted to share what we wrote with our Communal Table readers.

Happy upcoming Father’s Day to our amazing fathers Phil Tryansky & Nick Faba and to all the dads out there!

Jenny’s Father’s Day Tribute Story:

Steak and French Fries – The Other Side of My Grandfather       

This one’s about my grandfather’s cooking but my dad is just as much an important part of the memory as a whole…

My grandfather was a complex man. The kind of person who didn’t say a lot and had a presence that some found intimidating. We spent many Christmas vacations staying at my grandparent’s condo in Florida. A traditional man, my grandfather was not one to help out in the kitchen and spent most of his days playing cards with his friends. But –my favorite memory of him, one that is still so vivid in my mind, is when he cooked for the family his one and only signature meal: Steak and French fries.

He would banish everyone from the kitchen and get to work slicing and peeling potatoes to make homemade thick-cut fries (legendary in my own father’s childhood memories) and spice up huge steaks. I remember he would wear an apron, which would always make me take notice and instantly softened his stature. The smell of the fries frying always made everyone salivate and we couldn’t wait to get our hands on a plate of them. They were the best I’ve ever had; Oily, salty and soft yet crispy. I don’t know how he achieved perfection every time.

He served the meal with extra spicy pickles that my dad would always proudly note my grandfather ‘doctored up’ himself and we would all sit down to a meal that allowed me to see a whole other side of my ‘Zaidie’.

I cherish that special food memory.

** When I shared this story with my dad, he in turn shared this happy little nugget with me: “I can still smell the fries and imagine their taste with salt and ketchup. But I especially remember how happy it made him to make all that for all his kids”

Neil’s Father’s Day Tribute Story:

I don’t have a lot of childhood food memories that include my father. He worked a lot, and while we were fortunate to be able to sit down to meals as a family on a fairly regular basis, my mom was often the one to cook those meals. And since she’s always been something of an amateur gourmet chef and genuinely loves cooking, I tend to consider her my most important culinary influence.

But in so many ways, my dad is responsible for how I think about and approach food. He was born in Italy, moving to Canada when he was 11 years old. Since crossing the ocean for a new life, his family has held on to the recipes and food traditions that had been so much a part of their ancestry and history in the “Old Country.” My zios (Italian for uncles) keep expansive vegetable gardens at their suburban Toronto homes, cellar salumi and cheeses in their basements to eat when they’ve been aged to perfection, and make their own (addictively drinkable) wine. Those ingredients have been central to many family meals I enjoyed as a child, and continue to enjoy now with my wife and other new family members.

And while I’ve only recently realized it, my father is a pretty amazing cook in his own right. My parents separated when I was 16, and in the years immediately after that I don’t recall a lot of great meals with my dad. What I do remember (and what my sister and I tease him about still, even though I think it only happened once) was my dad serving us mashed potatoes that turned out to be from a box. 

At 19, I moved away to go to university, and after graduation I continued to live away from home for another five years. It was over that 10-year stretch that a slow, almost imperceptible change began to take place in my dad’s kitchen. Each time I came home and sat down to a meal, something new and different was in front of me – expertly prepared fish, risottos and meat dishes. When I started bringing Jenny to dinner at my dad’s, she was quick to compliment him on what he’d made, often asking for the recipe and for his cooking tips. 

I remember how I felt the first time she said to me, after a dinner my dad had cooked, “I can see where you get your great cooking skills from.” It was at that point that I began to realize that my father had always had great culinary skills. It had just taken him a while to feel the passion needed to really showcase those skills, and it took me even longer to recognize a part of him we’d both taken for granted. And I think that’s a lesson about fathers: Often, it’s so easy for kids to focus on ways they think their dads don’t measure up. But by doing that, we’re often missing out on appreciating the great men they truly are.

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!

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