Stirring the Pot with Chef Paul Pisa

Paul Pisa is a homegrown Toronto chef, trained under chefs Mark McEwan and Keith Froggett. In the mid-1990s, Pisa was executive chef of Ellipsis, the popular though now-defunct modern Italian brunch and dinner spot on College Street. When Ellipsis closed, Pisa moved across the street to helm the large and busy Brasserie Aix, serving authentic French-style food.

In 2002, Pisa first joined the team of Toronto hospitality specialists, the Quinn family, who were longtime friends from Scaramouche (1 Benvenuto Place) days. At P.J. O’Brien (39 Colborne Street), Pisa was awarded Best Pub Fare in Canada by the National Post, and built a popular following serving high-quality gastro-pub fare.

In 2005, Pisa left Toronto and launched his own restaurant in the countryside north of Kingston, Ontario. While the business was successful, the partnership was not, and ultimately Pisa returned to the city – and to Quinn hospitality – as Executive Chef of Quinn’s Steakhouse and Irish Bar (96 Richmond Street West), located in the Sheraton Centre hotel at Bay and Richmond.

What inspired you to become a chef?

When I was young I studied music. Then one day I ate a meal prepared by the late Chef Raphaelo Ferrari that showed me the music in food, and I was inspired.

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Market Mondays – Cherries

Most years, we’re savouring the first cherries right around now, as they normally ripen locally by the end of June. But if you’ve been frequenting the farmers’ markets, you’ve been eating cherries for weeks, since the sweet cherries, like most other seasonal produce, have come a full two weeks early.

The cherry is the fleshy stone fruit of the Prunus plant and comes in a range of sweet and sour varieties. There are over 1000 varieties of cherry but only about 10% of those are grown on a commercial scale. Most common are the sweet Bing, the sour Montmorency and the yellow-fleshed Rainier, although some Ontario farmers grow many more. If farmers’ don’t have their cherries labelled by variety at market, ask, because there are actually many varieties that are better tasting than those bland Bings.

The history of the cherry dates back to prehistoric times, and was introduced to England by Henry VIII. In North America, while wild cherries were native to the continent, the more traditional varieties we know were brought by French and English explorers and settlers. Prime cherry-growing regions include Southern Ontario, Michigan and British Columbia.

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Market Mondays – Peas

I eat my peas with honey,
I’ve done it all my life,
It does taste kind of funny,
But it keeps them on my knife. – Anonymous

Most commonly found in mixed frozen vegetables, the humble pea is one of the most versatile vegetables out there. Eaten fresh, dried, frozen or canned, peas  can be used in soups, stews, pies, risotto or curries, or fried and served as a snack.

The pea is actually a fruit, but is considered a vegetable for cooking purposes. There are many varieties of peas from sweet peas to snow peas or sugar snap peas, with some growing as vines and others low-growing plants suited to field cultivation. In Ontario, peas are at their peak in June and July.

The use of peas dates back to the Middle Ages when they were part of the typical diet along with broad beans and lentils. Peas are eaten throughout the world from Asia and India to Europe and North America.

Peas are an excellent source of folacin (Vitamin B9). They are also a source of Vitamins A and C, fibre and potassium. A half cup of cooked peas is only 70 calories.

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Sunday Brunch – Chuck & Co.

Chuck and Co.
126 Atlantic Avenue
416-533-3500
Brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $30

Messy. And that’s not a bad thing.

Known for their handmade gourmet burgers, you wouldn’t expect a burger place to do up fancy brunch. And to be fair, the selection of breakfast sandwiches is pretty straightforward. This is more of a “grab a great sandwich on the way home from the farmers’ market” kind of brunch than a leisurely afternoon with scones and mimosas and linen napkins. But sometimes that’s all you want, and the offerings at Chuck and Co are wholly acceptable.

It’s a nice looking space with leather benches, white walls and white-washed floors. It’s empty save for us on both occasions we’re there, and after two visits, we’re now known as regulars, on a first name basis with Chantal, who cheerfully takes our order at the counter at the back.

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Foodshare: 25 Years of Good, Healthy Food

There’s always something bittersweet about a food charity celebrating a big anniversary. Sure there’s all of the progress and hard work that deserves to be honoured, an account of all the people who have been helped. But on the other hand, there’s the fact that said charity still needs to exist at all. That issues such as hunger and food security in our city have not been sufficiently addressed and that individuals and families still need these organizations to help them make ends meet.

FoodShare is one of those organizations that will likely always be with us, because they’re dealing with more than just getting food to people in need. FoodShare is all about education and skills, in teaching people to cook and grow their own food, and in knowing where their food comes from.

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Stirring the Pot with Chef Lorenzo Loseto

Lorenzo Loseto has built an enviable reputation as one of Canada’s premier chefs. As the Executive Chef of George (111 Queen Street East) and Verity, he applies his classical training and modern approach to developing innovative menus inspired by the diverse cultures of Toronto and Canada. He is devoted to the creation of exquisite and flavourful cuisine that reflects both who he is and the food he loves to cook and eat.

Lorenzo’s skill extends to the art of selection. Quality is paramount. He opts for local and seasonal foods wherever possible and makes early morning excursions to the food terminal to source the best quality ingredients available each week.

Lorenzo is constantly inspired by the environment around him – from the vibrant city to the changing seasons to his growing family. Voted one of Toronto’s Best Chefs by Toronto Life magazine in 2006, Lorenzo honed his skills in some of Canada’s finest kitchens before joining George in 2004. Most notably, he apprenticed at Three Small Rooms in the original Windsor Arms Hotel, arguably one of the best kitchens of its time, and was Sous Chef in Susur Lee’s legendary Lotus.

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Market Mondays – Fava Beans

We’ve all heard the old joke from The Silence of the Lambs, but fava beans go with more than a nice Chianti. Vicia faba, also known as the broad bean, tic bean, field bean and bell bean is a versatile spring vegetable.

Known for the long thick pods lined with a soft fluff, splitting open a fava bean is like opening a jewel box to find your dinner presented on a bed of velvet. For many dishes the skin of the beans itself needs to be removed (making them slightly unpopular with impatient cooks), but it’s worth the effort. Some people experience a reaction to the raw or uncooked beans, so favas should always be cooked completely.

The plant is a hardy one, able to withstand cold temperatures and salinity in its soil. They grow quickly and have lush foliage, making them an ideal cover crop. Favas are also considered nitrogen fixers, adding this important nutrient back to the soil.

Favas are eaten in many cultures from Asian to the Middle East to Europe and Northern Africa. They can be fried and served as a snack, added to soup and stews, tossed with pasta or served as a topping on bread or toast. The most famous fava dish has to be the Egyptian dish ful medames, where the dried beans are stewed and mashed and then blended with lemon, olive oil and spices and served with bread and an egg, typically for breakfast.

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Tastefully Tasty

Greg said it best on Twitter: “sweet merciful crap, there’s more food inside!”

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Second Harvest’s Toronto Taste fund raiser upped its game substantially this year, doubling the number of chefs involved (from 30 to 60) and taking over part of the Royal Ontario Museum and Queen’s Park (the street, not the park itself). With tickets going for $250 (half of which garnered a receipt for tax purposes), it wasn’t an event for everybody – a fact that won Toronto Taste the teeniest bit of flack over on Torontoist, where they pointed out the irony of having a fancy food event in order to help raise funds to feed the hungry. Especially one where some people would take a bite of something and then pitch it. Yikes! (Next year I’m going with a doggy bag to bring people’s half-eaten leftovers home to my dogs! Can I get away with that at the swankest food event of the year?)

But the fact is that every $250 ticket will buy 250 meals, and Second Harvest delivers over 15,000 meals every day (that’s 6 million pounds of food each year!), mostly from donated perishable food that would otherwise go to waste from restaurants and cafeterias.

And while the following photos are most definitely food porn, we’d like to encourage you to consider the bigger picture. Second Harvest will happily accept your donations – in any amount – even though the big event is over. The Toronto Taste online auction, which runs until June 23rd, includes cool items at every price point. As well, please consider supporting the participating restaurants if you possibly can – they all worked incredibly hard and donated their time and food to the cause.

We’d also like to offer hearty congratulations for a job well done to everyone at Second Harvest – and that amazing army of volunteers. You guys rock.

Shown above: Ontario perch with chorizo, pickled heirloom tomatoes and fava bean puree from Chef Andrea Nicholson of Great Cooks on 8.

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Market Mondays – Strawberries

The time is upon us. If you’re like me, you’ve walked past time huge, hard, tasteless red supermarket strawberries all winter in anticipation of June and Ontario strawberry season. Nothing beats the smell or flavour of an Ontario strawberry, ripe, just picked, and warm from the sun.

Strawberries are a member of the rose family, and while the old bit of trivia claims that strawberries are the only fruit to have their seeds on the outside (which they’re not – cashew fruit and pineapple both have their seeds on the outside) those little yellow things that most people think are the seeds are actually the fruit; the red flesh bit we love to eat is the receptacle.

Dating back to ancient Rome, the strawberry as we know it originated in Europe, and was cultivated in 13th century France for medicinal purposes. The first American species of strawberry was cultivated in 1835 and strawberries grow in every province and every state in Canada and the US. While we normally think of June and July as strawberry season, many farmers now grow a number of “everbearing” varieties that will bear fruit from June until the first frost. Vendors at many Toronto farmers markets (including Nathan Phillips Square and Metro Hall) usually have berries right up until October. There’s been many a year when I’ve had fresh Ontario berries for breakfast on Thanksgiving morning. And if you’re wondering why it’s better to buy local berries, consider what happens to berries from California before they get here.

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SalivAte – June 2010

People always assume because we write about food that we’ve been to every restaurant in the city (all 5000 or so of them), and they’re always disappointed that we haven’t been. Meanwhile, readers tell us that they’d like more photo-essays.

So to satisfy your food porn cravings and what might be an inappropriate desire to live vicariously through us, we’ve started eating out more just for the sake of eating out; to expand our palates, to learn more about our city’s great restaurants, and to give you all something to drool over. Note that these are not reviews – just photos of pretty and tasty food, and that while all the restaurants and chefs knew who we were, all have been paid for out of our own pockets.

Above, from L.A.B. (651 College Street), are chicken pogos; breaded chicken legs that have been Frenched to reveal the bone which doubles as the stick. The creamy puddles are the blue cheese dressing and the red discs are a jelled hot sauce. A shredded celery salad takes the place of the traditional celery sticks that accompany chicken wings.

We visited LAB with a vegetarian friend who was quite delighted to have another slightly upscale place to go for dinner. We tried a number of things on the menu which is about 50/50 vegetarian to carnivore. We all dug the fun tongue-in-cheek sense of humour that chefs Dubrovsky and Scott demonstrate in their menu.

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Stirring the Pot with Chef Chris Palik

Christopher Palik was born in Saskatchewan and lived there until graduating high school. He moved to Vancouver and attended the Vancouver Community College Culinary Arts Foundations program. After graduating at the top of his class, he decided he wanted to be a diesel mechanic instead, returning to Vancouver Community College for the diesel technician course. At the prospect of an apprenticeship in the Northwest Territories, he decided to return to cheffing. He discovered his passion for cooking after taking a job at the pub behind his house. He went on to work all over Vancouver, then travelled and cooked in Europe, and ended up in Toronto about 7 years ago where he worked for a variety of restaurants. He took over L EAT catering and Paese restaurants a few years ago.

What inspired you to become a chef?

I kinda always knew that I wanted to work with my hands. After failed attempts at construction and mechanics, I realized that both of those careers lacked the creativity that I was looking for. I was exposed to the business by working as a dishwasher during high school and I fed off the energy of the kitchens.

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Market Mondays – Radishes

The first root vegetable of spring is also the most under-used. Besides putting them in a salad, what do you DO with radishes anyway?

Related to the mustard plant, radishes come in several varieties, ranging from sweet to spicy and peppery in flavour and from white to vibrant red, and even grey and black in colour. They are a favourite of the home gardener because they’re easy to sow, grow quickly, and offer an early sense of accomplishment. Cultivation of radishes dates back to Roman times and records suggest that the plants were domesticated somewhere in Europe.

Which begs the continued question – why do we mostly eat them raw in salads? A perusal of the Internet led to me recipes for pickled radishes, roasted radishes and one in which the roots are boiled until tender and then tossed with butter and brown sugar, much as you’d do with carrots or parsnips. Having tried this, I think I know why we prefer to eat the things raw – boiling saps out all of the lovely crisp peppery flavour.

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Sunday Brunch – The Bloordale Pantry

The Bloordale Pantry
1285 Bloor Street West
416-530-2999
brunch for 2 with all taxes, tip and coffee: $40

A lifetime ago, I lived at Bloor and Lansdowne in an old warehouse space (which is what we called old warehouses before developers renovated them and put in marble counter tops and stainless steel appliances and called them “lofts”). It was a rough neighbourhood, and one of the roughest parts of it was the greasy spoon on the corner where locals bought $2 beer and did their drug deals.

Twenty years later, the corner of Bloor and Lansdowne, while still gritty, is the latest area to see improvements to businesses and services. There’s now a handful of decent restaurants and cool shops, co-existing peacefully with Indian sweet shops and African spice stores.

And that scary diner on the corner that I was never brave enough to set foot in is now a bright, cheery, hip little space with new (retro-looking) decor and a really decent brunch menu.

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Stirring the Pot with Chef Scott Vivian

Born in Montreal to an Italian father and an Indian mother, Chef Scott Vivian has always loved food. Chef Vivian has earned praise from Georgia to Colorado to Oregon before coming back to Canada. In 2006, he took on Toronto via Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar. A year later he was promoted to Chef de Cuisine of Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner (111 Queen’s Park). In October of 2009, he had the amazing opportunity of becoming co-owner and executive chef of Wine Bar (9 Church Street). Chef Vivian will continue his support of local food procurement as he and his wife Rachelle open their first restaurant Beast(96 Tecumseth Street) in June 2010.

What inspired you to become a chef?

My deep passion and understanding of food and culture. I knew it the moment I stepped foot in my first professional kitchen.

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Sunday Brunch – Blue Plate

Blue Plate
392 Roncesvalles Avenue
416-538-7500
brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $40

How long is long enough?

We’re known for hassling other restaurant critics about not giving new restaurants enough time to find their groove before slipping in for a review. Two or three weeks is usually considered an appropriate amount of time, and we feel we’re adhering to that standard of courtesy when we show up more than two weeks after opening day at Blue Plate, the new restaurant on Roncesvalles where Boho used to be. But while the food meets our expectations, the place very much feels like the staff on the floor and in the kitchen are barely keeping it together.

The two owners – Melissa Fox-Revett in the front of house and Julia Young at the stoves – aren’t unfamiliar with the space. Both were involved with Boho before it was sold to Fergus Munster a couple of years ago. The room got a gorgeous reno when the pair took it over earlier this year, and it’s once again a long, airy room with an open kitchen, and wow, what a floor.

But nice decor doesn’t make up for the constant mistakes.

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Souped Up

This past Wednesday was sunny and warm – not a day you’d typically consider eating soup. But 400 people lined up at the doors of the Gardiner Museum to take part in Empty Bowls, an annual event featuring local chefs, local pottery artists and of course, great soup.

For $45, attendees not only got to sample soups from 20 different restaurants at the Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner restaurant, they also got a beautiful, hand-made bowl to take home.

This fantastic event is based entirely on donations – from the chefs donating their time and food, to local potters donating bowls, many made especially for this event. With bread donated from Ace Bakery and crackers from Evelyn’s Crackers, plus water from Gaia and cups from Green Shift, all proceeds from the event go towards Anishnawbe Health Toronto, a charitable organization that provides food to homeless people. Volunteers and Gardiner Museum staff also donated their time, and props, kudos and huge piles of thanks and appreciation must go to organizer Siobhan Boyd who pulls this thing together every year with aplomb.

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Market Mondays – Fiddleheads

There’s a phenomenon on Twitter where people will mention or retweet something and create a buzz, but the buzz fails. For instance, a dozen people will mention a food-related event but none of them will actually attend. The same kind of failed buzz seems to be happening with seasonal produce. I’m seeing piles of people squeeing about ramps and fiddleheads, but none of that excitement translating to blog posts showing what they’ve been cooking with these seasonal glories.

In fact, the only mention I’ve seen about fiddleheads in terms of someone having purchased and prepared the things is pickling. No references to the fresh product at all. Which makes me think that maybe people still don’t know what to do with fiddleheads, even though they’re turning up everywhere.

Up until a few years ago, the few people in Toronto (mostly ex-pat Maritimers) who knew and loved fiddleheads were happy to have one small feed of them each June. There was one produce shop in Kensington Market that would bring them in from Nova Scotia and by the time they made it to the store shelves they were already starting to go off. Sobey’s stores (based in Nova Scotia) would sometime get them in as well, albeit in very small quantities.

While the Ostrich Fern is native to Ontario, nobody seemed to pick up on the fact that the things are mighty tasty until a few years ago – probably after having listened to a Maritimer friend bemoan the lack of them one time too many.

So now they’re everywhere – and people are excited – but still… nobody seems to be doing much with them.

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Bixby Says Reeeelaxx!!

I am not good at doing nothing. I can sit still – to watch a TV show or a movie, or read a book. I can enjoy a day at the beach, or a walk in the woods. But I’m really not good at doing “nothing”.

I am supposed to be “on hiatus”. This was supposed to be a break from a pretty constant 3 years of running TasteTO without a real break. Because even when we took breaks – over the Christmas holidays when site traffic is slow, for instance – we were still fiddling around with stuff; cleaning up the back end of the site, planning for new stories, columns, etc.

The plan was to take at least a week and do “nothing”. That would probably include lots of reading. Maybe some shopping, or lunch with friends. But not work. There was work to do, and the plan was to start mid-month. Instead I started this week. My days of doing nothing consisted of 2 days of being sick with a cold and sleeping. Then it was back to work, because I can’t seem to not turn this damned computer on.

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Sunday Brunch – Le Select Bistro

Le Select Bistro
432 Wellington Street West
416-596-6405
Brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $60

I haven’t been to Le Select since they moved to the Wellington Street West location some three years ago. Once a landmark on Queen West, the restaurant there was tiny and narrow. This new space is easily double the size indoors, plus there’s a gorgeous terrace out front (well, it’s probably gorgeous in the summer) and a large garden patio in the back. Slightly off the beaten path for those of us who travel on foot or by TTC, their website reiterates the close proximity to lots of parking, which isn’t actually endearing to me, but apparently is to everyone else who can’t live without their gas-guzzler, because on a recent Sunday morning, Le Select is packed and the parking lot across the street is nearly full, despite the ongoing rain.

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Sunday Brunch – Cowbell

Cowbell
1564 Queen Street West
416-849-1095
Brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $50

Since it opened in 2007, Cowbell has never been open on Sunday. Chef/owner Mark Cutrara set that day aside to spend with his family. The idea of Sunday being family day is a big one in the Parkdale neighbourhood where the restaurant is located, however, and brunch is possibly more popular here than anywhere else in the city, with Gen X and Y hipsters from the area looking for a way to get out of the house and have a reasonably priced meal with their kids without resorting to a fast food chain.

So Cutrara’s decision to open for Sunday brunch (with Saturday service also being considered) offered both locals (and not so locals) another brunch option; this one made with regional, sustainable ingredients; and also kid-friendly, although maybe not so much of the “frenzied daycare” vibe one might get from neighbouring brunch haunts where hipsters sit around and compare their latest tattoos while setting their kids free to terrorize staff and other customers. Cowbell is not the kind of place where you let the rugrats run free.

Instead, it’s a fun, quirky brunch spot with some seriously awesome food and just enough cuteness to not feel stuffy.

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