Toronto doesn’t just have one of the most diverse food scenes in the country, but the world: Nearly two-thirds of the city’s top 20 restaurants were made up of different international cuisines in 2022.
But with more than one vibrant Chinatown and a plethora of options for discerning diners who want to try it all, how do you stand out? And how do restaurateurs hold on to their actual heritage and memories while promoting their cuisine on such a large stage?
At MIMI Chinese, I'm always learning. It's not even so much about cooking my cuisine but rather learning about my cuisine and sharing it with other people. Not as an authority, but as someone who is interested in it.
Learning and representation
Yorkville’s Michelin-recognized MIMI Chinese is head chef Braden Chong’s second baby, born after Sunnys Chinese exploded onto Toronto’s food scene as a lockdown project and eventually as an IRL semi-hidden restaurant tucked away in eclectic Kensington Market.
“I don't want to assume I know everything about my cuisine,” says Chong. “At MIMI Chinese, I'm always learning. It's not even so much about cooking my cuisine but rather learning about my cuisine and sharing it with other people. Not as an authority, but as someone who is interested in it.”
Both restaurants showcase regional Chinese cuisine in exciting but different ways, with places of origin clearly printed next to each menu item. The sharing-style menu at MIMI boasts plates like Hunan chili sea bass, Sichuan hidden crispy chicken and show-stopping four-foot belt noodles inspired by Shandong.
Starring vegetables like chrysanthemum, spinach, mushroom, eggplant, cabbage and green beans are a huge part of Chong’s representation of his culture, as his farmer grandparents grew North American and Chinese vegetables, eventually selling them to Chinese restaurants in Ontario and Quebec.
“I'm not a farmer so can't relate to harvesting, but in taking care of and preparing vegetables and other produce in my career, it gave me an appreciation for what my grandparents did,” says Chong.
I do this because this is food I'm passionate about. Whether it's eating or cooking it. I want people to understand the value of the food.
(Sergio Nazario) views cooking his cuisine... as “a responsibility” and is “honoured to be able to show my roots, and show it to people that have never tasted or tried it.”
A responsibility to show roots
At Peruvian restaurant Nuna, ingredients like chilis and pisco from chef-owner Sergio Nazario’s homeland are also the backbone of his menu. A representation of his heritage extends beyond the food, too, the dining room decorated with Peruvian crafts, while important Peru soccer games play on TV and holidays like Pisco Sour Day and Peru’s Independence Day are celebrated.
He views cooking his cuisine of ceviche, anticuchos, steak a la parilla and lucuma tres leches cake as “a responsibility” and is “honoured to be able to show my roots, and show it to people that have never tasted or tried it.”
Themes of responsibility and strong traditional ingredients are also central over at Bib Gourmand Thai restaurant Favorites, where curry paste is laboriously handmade and all curry and sauce is made using traditional techniques.
“We show our heritage through our cooking techniques and flavours,” says Favorites chef Ronnie Xu. “We want to showcase the different flavours and ingredients and different ways of cooking Thai cuisine in Toronto. This is such a fun cuisine to cook and work with. Lots of possibilities and challenges.”
In order to start with the best ingredients, Favorites also works with local farms to achieve flavours that are as close as possible to those you might experience in Thailand, with their own special twist.
“The experience we want to provide to our customers is not just street food or classics for transporting the customer to Thailand from the restaurant,” says Xu. “Lots of the herbs and ingredients are impossible to get in Canada. We work with those farms to substitute the similar flavour ingredients from Thailand, and also focus on the layers of the flavour, not just sweet.”
We show our heritage through our cooking techniques and flavours. We want to showcase the different flavours and ingredients and different ways of cooking Thai cuisine in Toronto. This is such a fun cuisine to cook and work with. Lots of possibilities and challenges.
Steeped in research
For Chong, MIMI isn’t just a way to showcase his ability to build flavours, but also a long-term project where he invests in his own research into a cuisine he grew up loving to eat. He longs to have gone to a Chinese culinary school, but in North America all culinary schools are based around French cuisine.
“As a kid, I would eat these flavours without understanding how they came to be. Through research and experience, it's very cool to see how certain things that I thought were not that complicated take a lot more effort than it would seem. Learning about how putting together certain ingredients builds certain flavours is amazing,” says Chong.
“For example, Chinese cooking wine in almost every dish…cooking it in a wok gives it a charred flavour, but that same cooking wine when drinking it on its own would not taste the same.”
At all of these restaurants, no technique or tradition stands alone. They’re layered together like the flavours in the food to show the true value of these cuisines and cultures, and what they contribute to Toronto’s dining scene, making standing out almost incidental. In fact, Favorites says it’s not even that difficult.
“We like challenges, creating and learning,” says Xu. “We don't struggle with being seen. We are confident with the things we've been doing. We want to make it fun.”
Nazario finds Peruvian food is still gaining steam at Nuna. While Peruvian food has been introduced to Toronto’s food scene, perhaps most notably with the opening of our own location of the Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian fusion) chain restaurant Chotto Matte, it’s nowhere near as widespread in the city as cuisines like Thai or Chinese, and it’s hard to find Peruvian that’s true to its roots.
“It is difficult to stand out because of the type of cuisine,” says Nazario. “Even though Peruvian cuisine is renowned around the world and one of the best cuisines internationally, there are still a lot of people that haven't tried Peruvian cuisine.”
“One of the reasons is because there are very few spots where you can find truly Peruvian dishes.”
Nazario works hard to offset this by working with Peruvian brands, participating in events, doing marketing and working with the community, all in order to stand out as much as possible.
Many people devalue Chinese food, and we want to show people that our food is special and has no lesser value than any other fine dining food.
Passion creates value
For many restaurants, it’s a community where standing out can feel like something they have to do just to be considered an equal part of the scene.
“Many people devalue Chinese food, and we want to show people that our food is special and has no lesser value than any other fine dining food. It's not necessarily the case around the world, but definitely in North America,” says Chong.
“I do this because this is food I'm passionate about. Whether it's eating or cooking it. I want people to understand the value of the food.”