by Andrea Chiu, Contributor
As the Culinary Development Chef, Veronica Mal aka. MsCheffy wears many hats. It’s a fitting role for a woman who has, in her career, done everything from teaching to catering to starting RED, an award-winning restaurant in Bermuda. I sat down with Veronica to talk about the unique kitchen culture at Feast, travel and the diversity of Toronto.
How did you get involved with Feast and what appealed to you about it?
I was working with a friend who told me about Feast. She basically came up to me and said, "You know all of the things that you don't necessarily like about the restaurant industry?" … she's like, "There's a group of people who don't like the same things and they're starting a company. Go talk to them." That peaked my interest real quick.
There's a real sense of hierarchy in most professional kitchens. It makes sense in many kitchens why that is, but being somebody who has never been the traditional chef, the Feast environment was really appealing to me. If you work a line, you have your station and you don't move away from it. But for me, it's great to be able to call on my experience in many different facets instead of just one.
What do you love most about this job so far?
Food content - educating customers (and even our team) about our dishes, preparation processes, chef techniques, styling the menu photos and making sure the food point of view is present - - that's a big part of my role. I really enjoy collaborating on the menu and writing about the dishes, and relaying the kitchen perspective. I have an integral role in producing the photo shoots, styling, photography and managing the changing content of every dish and I absolutely love that.
I'm a very visual person and I think we all have naturally fallen into roles that are important to us. Not everybody cares if, in the photo, the biscuit is torn or not. I do, and I’ll say why. That's kind of how that role has developed, and has allowed me to have a voice in how our dishes are shot.
What's your favourite dish that you guys have put out?
I love the Ontario Smoked Trout Salad. It's got this chunky Romesco sauce with almonds and bright peppers. It's really vibrant.
It shows what Feast is about on a plate: being sustainable and, wherever we can, being local.
We take ingredients that are from here, from this environment and give them global spins. The Trout dish really speaks to that with bold Spanish flavours and beautiful smoked Ontario trout.
What inspires you—whether they’re books, blogs, etc.?
I had an opportunity to visit Iceland and work for the Food and Fun Festival. It's a really unique festival in the sense that, on paper, it sounds kind of like Winterlicious — but it's not. It's in the winter, but almost all the chefs that have signed on are on the "50 Best List". They come to Iceland; they partner up with a restaurant and do a collaborative menu for a week. It's a way for two chefs to really get creative, come up with something and teach the kitchen about their respective cultures. It's open to the public to come into the restaurant, try the food, and at the end of the festival there is a competition where a winner is chosen for the best collaborative menu.
I had an opportunity to go work with Gunnar Gislason at his place Dill Restaurant. He is such an inspiration. Creative, humble and super talented. When you talk about new Nordic cuisine, what's really interesting to me about it is the whole way the cuisine is built around the seasons. If it's not growing in season, you don't serve it. More and more chefs are starting to think like that and I think it's great.
"I always find when you have to limit yourself as a chef, that's when you can be the most creative. If you have the most amazing pantry, you can make the most amazing food. But what do you do when you only have like five things?
Whenever I visit a new place, I try to get to know the food and hopefully cook with someone from there. To me, it's the best way to learn about a place and the people. Gunnar's name and Dill restaurant popped up on a search and the more I read, the more I knew I just had to meet him.
Iceland's economy has gone through a really rough time. After the country went bankrupt, they realized that they have to be self-sufficient. Gunnar is a big part of the food movement in that country. He's one of the reasons why many farmers haven't gone out of business and why they can still keep their Viking food traditions alive to pass onto the next generation."
His book, North: The New Nordic Cuisine, is so inspiring. If you ever have an opportunity to read it, do it. It's not just a cookbook. It's really about that land and way of life.
What has living and travelling abroad taught you about Toronto? What are the best things about the city?
One thing I really noticed, especially when I moved back home from Bermuda, is how much the food scene has changed here. Toronto has always been cosmopolitan, but especially in the last few years, you can feel the energy has shifted. It's more artistic and food has become such a big part of the city.
What I love most about the city is that it's very open to many different people. If you travel a lot, you know it's not like that everywhere else. It's something I think I've always taken for granted because I've lived here most of my life. It's normal to see a plethora of people from all different ages, all different backgrounds - black, white, Indian, Chinese, whatever - and that's part of our culture here. When you go to other countries, you realize that's not the norm. It's just something you take for granted. I love that about Toronto, and the fact that we have so much multiculturalism in every aspect: music, food and arts.