Toben Food’s Take on Family Style Catering

Brother and sister duo Toben and Elana Kochman are co-owners of Toben Food by Design, an international culinary experience. Executive chef Toben Kochman graduated from Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts in Paris and stayed to work at Apicius, a two star Michelin restaurant. He came back to Toronto and worked under Susur Lee as his sous chef at Lee. Then he and his sister Elana combined efforts and Toben Food by Design was born over ten years ago.

“It’s kind of a global cuisine inspired by parts of Asia, to more classical French to Italian to right here within our landscape in Ontario,” says Elana. “It’s really kind of this fusion of international cuisine coupled with the freshest, most seasonal available ingredients that we can get our hands on.”


The team finds itself often asked about its family style wedding catering. Essentially a shared meal, it evokes the nostalgia of Sunday night family dinners or holiday meals spent passing around the mashed potatoes and roast chicken. Except in this case, everyone’s passing around Grilled Whole Sicilian Branzino (recipe at the end of this post) and Fingering Potato Salad, which include lobster, grilled corn, bacon lardons, scallions, and chives.

At the moment, their most popular dish is the Southern Barbecue Braised Beef Brisket smothered in a Memphis style red wine molasses barbecue sauce. Elana recalls her favourite dish, the Watermelon Salad , which combines ingredients like sheep’s milk feta, black beans, corn, and mint. “It’s the most refreshing thing ever!”

The most interesting dish? A house made apple chip, first poached and marinated in star anise and allspice, then oven dried and topped with smoked chicken sausage, red wine braised cabbage, and mustard, all house made. Hours of process and assembly packed into a bite sized hors d’oeuvre.

To keep it fresh and local, family style menus depend on the season. If a client is interested in this style, Toben will pull out their short list of salads, mains, and sides to choose from. Clients are usually asked to choose two salads to start, two mains (protein, usually a meat and a fish, although there are vegetarian options available), and two or three sides. Dessert can also be served family style on the table but after sitting for so long, more people choose to have a dessert table.

Guests are essentially sampling double what they would in a family style setting as opposed to a plated meal. “Even though you’re not doing the sides and mains for 100 percent of the guest count each, you still need to prepare 75 percent of each dish.”  While guests are eating a 4oz portions of the brisket rather than an 8oz portions, and a smaller 3.5oz piece of fish, everyone will still want to try everything.

Kids also have their own menu of flatbreads, chicken fingers, little cones with french fries, and mini crudité cups, all served family style as well. This way, everyone can join in on the fun!

GRILLED WHOLE SICILLIAN BRANZINO

Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 whole Branzino fish (sometimes referred to as European Sea Bass), scales and innards removed
  • 4 cups fennel, shaved on a mandolin
  • ½ cup fennel fronds, rough chopped
  • 1 whole lemon, zested and juiced
  • 2 whole lemons, sliced into ½ cm thick rounds
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1½ tbsp salt
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 3 whole oranges, peeled and sliced into segments
  • 3 whole grapefruit, peeled and sliced into segments

METHOD

  • In a small mixing bowl combine the lemon juice, half of the olive oil, a pinch of salt and pepper and mix with a fork and set aside.
  • Preheat a clean grill to medium-high. Combine the remainder of the olive oil, lemon zest, salt and pepper and rub generously all over the interior and exterior of the cleaned fish.
  • Assemble the sliced lemon rounds on the interior of the fish.
  • Gently lay the seasoned fish on the preheated grill and cook for 5-7 minutes per side with the lid closed if using a BBQ. Gently flip the fish over and continue to cook on the other side.
  • While the fish is cooking combine the shaved fennel, orange segments, grapefruit segments, lemon juice and olive oil mixture from step 1 and gently toss to combine.

To serve, carefully remove the whole fish from the grill and transfer to a platter and assemble the shaved fennel and citrus segment salad alongside. Garnish with a sprinkling of the rough chopped fennel fronds and serve immediately.

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Where Toronto Eats: Latin World

Latin World is a Mexican and Latin American restaurant located on Bloor West.

Latin World is a grocery store taqueria that offers, alongside the traditional tacos, dishes from other parts of the Latin America. As with many grocery + taqueria combos, Latin World is, despite its yellow and orange banner outside, a small hole in the wall you can easily miss, perhaps distracted by the looming castle-typography adorned gentleman’s club just a block away. What’s harder to pass by, however, is the smell of the food wafting out of the door onto Bloor West. It’s tantalizing on a late afternoon when the store keeps its door ajar. On a recent visit, I wasn’t even hungry but went in anyways. It’s that irresistible.

Once inside, the signs are clear: this is going to be good. A long wall is covered with shelves of Latin American pantry stables; some of them familiar like P.A.N cornmeals, El Yucateco hot sauces, cans of chipotle, dried chili of various colors and sizes; some not, like cleaning products, mysterious canned goods, drink mixes, etc. It’s the equivalent of walking into a Chinese noodle shop and seeing four things on the handwritten menu — this is going to be, in today’s ambiguous parlance, authentic.

Though in what ways and to what extent visual signs and cultural cues signal authenticity or quality in an ethnic restaurant is unclear and ethically questionable, Latin World gives the non Latin individual with a taste for tamales the cravings, the excitement of having come a step closer to the real. After all, most people are both physically and financially very much detached from Tulum, Mexico, and René Redzepi’s kitchen while dizzyingly familiar with the representations of said world of luxurious authenticity (thanks, Jacob Richler).

But, unfortunately, and, to a degree, inevitably, Latin World is not that slice of a Latin world on Bloor. Though the complementary chips and hot sauces, tamales oaxaqueños — tasty masa, spicy pork, and little chicken — with mole, and the enchiladas are good, the tacos, the crown jewel of a taqueria, are highly disappointing. Perhaps this is harsh. But then again, perhaps cochinita pibil, my absolute favorite, — Yucatan-style roasted pork (traditionally a suckling pig marinated in citrus and wrapped in banana leaves) — shouldn’t be chewy and so damn spicy and not sweet and tangy. The carnitas and the fish were decent, if not great.

I’d be amiss to say that my stance on Latin World — neighborhood joint with great service, decent food, and daily specials— is entirely dependable, as my experience with pozole or flautas or variety of other offerings are limited. My fellow customers, who seemed familiar with the cook and the waitress, ordered a plate of quesadillas, enchiladas, and tampiqueña, and enjoyed themselves thoroughly. As it is the case in every ethnic restaurant, perhaps it’s a matter of knowing what to order. In this sense, perhaps, I’m wrong to say that Latin World isn’t a slice of the Latin world on Bloor. Who knows? Perhaps in Yucatan, unbeknownst to everyone outside, cochinita pibils are actually chewy and spicy and not melt-in-your-mouth, sweet, and tangy. The matter of Latin World’s authenticity, whatever that means, isn’t for me to judge. What I do know is that the other customers seemed perfectly happy, that the tamales are good, and that I know how I like my cochinita pibil.

Latin World, 1229 Bloor St W, is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., though it’s sometimes open past 10. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Where Toronto Eats: Yum Cha in Markham

Art by Andrea Vahrusev

How far is too far for good yum cha? Though it may seem like a rhetorical question, there is, at least in the minds of aficionados of any kind of food, a sense that the quality of a restaurant is proportional to its inaccessibility; ask a ramen head where the best ramen is — it won’t be down the block, around the corner. Elegance Chinese Dining and Banquet in Markham is certainly not — it’s a few corners (up to North York Centre station), a few perilous bridges (a generous friend with a driver’s license + car), and a crocodile moat (a congested freeway or two) away from downtown Toronto. Once there, the lines, especially on weekend mornings, are long and tedious despite its 350+ persons capacity, as Elegance’s waiting area is relatively small and it shares its strip mall with one or two other restaurants and dubious-looking health stores extolling the benefits of certain tropical berries. Its staff, as is the case in the best of old school restaurants, are not even half heartedly concerned with making you feel ‘at home’.

So it goes without saying that it also has some of the best dim sum I’ve had in Canada.

Elegance’s excellence is telling from the moment the inevitable pot of oolong arrives. The pot of tea is accompanied by a pot of reserve hot water to dilute — if the tea is too strong — or to steep afresh. (And, unusual in my experience of yum cha, the teacups have small handles that bring to mind a certain British/colonial touch.) The tea itself is freshly brewed and delicate, a familiar and comforting opening that far from being pro-forma.

The menu at Elegance is short and divided into sections to help you find what you want. The ha gow is a must, as it’s often deemed the dish to judge a restaurant by; at Elegance, the seasoned and supple shrimps can be seen through the thin and slightly chewy skin. The chive and seafood dumpling, bbq pork bun, pork spare ribs with black beans, and shumai are all telling of the restaurant’s freshness and quality. Steamed rice rolls with shrimp and rice skins was, as they say, a revelation: The soft and chewy skin, perfectly seasoned shrimp, and the crunch of the mysterious ‘rice skin’ dipped in slightly sweet soy sauce — to borrow the hyperbole of Stephen Chow’s God of Cookery — cured the mind’s ailments born since childhood, namely the absence of said roll. The only steamed thing to avoid here is the xiaolong bao, or soup dumplings — I don’t know what happened at the kitchen, but it just wasn’t, by any standards, a xialong bao. 

Elegance is much better at steamed dishes than at fried ones. The pan-fried turnip cakes were wrapped, for no apparent reason, in nori and served with XO sauce; the deep-fried tofu skin was dry; and, most egregious of all, they do not serve pork and chive dumplings.

However, Elegance‘s simply prepared vegetable dishes more than make up for what it misses in its fried section. The snow pea tips and gai lan (Chinese broccoli ), both blanched then prepared simply with oil and salt, were not only delicious but also palate cleansing. If you get a chance, do ask for the snow pea tips while they are in season and easily available; it’s subtle and flavorful and will make you reconsider charring all your vegetables.

Elegance is, I should mention, slightly pricier than most dim sum joints in the city. Each plate is around $4 and the larger plates or specials of the day cost a little extra. However, it should also be said that a local pub’s mediocre special on burgers is often upwards $15 and nobody complains. Or, on a more positive note, even with each plate costing slightly more, you can yum cha like a king and pay only double-digits.

Elegance Chinese Restaurant & Banquet is located at 20 Gibson Drive in Markham and is open daily from 9am to 10pm. On weekends, get there either as early as possible or slightly later in the afternoon to beat the crowd. 

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Where Toronto Eats — Sunrise House

Koreatown between Chrstie and Bathurst is chock full of options. You can stop in for some bubble tea in one corner, get Korean barbecue on the next, maybe go to Karaoke, get a few drinks at a bar. But no night in Koreatown is really complete without a night-after meal some time around 2 or 3 in the morning with a bottle of soju to round things out. The dictates of notorious Korean drinking culture are many and colorful and, with a little resilience and cash, easily available. There are places for such nights.

Sunrise House is not one of them. It opens late for a Korean restaurant, at 11, and closes early twelve hours later. But, like a good standard no-fuss diner, it is a beacon of comfort, of quiet, a place to remedy your hangover, a place to feel safe. With its green walls that match the green sign outside, few tables, metal chopsticks and spoons in a box on a table, quick service, and a long menu, it’s as though it’s been transplanted on Bloor West straight from a restaurant row in a Korean marketplace. It is home of a sort to all kinds. On a recent visit, I sat between a blond in full mink gear and an old Korean man with a Korean daily. Both ate bibimbap.

The food is reminiscent of the vivacity of a busy Korean street; it’s boiling hot, usually spicy, plentiful, and without decorations. The last is significant because the qualities of home-cooked Korean food, not of the barbecue variety, is fundamentally based on necessity and frugality derived from a history of poverty and war — stews and soups feed more people, side dishes can be made cheaply and as preserves and they compliment rice, the main filler, etc. Take budae jji gae, the infamous army stew ($18, big enough for three or four people at Sunrise), for instance: a stew originally made after the Korean War to accommodate whatever luncheon meats and sausages the well-fed and rich U.S. Army threw away from their bases. Or the now popular pork-bone soup ($7) — a soup traditionally made almost entirely from left over pork bone and broth with little to no meat.

With over five pages of items on top of specials, not everything at the Sunrise will be a Michelin star experience. It is unlikely that the women in Sunrise’s kitchen are going at the food with discipline and diligence of a ‘craftsman’ à la Jiro or whoever. But neither did your mom or nonna when making your childhood favorites. Some, like the knife cut noodles with bulgogi, are a miss — the flavor of the broth, or dashi, hides behind the sweetness of the bulgogi, and the noodles, on a recent visit, were slightly undercooked. The banchan however, though curated largely for the novice palate, are free, various, and above average.

As with any reliable diner with a ten-page menu, you have to learn as you go. The dolsot bibimbap ($9) is a definite winner, as is the yukgaejang ($9), or spicy soup with shredded brisket, vermicelli noodles, and vegetables with just the right amount of spicy oil floating on top. If it’s your first rodeo with Korean food, I recommend the potato pancake and bulgogi, a sweet and salty gateway drug.

The life of a restaurant is dependent, among other things, on the shelf life of the trend it stocks on. The many poke joints with quirky names and quaint ingredients, much to no one’s heartfelt sorrow, will, sooner or later, disappear and give way to another fleeting trend. But radishes with salt and butter, cheese and baguettes, a medium-rare cheeseburger will still be, as they are today, delicious and available. So I doubt that Sunrise House is going anywhere any time soon. There will always be people in need of boiling hot soup served quickly without fanfare with an afternoon half-bottle of soju, those in need of the comfort of the brusqueness of the space and the people.

Sunrise House is located at 661 Bloor St. West between Euclid and Manning Avenue. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Movies for When You’re Hungry

In Netflix’s Chef’s Table, each episode takes the viewer closer to the chef and his/her food, more often than not, at a high-end restaurant and the craftsmanship, the energy, the creativity, and the minutiae of high-end dining. Though I love the show and truly appreciate the borderline fanaticism of a chef shown in beautifully rendered sequences, there’s a gaping distance between the food — and the world around it and all its social and cultural implications — shown and the food prepared, shared, and eaten in my day to day life.

There is, in our current zeitgeist’s love of food, between the many screens and real life (an apparent redundancy that increasingly seem to be a necessary modifier in day to day conversations), a reductive tendency to exclude how the majority of society experiences food. Were it not for its sheer immensity in number, the ‘good life’ on view would be, to the viewer, a harmless exercise in suspension of disbelief. But as it were, it is a constancy. A state of life somewhere else lived by someone else; we can look on it but only with some ingenuity can we reach them as stuff of life continually intervene.

I can’t help but feeling that our relationship with food is becoming less of a communal language and more of an individualized consumer one — one that portrays and claims social and cultural status, rather than a form of communication.

Of course, good food is, after all, just good food. But when we pay too much attention to the five-dollar signed kitchens with whatever stars, the hermetic chef essentially removed from society, and the lighting on the next food photo, we forget the kitchens in which and the cooks for whom food is seamlessly integral to living. And it’s too beautiful a thing to forget. After all, the food you grow up on, the kitchens you come to love and understand do not require feats of ingenuity — they require time and patience of preparation, courtesy, and appreciation and gratitude for the miracle of a dish, of eating.

These movies tell us things about food and hunger that we often forget. No star chefs, no paintings on a plate; just living and eating.

Big Night

The Italian dish, timballo, is called timpano in Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s 1996 classic Big NightIt’s a regional term for the dish, prepared, in the movie, by Primo (Tony Shalhoub), the older of two brother restauranteurs behind the new Italian place, ‘Paradise,’ on New Jersey Shore. Primo cooks classic Italian food and scoffs at what we now call American-Italian (spaghetti smothered in Jersey Italian gravy with meatballs), while Secondo (Stanley Tucci), the more practical of the two, tries to convince the other, in a thick Italian accent, to make whatever the customer wants: “make it, make the pasta, make it, make it, make the pasta.” Business, of course, is not a-booming. Then comes the big night — they have a chance to cook for Louis Prima, the Italian-American singer. And for that night, timpano is on the menu. Initially, it is not the Mona Lisa of Italian dishes. But what constitutes a timpano is so visibly hearty that it is instantly understood to be celebratory. And there’re a lot of carbs and beauty in that.

Adrift in Tokyo

What is the last thing you’d eat on your way to turn yourself in at a police station for a crime you’ve come to regret? In Satoshi Miki’s Adrift in Tokyo (Tenten,2007), Aiichiro Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura), a recently retired loan collector, makes a proposition to Fumiya Takemura (Joe Odagiri), a debilitated student in debt: take a walk with him through Tokyo for a cancelation of debt. So begins their walk through Tokyo. Aside from walking, they talk about their lives, spot lucky actors, fight an old watchmaker, and, most importantly for this article, eat. Not every food takes on meanings but the food choices Fukuhara and Fumiya make become increasingly fraught with meaning as they near the police station.

My Dinner with Andre

Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre has been loved, parodied, bashed, and talked about over and over again that it’s difficult to talk about it without feeling a bit self-conscious. But I truly enjoyed this movie for its abundance of ideas and generosity in anecdotes and conflicts, not to mention the two great actors, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, who also wrote the wonderful script. Though the dinner is a fancy restaurant that serves the likes of cailles aux raisin, galuska, terrine de poisson, and bramborova polevka, the dinner consists less of the food than it does of the two men’s conversation: the conversation is so good, so enthralling, the ideas, the conflicts so of importance that the food becomes secondary.

The Lunchbox

The lives of a lonely widower, Saajan (Irrfan Khan), with a taste for good food and a young wife, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) looking to jazz up her marriage through her husband’s stomach meet through a mix up in dabbawala delivery system in Ritesh Batra‘s 2013 movie The LunchboxThe movie is concerned largely with ways in which serendipitous meetings reaffirm our strange and unknowable connections to others. But it is also about a cook and a diligent and grateful eater, each sending out signals to the other, one with dishes packed in tiffin lunch boxes, and the other by sharing the food and licking the boxes clean. The notes Saajan and Ila write each other speak plainly while the food and the empty tiffin box returned to Ila at the end of the day speak with certain emotional poignancy of a secret language.

Chungking Express

People are hungry in Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong. But they are not just hungry for food but also for human connections in a mega city. A character tries out a number of canned pineapples, another a daily dose of chef’s salad in the famed director’s 1994 classic Chungking Expressstarring Tony Leung, Brigitte Lin, Faye Wong, and Takeshi Kaneshiro. We sometimes wish that a simple meaningful act or a sequence of events surreptitiously happened on us will help us understand our lives better. Chungking Express is is the locus of such hopes and dreams in WKW’s metropolis.

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