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Query the Cook #1: Chef Tom Brodi of Toca

As part of our 2011 Dining Guide, we asked a few of the city’s chefs about their work, and what dishes to expect from their kitchens this season. Tom Brodi is the Executive Chef at Toca, the restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Toronto Hotel.

Can you tell us about some of the challenges of working in the restaurant
of a major hotel?

I would not say challenges but opportunities. It’s about understanding a different side of the business, which has helped me develop as a restaurateur and chef. An independent restaurant and a hotel run differently, and one of the advantages of running a restaurant at a hotel is that there are so many resources accessible to me. The administrative aspects of the business are very process-oriented and planned well in advance at a hotel; this is not typical at an independent restaurant. There are also some things that make life easy, such as being able to call the engineering department when I need my stove calibrated.

Toca continues the trend of serving regional Canadian dishes. Why do you think this style of cuisine has become so popular in recent years?
It’s not that it’s a popular trend so much as it is that knowledge and awareness of our choices is more accessible and the idea of supporting local farmers makes sense in our culture and economy. Why would I want truck a tomato from California when I can get one from less than 100 kilometres away. People purchase local products, and this gives farmers the ability to invest in their business. It makes economic sense, and the product tastes better! What a treat to visit the farm and touch the earth that grows what I will serve my guests for dinner.

Clearly, one of the restaurant’s highlights is its cheese cave. How are its cheeses chosen? Are there any that are particularly unique?
We strive to find exceptional cheeses that have a wonderful story behind them. An example is the “1608”—the year when a herd of dairy cattle was brought from Europe to Quebec to produce a cheese that we serve today. Though we have a lot of local cheeses, we also have international ones that might remind a traveller of what they consider their local cheese from home. I’m now working directly with some local dairies that are producing exciting cheeses that should be ready to serve in the spring.

What are the dishes you’re most excited about serving in the coming months?
The fall and winter seasons are my favourites, with comfort food and dishes that are more technically complicated to execute, through methods such as curing, confit and braising. The ingredients I look forward to working with are white truffles, sustainable caviar from New Brunswick, honey mussels, local field roots, game meats and wild turkeys.

Do you have a signature dish when you cook at home?
It’s usually whatever my wife Cara wants for dinner. Sunday night dinners are very special for us—it’s usually the only night of the week that we spend together. We shop for our ingredients that day and drink wine and listen to jazz while we cook. There are a lot of requests for lamb and fish on Sundays, and always a request for leftovers to last a few days since my wife doesn’t like cooking.

What’s the best piece of advice related to cooking or running a kitchen that you’ve ever received?
Something I read once: You are an apprentice for life. What I have learned in the industry is to always stay humble and remember your roots. As soon as you loose your humility, you lose your truth.

Are there any chefs whom you particularly admire?
There are a lot of chefs I admire, but I believe you can learn from everyone. I have learned skills and techniques from a porter all the way up to celebrity chefs. Some of the most important lessons have helped me discover how I don’t want to act as chef.

What do you do to keep yourself inspired as a chef?
Travelling, eating out and reading cookbooks are the most immediate sources of inspiration. Visiting farmers and markets. Going fishing on the ocean is a privilege. Being surrounded by different art forms such as ballet, music and art galleries is also a source of inspiration for me.

What is your favourite restaurant in Toronto?

What can diners do to ensure they get the most out of their experience at your restaurant?
Have fun, come with great company and good spirits, and let us do what we do best.

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