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Food & Drink

“I’m still looking for my Soma and my Blackbird in San Francisco”: Chef Paula Navarrete on missing her favourite Toronto food shops

By Paula Navarette
"I’m still looking for my Soma and my Blackbird in San Francisco": Chef Paula Navarrete on missing her favourite Toronto food shops
Navarrete, back in her Kojin days Photo by Graydon Herriott

Food runs deep in my family. Both of my grandmothers were exceptional cooks and would throw dinner parties that I always looked forward to when I was growing up. I wanted to be able to do the same thing, to bring people together over a meal, to laugh and tell stories, so it’s no wonder I became a chef. I worked through some of Toronto’s top kitchens: North 44°, Colborne Lane and finally Momofuku Kojin, where I was the executive chef until 2019. That’s when I said goodbye to Toronto after 16 years and moved to the States, where my husband is from; we lived in Manhattan and Philly, and now we’re in San Francisco, where he’s VP of operations at a hospitality company.

There’s a lot to love about San Francisco. It’s a real treat to be surrounded by such great ingredients. And California produce—heirloom tomatoes in October, eight different types of figs—is mind-blowing. But Toronto is the city where I fell in love with food, and with the feeling of finding something special and delicious to share with family and friends. The city is always evolving, and no matter what you’re looking for or where you come from, it’s a uniquely great place to shop for food.

I was born in Colombia, and my family moved to Canada when I was 12. It wasn’t long before I started to miss some of the staples from home. My mom would try to cook the dishes we grew up with, like ajiaco, a Colombian potato soup. She couldn’t always find the right ingredients—until we discovered the Latin America Emporium in Kensington Market, which sadly closed after a fire late last year. We’d go there for criollas, which are little yellow potatoes for the ajiaco, and arequipe, which is like dulce de leche that we’d use for desserts. The Emporium always had plantains, both ripe and unripe, which we’d use to make chips, patacones or just eat with guava cheese, which they also happened to carry. I have such great feelings of nostalgia for the Emporium. And the same goes for my favourite butcher, which also happens to be in the market.

"I’m still looking for my Soma and my Blackbird in San Francisco": Chef Paula Navarrete on missing her favourite Toronto food shops
An assortment of Sanagan’s sausages Photo by Carmen Cheung

I worked as a butcher at Sanagan’s in 2012, when Peter Sanagan’s shop was still pretty new. The fact that he was so focused on Ontario product and the relationships he had with farmers was amazing. And as a young chef, it was great to learn how to butcher from a pro. I still dream of the merguez sausages, which are made with harissa, so they’re nice and spicy. When I was lucky, I got to bring home the ends. I loved to pan fry them and have them with a salad, or remove the casing and form them into patties for sandwiches. Even after I stopped working there, I would still go and buy them. And if I could bring them into the U.S. without potentially violating the terms of my visa, I would!

Before my husband and I were married, one of our go-to date spots was Sud Forno on Queen West. We’d sit at the front window, which opens up when it’s not freezing out. I’d almost always order the prosciutto and mozzarella baguette. And we planned our wedding over bomboloni and cappuccinos sitting at the big communal table upstairs.

For our honeymoon, we went to Seoul and Busan. I worked for Momofuku at the time, so Korean cuisine was a big thing for me. Back in Toronto, when I needed a fix, I’d head to PAT Central on Bloor. It’s where I stocked up on fresh rice cakes, gochujang, ssamjang, dangmyeon, kimchi—I’d even buy my rice there. Every trip was a reminder of how much I loved Korean food. I’d look forward to shopping there when I was hosting family for a large-format meal, like a bo ssam or Korean barbecue.

I was taught never to go to someone’s house empty-handed, and there are two things I always bring over as a present: bread and chocolate. When I worked at Sanagan’s, I got to know a guy named Simon Blackwell as a customer before I realized he’d opened a bakery, Blackbird, down the street. This was just before the sourdough craze had started, and I remember leaving work early to make sure I got one of the white pullman or Kensington sourdough loaves. The bread is incredible sliced and toasted with butter and honey—and it makes a great gift. Later, I discovered the cannelés—they’re airy and custardy and sell out quickly.

"I’m still looking for my Soma and my Blackbird in San Francisco": Chef Paula Navarrete on missing her favourite Toronto food shops
Loaves of Blackbird bread, ready for baking

When it comes to chocolate, it doesn’t get better than Soma. Their chocolate-covered corn nuts are so good. So is their pistachio spread. And their hot chocolates. And their single-origin bars. I wouldn’t say I’m a chocolate lover—I’m a full-blown addict. I actually ordered a Soma care package to my place in San Francisco a couple of months ago.

My journey as a chef has allowed me to discover so many small shops and suppliers. But I’m still looking for my Soma and my Blackbird in San Francisco. I’ve realized how lucky I am that I had a city like Toronto to grow up in, where I could be shaped by places that mean so much to me. Leaving was bittersweet, and I hold Toronto very close in my heart. But because of that, I’ve been inspired to get to know my new city and find new spots that’ll make up for the ones I miss. It’s been incredible seeing all the new openings and ideas coming out of Toronto during such a difficult time. I can’t wait to come back for a visit.

—As told to Jacob Rutka

These listings (and many more) appear in Toronto Life’s 100 Best Food Shops special issue, which is available on newsstands now. To purchase your own copy, click here.

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