Inside the kitchen of David Schwartz, the executive chef at Sunnys Chinese
Featuring an army of sauces, six jars of peanut butter and a collection of antique spoons
It’s been a whirlwind three years for chef David Schwartz. After launching Sunnys Chinese in November 2020 as a takeout pop-up, Schwartz opened and now runs two brick-and-mortar restaurants—Sunnys, now at a permanent location in Kensington Market, and Mimi Chinese—that have scooped up virtually every notable dining award there is. “The past few years have been incredibly challenging, interesting and rewarding,” says Schwartz. “There was a lot of learning and adaptation.” Even after all that, he shows no signs of slowing down. He already has a third project in the works—though he insists that the details remain top secret.
Unlike his consistently sky-high restaurant ambitions, Schwartz’s effort level when he’s cooking at his Kensington Market home is all or nothing. Case in point: he relies on his rice cooker for quick everyday meals, which usually consist of “rice, protein and veg,” but says that he and his fiancée, Lee-Tal Hatuka, go all-out when they’re hosting. “I’ll get things like lamb ribs and steak and fish and cook three or four different proteins,” he says. “It’s pretty disastrous, but it works.”
While his home-cooking style ebbs and flows, his love for dining out remains steady. “I’m obsessed with eating at restaurants,” he says. “Not always high-end restaurants—in fact, mostly not.” He enjoys getting outside the downtown core to eat, and he’s a frequent diner at Pho Anh Vu and Doner G Turkish Cuisine.
These visits also give him the perfect excuse to explore grocery stores around the GTA. “Grocery shopping is my favourite pastime,” he says. While Schwartz rarely has time to indulge abroad, he says you don’t need to travel far from Toronto to expand your palate. “You can go to a plaza in Mississauga and feel like you’re in a different country.” Thornhill South African deli Eat Sum More is one of Schwartz’s favourite GTA gems; he has some of their biltong in his pantry. “It’s basically beef jerky, but I feel like it’s a disservice to call it that. It’s just pure, beefy deliciousness.”
A whole shelf’s worth of sauces, vinegars and condiments—plus even more in the fridge—reveals the passion for specialized cooking styles and flavours that shapes the menus at his restaurants. Baoning vinegar is one of staples that crosses over between his home and work lives. “When people talk about black vinegar in Chinese cooking, they’re usually talking about this one,” he says. “What they don’t realize is that there are like 100 different kinds of black vinegar.”
There’s also a rare Blis barrel-aged fish sauce. “I don’t even know if they still make this one,” he says. “Red Boat, which is the best fish sauce in the world, did a collaboration with a bourbon company. This is a small-batch, bourbon-barrel-aged fish sauce. It smells crazy.”
There’s also the ultra-orderly spice cabinet that he and Hatuka organized during their pandemic downtime. In it is a Chinese sesame paste that Schwartz insists is an irreplaceable ingredient for dan dan noodles. “A lot of Chinese recipes that are editorialized will suggest subbing in tahini, but they’re completely different things,” he says. There’s also kansui, a potassium bicarbonate used to make ramen nice and chewy (Schwartz says you can use it in pasta but not to tell Italian people about that), as well as Maggi seasoning and chicken powder (both of which he says can make anything taste delicious).
His kitchen also features a few jars of dried and pickled ramps. “These were from a regular guest—he was the father of a friend—who passed away a couple of weeks ago. He had a farm and would bring me jars of these all the time.”
Schwartz reaches for the same basic knives when preparing meals, joking that he often feels too intimidated to use the best knives in his collection. “Most people know that cooks are obsessed with knives, but they’re also obsessed with spoons,” he says. “I don’t do it as much anymore, but anytime we’d go to an antique shop, I’d scour through the spoons.” When you spend most of your day working with knives and spoons, Schwartz says, it’s easy to become fixated by how tools with different textures, weights or shapes feel in your hands. “It’s about the utility at first. Then it starts to be about the collection.”
Whether niche or nostalgic, snacks are an obsession for Schwartz. He thinks Soma chocolate bars are worth the splurge (“It’s the best chocolate I’ve ever had”) and currently owns more than six jars of peanut butter. “Last year, for my birthday, one of our servers gave me five jars of peanut butter,” he says. “I’ll eat it just straight up.”
The other item he stocks in bulks are pickles, which take up an impressive amount of real estate on the top shelf of his fridge. “Tymek’s are the best pickles around,” he says. Two large containers of cucumbers and cherry peppers are also stacked in his fridge, waiting to be fermented. “We used to live with another couple, and they kicked me out of the main fridge. So I had two mini-fridges stacked on top of each other that were filled with fermented pickles and stuff.”
The freezer houses an impressive stash of locally made ice cream. There are a few pints from Good Behaviour, a business that began in the kitchen of the Sunnys pop-up. “They borrowed our ice cream machine until we were going to open,” Schwartz says. “Then they had to get their deep freezers out of our dining room.” There’s also a sampler of a custom ice cream from Ruru Baked. “Luanne Ronquillo, the owner, has been working on a PB&J toast flavour for me for over a year,” says Schwartz. “I’m very excited to open it.”
When he’s not scouting new GTA restaurants and grocery stores, Schwartz appreciates that living in Kensington Market makes it easy to shop hyper-locally. “The luxury of being in Kensington is that I’ll get meat from Sanagan’s or Grace Meat Market and pick up vegetables from the shop on the corner,” he says. “I go to Carlos’ House of Spice a lot.” He’s also a hop, skip and a jump away from Chinatown, where he picks up harder-to-find veggie varieties like celtuce and purple long beans.
Schwartz’s connection to the market goes back several generations. The wall leading into his kitchen displays a trio of black-and-white photos of his grandfather and great uncle, who owned a poultry shop on Baldwin Street, where the men’s clothing store Tom’s Place stands today. “Fifteen years ago, my dad was at an art show at city hall, and some guy was selling these photos of my grandfather,” says Schwartz.
Schwartz doesn’t often reference cookbooks when preparing meals at home, but he holds on to a dog-eared copy of On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, which he read during a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. “I brought that book, which weighs like six pounds, and I was like, I’m going to read this from cover to cover—even though that’s obviously not a thing you do with an encyclopedia. But I did, and it changed the way I thought about a lot of things.” Schwartz’s cookbook collection also includes several classic Chinese cookbooks that he and business partner Braden Chong referenced closely when building the menus for his restaurants.
There’s a patched-up bowl that Chong mended as a homage to the Japanese art of kintsugi, a practice that embraces imperfections by leaving intentional seams in repaired pottery. “We imported these bowls from Japan for the restaurants,” says Schwartz. “Most of them were intact, but this bowl broke. Braden put it back together.”
Schwartz likes to keep a full and varied bar cart for his over-the-top dinner parties. “The Dassai 23 was a generous gift from one of our regulars. It’s a very bougie sake and not something I want to drink alone. I’m saving it for a special occasion with the Mimi team.”