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Food & Drink

Inside the kitchen of Juan Alvarez, the head chef at Rosalinda

Stocked with Mexican candy, an impressive hot sauce collection and vegan ice cream

By Caroline Aksich| Photography by Joshua Best
Inside the kitchen of Juan Alvarez, the head chef at Rosalinda

Making chicken nuggets doesn’t sound particularly romantic—especially for a pair of chefs known for their plant-based culinary prowess. But, unlikely as it may be, Juan Alvarez and Itziar Hernandez fell in love while cooking nuggets and other all-American meals for kids at a hoity-toity overnight camp in upstate New York.

Back in 2012, Alvarez was an aspiring chef, Hernandez was a tourism and administration student, and they both took advantage of US temporary worker visas to make some extra money between semesters. Today, they’re the power couple running Rosalinda, an upscale vegan Mexican restaurant: Alvarez is the head chef, and Hernandez is in charge of pastry.

Half of Juan Alvarez's kitchen, including his table and fridge

Neither of them had flirted with veganism while growing up in suburban Mexico, but they’ve organically drifted into a mostly plant-based diet since moving to Toronto in 2017. “In Mexico, it’s hard to be vegan. Here, we eat vegetarian about 90 per cent of the time. We’ll probably become fully vegan one day,” says Alvarez. “The only time we typically eat meat is when we go back to Mexico. Who can say no to their mom’s cooking?”

They’re not that impressed by the majority of the Mexican food in Toronto. “If we’re craving something, we’ll usually just make it ourselves,” says Hernandez. But they say the best indicator of a Mexican restaurant’s quality is its tortillas. “If a restaurant isn’t using homemade tortillas or ones from Maizal, we probably won’t eat there,” says Alvarez, adding that, of all the city’s Mexican kitchens, Quetzal and Fonda Balam are both worth the splurge. Mostly, though, they go out when they’re craving Italian (Gia, Superpoint, Pizzeria Libretto), Japanese (Ramen Isshin, Ajisen Ramen, Sushi on Bloor, Tsuchi Cafe) or Vietnamese (Saigon Lotus).

Half of Juan Alvarez's kitchen in his Corso Italia apartment

Because they often get home from work around 10:30 p.m., they tend to fall back on uncomplicated evening meals. Hernandez makes a loaf of focaccia or sourdough just about every week for post-shift sandwiches, or they’ll mix it up with quesadillas and mushroom tacos.

When it comes to stocking up on the basics, Hernandez thinks No Frills—especially the Dufferin Mall location—can’t be beat. “They have the exact same stuff as Loblaws but for a way lower price. Their organic aisle is particularly good—it’s so organized and has a great selection.”

Juan Alvarez's kitchen table, which has some small snacks on it

They also frequent gourmet boutiques like La Spesa (Alvarez describes it as Eataly but tiny and better) and Cheese Boutique (which they say carries an interesting selection of vegan cheeses). For tortillas and dried peppers, they think the folks at Maizal are unbeatable. They’ll either pop by their location on Ossington or visit them at the Trinity Bellwoods Farmers Market.

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The couple frequents Cheese Boutique, which they say carries an interesting selection of vegan cheeses.

Hernandez and Alvarez don’t buy many Mexican groceries in Toronto. With the exception of Pacho’s Convenience, they find most of the specialty shops overpriced. So, whenever friends or family visit, they have them bring over all kinds of Mexican pantry supplies, snacks and candies. Here are a few of their favourites.

Alvarez and his wife have a massive stash of Mexican candy

Salsagheti is one of Hernandez’s favourite sweet treats. The gummy noodles are spicy and sour and come with a tangy tamarind sauce that you slather on top.

Salsagheti is one of Hernandez’s favourite sweet treats

No snack collection worth its salt is complete without some savouries. They tend to gravitate toward chips seasoned with chili and lime.

The duo tends to gravitate to chips with salt and lime

If something doesn’t have enough punch on its own, they have plenty of hot sauces and chilies to bring up the Scoville count. They use Valentina to season junk food—Alvarez will even bring it to the movie theatre to doctor up his popcorn. The green El Yucateco is his go-to hot sauce for everything else (he says it’s especially great on pizza). Although the couple both love spice, they don’t enjoy extreme heat. “Habanero is about as hot as I can handle,” says Alvarez.

If something doesn’t have enough punch on its own, they have plenty of hot sauces and chilies to bring up the scoville count.

To balance out the candy and chips, there’s always a cornucopia of fruit in the fridge. They’re hyper-seasonal grocery shoppers. In the summer, they hit up outdoor farmers markets (their favourites are Wychwood Barns, Sorauren, Trinity Bellwoods and the Junction). For winter produce, they frequent Fiesta Farms and St. Lawrence Market. Don’t let their impressive junk food collection fool you—the couple eats mostly healthy whole foods.

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They keep a drawer stocked with fresh seasonal fruit.

Almond butter and oat milk are fridge staples, mostly used for making morning smoothies. Hernandez prefers to eat breakfast at home, making french toast or pancakes when she can. Alvarez usually rolls into work on an empty stomach. Once there, he’ll whip up a breakfast quesadilla.

This is a look inside the couple's fridge

They don’t keep much in the freezer apart from easy-to-reheat leftovers (like mushroom soup), some smoothie popsicles (essential for hot days when the AC is struggling to cool their Corso Italia apartment), Brazilian cheese bread (which Hernandez is thinking of veganizing), non-dairy ice cream (they think Ben and Jerry’s makes the best mass-market stuff), and a backup sourdough starter.

They don't keep much in their fridge
They don't keep much in their fridge

Here’s a peek in the pantry. A few standout items include vegan Nutella (Hernandez is a big fan of Plants by Deliciously Ella), Fody’s onion-free marinara sauce (the pastry chef is allergic to alliums) and a whole lotta beans. There’s a notable dearth of coconut oil in here; a lot of people who practise plant-based baking opt for it, but Hernandez doesn’t like the aftertaste. Instead, she prefers Becel’s plant-based bricks.

You’ll note there’s a dearth of coconut oil in their pantry
A look inside Juan Alvarez's pantry

“We had literally nothing when we moved here,” says Hernandez. “We spent three months with just a bed. We didn’t even have a couch.” Over the past five years, they’ve furnished their kitchen with the essentials, including a slow cooker, a stand mixer (largely for bread baking) and a cast iron pan (their first kitchen purchase and still used regularly for making quesadillas and veggie stir fry).

Over the last five years, they’ve furnished their kitchen with the essentials, including a crock pot, stand mixer (essential for bread baking) and cast iron pan (their first kitchen purchase, and still used regularly for making quesadillas and veggie stir fry).

Here are their prized knives: a Hatsukokoro from Tosho Knife Arts, a Santoku from Knifeware and a pink-handled petty knife from President’s Choice, which Hernandez says cuts perfectly despite only costing $3. Fun fact: Rosalinda now gifts one of these pink knives to every new cook who joins the team. They swear it’s the perfect knife for small jobs.

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Here are their prized knives: a hatsukokoro from Tosho Knife Arts, a santoku from Knifeware and a bright pink-handled petty knife from President’s Choice

Alvarez’s favourite cookbook is Food From My Heart by Zarela Martínez. Someone forgot it at Rosalinda, and after it went unclaimed for a long time, he decided to adopt the abandoned tome. He appreciates that the book isn’t full of glossy photos like other cookbooks, which he often finds too prescriptive. “It’s more of a guidebook for traditional Mexican recipes,” he says. “I like to read it for inspiration more than anything.” Pictured next to the book is lotería, essentially the Mexican version of bingo. The couple plays a lot of games at home (including Scrabble and Rummy), but Hernandez’s favourite is this game of chance.

Alvarez’s favourite cookbook is Food from My Heart by Zarela Martínez.

The couple aren’t big drinkers, so to make a dent in their bottle of Tres Generaciones tequila, Alvarez started a New Years tradition where he brings it to the kitchen on December 31. Anyone working the countdown shift gets a celebratory shot. Other bottles in his collection include Agua Santa (his favourite LCBO-available mezcal) and Fino, a mezcal label recently launched by his sister.

The couple aren’t big drinkers, so they have a small booze collection

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