Inside the kitchen of Julio Guajardo and Kate Chomyshyn, the head chefs and co-owners of Fonda Balam

Inside the kitchen of Julio Guajardo and Kate Chomyshyn, the head chefs and co-owners of Fonda Balam

Stocked with Mexican art, gourmet honey and liqueur that tastes like tortillas

Julio and Kate standing together in their home kitchen

Julio Guajardo and Kate Chomyshyn, the head chefs and co-owners of Fonda Balam, met in 2004 while attending Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute in Ottawa. “I saw Julio talking to a friend of mine and I was like, Who’s that? He’s cute,” says Chomyshyn.  “So I decided to go talk to him.” Soon afterward, they went to a bar in Byward Market with some mutual friends. “We ended up dancing together, and that was that,” says Guajardo.

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After graduation, the two relocated to Montreal. They worked various restaurant jobs while Guajardo, who had recently moved from Mexico, navigated a maze of immigration paperwork. It wasn’t until five years later, once the process had wrapped up, that Guajardo was able to set foot in Mexico again. “Once I could finally go back and see my family, I realized that I wanted to learn more about Mexican culture and food,” says Guajardo. When the pair travelled through Mexico together in 2010, Chomyshyn felt the same pull.  “Our first meal off the plane was birria,” she says. “It was life-altering, especially for a Canadian kid who grew up on taco kits.” This pivotal visit would serve as inspiration for the acclaimed Mexican restaurant they’ve since opened in Toronto. “Fonda Balam is our baby,” says Guajardo.

The couple's home kitchen, which is narrow and wood panelled

In the few moments when Chomyshyn and Guajardo, now married, aren’t at their Dundas West eatery, they like to kick back at their homey Dovercourt Village apartment, which is filled with vibrant Mexican art and handmade trinkets from their travels. “This is our happy place,” says Guajardo.

A mini pink, orange and purple scene of a Mexican restaurant

A matrushka-style Mexican skeleton

When they have time off together, they tend to cook Mexican food or comforting Southeast Asian dishes, like bao buns and richly layered curries. At home, it’s less about entertaining and more about enjoying simple comforts like seared meats, roasted veggies and salads. Chomyshyn does most of the cooking because it helps her de-stress. “I relax from cooking for a living by doing more cooking,” she says, “which sounds nuts.”

A peak at the inside of the couple's fridge

“We always keep avocados, tortillas and cheese in the fridge. We need them for quesadillas—the Mexican grilled cheese,” says Guajardo. The couple prefers to grocery shop at independent stores in their neighbourhood. Their favourites include Newport, a small seafood store on Geary (“They’re not the friendliest, but they have really good fish,” says Chomyshyn); Nosso Talho, a family-run butcher shop on Bloor; and Gold City fruit market, for fresh produce and citrus. “If we don’t have limes in our fridge, it’s an emergency,” says Chomyshyn.

A look at the couple's crisper drawer, which contains citrus fruit and bay leaves

For an extra kick of heat, they’ll marinate meat or seafood with something from their own line of hot sauces, Liebre. “Hot sauce is an important thing in our house,” says Guajardo. What started last year as a small side project has since grown into an online store and wholesale business. “Eventually, we would love to have a little storefront,” says Chomyshyn. Their versatile salsa macha is like a Mexican version of chili oil. “I’ll spread it on eggs, toast—anything,” says Guajardo.

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Julio’s Salsa Secreta is the stuff that’s slathered on Fonda Balam’s beloved shishito peppers. At home, Chomyshyn will add lime juice to it for salads or marinades. And their fermented habanero hot sauce packs quite the punch. “I can’t eat it, it’s too hot for me,” says Chomyshyn. The two also usually have poblanos, jalapenos and Thai chilies in their fridge at all times, just in case. “We love spicy stuff,” says Guajardo.

A fridge door shelf full of the couple's own hot sauce brand, Liebre

To cool down, Chomyshyn stocks the fridge with sparkling water and local beer. “Left Field makes some of the best IPAs in the city,” she says. Those also star in their Sunday micheladas, which she describes as “like a caesar but with beer.”

The couple's collection of beer and sparkling water

Their cupboards hold deli containers of spices and herbs, including canela (Mexican cinnamon) and Yucatecan oregano. Most of their chilies and seasonings are from Nosso Talho or Tierra Azteca Grocery, a tiny store on Bloor bursting with fresh produce and other products from Latin America. “It’s the best spot for sauces, spices and Mexican candies,” says Guajardo.

The couple's oantry shelves,which contain deli containers full of spices

Chomyshyn grinds up said spices in their prized mortar and pestle from Oaxaca. “It’s made out of lava rock,” she says. “When we brought it home, airport security almost took it away. I had a meltdown, so they let me keep it.”

Kate's prized mortar and pestle, straight from Mexico

Whenever they go to Mexico, they always bring back mezcal. Lately, though, they’ve been getting into lesser-known Mexican gins and liqueurs. “There’s a big gin movement in Mexico,” says Chomyshyn. “Their botanicals are so different from ours.” The bar cart next to their kitchen has a healthy selection of regional gins infused with cacao and Mexican herbs like hoja santa (which translates to “sacred leaf”). “Hoja santa is a very typical southern herb that we use a lot in the restaurant,” she says. “It kind of tastes like anise or herbal root beer.”

The couple's bar cart, which contains an eclectic mix of Mexican liquors

On their last trip to Merida, an area in the Yucatán (which they refer to as “the spicy region”), they brought back Katún, a corn-based gin with over 15 local botanicals including achiote and habanero. But it’s not all hot. “Merida produces a lot of oranges, so we also brought back a bitter orange liqueur,” says Chomyshyn, who plans to use it as a Cointreau alternative in margaritas.

One of their most interesting bottles is Nixta Licor de Elote, a Mexican corn liqueur made from ancestral maize. “It tastes like tortillas with notes of caramel. It’s amazing,” says Chomyshyn. The couple will sip the deeply flavourful liqueur as a digestif. It also appears on Fonda Balam’s secret menu. “I’ve also seen it used in a carajillo, which is Mexico’s espresso martini,” she says.

A closer look at some of Julio and Kate's Mexican bottles

Speaking of espresso, Guajardo is a self-proclaimed coffee nerd. He and Chomyshyn recently took a class at the Canadian Barista Academy, and now Guajardo is never without his Outin portable espresso maker. “It pulls two perfect shots of espresso. I can’t live without it,” he says. The pair’s array of java gadgets also includes an AeroPress. “Coffee is so precise, just like cooking,” explains Guajardo. “It all starts with the grinding. Espresso has to be perfectly fine, while beans for AeroPress are a bit coarser.” He and Chomyshyn are big fans of local roasters like DeMello and Subtext.

A look at Julio's coffee set up, which includes and Aeropress

Chomyshyn, a night owl, loves to wind down by drinking herbal tea with spoonfuls of Miels d’Anicet, a small-batch raw honey from northern Quebec. “Each jar has a different flavour profile,” she says. The honey is harvested each season from wild bees, so it can contain floral or pine needle notes, depending on what the buzzers are collecting at the time. Guajardo frequently tucks in to these jars too. “Most people eat their peanut butter with jelly. I eat peanut butter with honey,” he says.

Kate's collection of small-batched raw honey from Quebec

The couple’s most cherished cookbooks are at Fonda Balam, where they frequently use them as inspiration for regional dishes. But some of their more recent favourites are still at home. For pastry knowledge, Guajardo turns to Refugio by Mexican chef Luis Arellano and Les Desserts de Patrice by Patrice Demers. “Patrice is arguably the best pastry chef in Canada. I trained with him, and now, whenever I have doubts, I reach out to him for help,” says Guajardo. Chomyshyn loves My Mexico City Kitchen by Gabriela Cámara for its simple yet sophisticated approach to Mexican cuisine.

The couple's home cookbook collection, plus a book made by Fonda Balam staff

Their most precious tome is a scrapbook made for them by the staff at Fonda Balam. It’s filled with heartfelt notes and photographs of the restaurant over the years.

The inside of the book made by Fonda Balam staff

Their kitchen is adjacent to their extensive vinyl collection, which the couple also uses for inspiration. “Music is very important,” says Guajardo. “It gets the brain going on new recipes and ideas.” (This area does double duty as a hangout spot for their cats, Tobala and Tepeztate.)

One of the couple's cats lounging in front of their vinyl collection