Inside the kitchen of Tomer Markovitz, the owner of Romi’s
Stocked with rib-eye steak, fresh challah and Israeli couscous
Tomer Markovitz, the owner of Romi’s, a popular midtown bakery and hummus-ery, wasn’t a kid who harboured dreams of being a chef—and he certainly didn’t anticipate ending up in Toronto. But, when his older brother, Guy Markovitz, opened a sushi restaurant back home in Tel Aviv, he suddenly had a front-row seat to the ups and downs of life in the kitchen. He quickly fell in love. “I always knew I loved to eat,” says Markovitz, “but working at my brother’s restaurant made me realize I wanted to open my own place. Naturally, I became obsessed with learning how to cook.”
In his early twenties, circa 2011, Markovitz started bouncing between kitchens in Tel Aviv, trying to learn the craft from the ground up. “I didn’t have the patience to go to culinary school, so I worked anywhere that would take me. I wanted to learn from scratch—dishwashing, prep, ordering ingredients, working the line. As long as I was able to broaden and perfect my skills, I was game. I was on shift like 20 hours a day.”
In 2013, one distraction managed to break in. Markovitz’s now wife, Elysse Danson, arrived in Tel Aviv from Toronto for an internship. “We met through mutual friends. Luckily, I was the only one who spoke English well enough to charm her,” says Markovitz. The two coupled up quickly, but the relationship didn’t stop the budding chef from following his dream. “The hours drove me crazy,” says Danson.
After completing a prestigious apprenticeship at Les Bacchanales, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the South of France, Markovitz visited Danson in Toronto. “She took me to Kensington Market in the summer. It blew my mind.” He noticed a lot of vegan bakeries but felt like there was a shortage of savoury options for plant-based eaters. “In Israel, 11 per cent of the population is vegan. I decided right then and there that I was going to move to Toronto and open a hummus shop.”
Markovitz eventually became the opening executive chef at Parallel on Geary Avenue, working around the clock to elevate hummus—and all of its possible accoutrements—into something that transcended the grocery aisle. In 2023, he struck out on his own and opened Romi’s, a bakery and prepared foods shop on St. Clair West that’s named after his two-year-old daughter. It’s a labour of love, but the idea is to spend less time on the labour part of the equation. “I am not built for 20-hour workdays anymore,” says Markovitz. “Everything about Romi’s is meant to be easy and family-oriented, and the menu comprises the things my family and I want to eat. My daughter will down a tub of my tahini and a challah like it’s nothing.”
In addition to said tahini, Markovitz’s fridge is stocked with the full hit-list of Romi’s snacks, including his labneh (a creamy pressed yogurt with za’atar, olive oil and confit garlic) and Moroccan matbucha (slow-stewed tomatoes and red peppers with spices). “Often, we’ll happily munch on takeout from the restaurant for dinners,” says Danson. “I grew up eating a protein, a carb and a vegetable at every meal. I’ve been quite happy moving away from that basic North American cliché.” Other go-to meals include roast chicken from FreshCo (which Romi devours), pizza from Badiali or North of Brooklyn, and Thai food from Maya Bay.
It’s a very casual household, but they make a habit of having shabbat dinner every Friday night. “I am partly a Sephardic Jew, so much of my cooking incorporates Libyan recipes,” says Markovitz. “Every Friday I make chraimeh—a Libyan-style fish poached in tomato paste—that I cook with Romi’s pilpelchuma, a garlic-chili sauce with caraway, paprika and other spices.”
Markovitz and his daughter also love an excellent cut of meat. “I never skimp on steak. I buy it from high-end places like Di Liso’s Fine Meats in St. Lawrence Market, Butchers of Distinction and Eataly. I do the dry aging myself at the restaurant.” New York strip is Romi’s cut of choice, but Markovitz steps up his game when his dad comes in from Israel to visit. “He loves proper meat even more than I do. He’s visiting next week, so I got this rib-eye from The Butcher Shoppe.”
As far as the seasoning goes, Markovitz enjoys watching his daughter sprinkle the cast iron pan with salt and only salt. It’s a trick he passed on after learning it from renowned Italian butcher Dario Cecchini.
The kitchen counter is always home to fresh bread or pita, ready to scoop up whatever is in the fridge. “This is a ragu we make at Romi’s out of carrots, celery, spices, tomato and ground beef. We plate it with hummus and then lap it up with pita.”
Markovitz’s schug—a paste of Anaheim chilies, lemon, garlic, olive oil and spices—is one of a variety of hot sauces in heavy rotation. “I like hot sauce on everything. More flavour always.”
For a little bit of sweet after the spicy, the freezer is stocked with Romi’s ready-to-bake treats. “It’s nice throwing some rugelach or cookies in the oven and smelling them while they cook,” says Markovitz. “I can get that here without all the work and the mess. I save that stuff for the restaurant kitchen.”
The chef strongly believes that no weekday meal should take more than half an hour. The pantry is stocked with time-saving basics like canned goods, pastas and sauces. He also has an impressive stash of goodies imported directly form Israel, including olives, cocoa spread and couscous.
Markovitz doesn’t think of himself as a fancy guy, but he does like to amp up his dinnerware game from time to time. “He has a whole collection of clay dishes,” says Danson. “He’s very particular about them.”
“I do have some cookbooks—some were gifts, or I’ll pick them up for inspiration,” says Markovitz. “But I don’t like using recipes when I cook, especially at home. I started reading The Noma Guide to Fermentation. I got through about 15 pages before I gave up. Who has the time?”
“I’m not a big drinker,” says Markovitz, “but I love bourbon, and I always have some in the house. I’ll either drink it neat or make something like an old fashioned.” His latest find is a bourbon from Brother’s Bond. “I ordered it at a restaurant in Miami. I liked it so much that I picked up a bottle.”