A Taste for the Road

Toronto chefs travel the globe for culinary inspiration. Here's where they go—and what they bring back

Nuit Regular’s Thailand

Before opening Kiin in 2017, chef and co-owner Nuit Regular returned to her homeland to immerse herself in the high culinary art of Royal Thai cuisine.

“I’ve been making Thai food in Toronto for almost 11 years. I started off serving traditional Thai street food at Sukhothai and then moved on to more regional dishes at Sabai Sabai and Pai. With Kiin, I wanted to introduce Toronto to something new. Royal Thai cuisine—dishes traditionally made for the country’s royal families during the 19th century—uses only the highest-quality ingredients, chosen only when in season, and time-consuming preparation and cooking methods; everything is very intricate and beautiful. It’s a dying art—the recipes are passed down from generation to generation, and very few Thai people are in possession of them—especially if you grew up in a village like I did. I wanted to preserve the tradition, so I travelled back to Thailand and attended M. L. Puang Royal Cooking School in Bangkok. I also studied every book and documentary I could find. I try to learn a little more each time I visit Thailand, and we always bring back special ingredients and tools that are impossible to find in Toronto, like edible flowers, finger peppercorns and heavy brass woks—my luggage is always very full!”

Kiin, 326 Adelaide St. W., 647-490-5040, kiintoronto.com

“I asked the patongko vendors at Pai’s morning market if I could try making some crullers, and they let me.” Photo by Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott
“These Thai crullers from Pai’s morning market are delicious. With warm soy milk, it’s the perfect combination. We served these on the brunch menu at Kiin.” Photo by Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott
“Sometimes, instead of having coffee, people buy warm soy milk and sit around talking. It’s so nice because in Pai, the mornings can be a little bit cold.” Photo by Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott
“At Wua Lai Road night market in Chiang Mai, you can pick any kind of fresh seafood, and they’ll grill it for you and bring it to your table on the street.” Photo by Nigel Desouza
“This is taken at the Pratu Chiang Mai morning market. They don’t fillet fish in Thailand—I only learned that word when I came to Canada. but these market vendors will gut them for you.” Photo by Nigel Desouza
“At Phrae’s morning market, fresh produce meat and prepared foods are sold from 7 until 11 a.m.” Photo by Jeff Regular
“In Ban Jabo Village, just a couple hours north of Pai, cafés built into cliff sides serve amazing coffee and noodle soup.” Photo by Jeff Regular

………………

Rob Bragagnolo’s Spain

The country’s food-centric way of life made a lasting impression on the chef and his tapas-inspired restaurant, Labora. Bragagnolo lived in Palma and Barcelona for almost 13 years.

“What I took from my time owning restaurants in Spain—the thing that was most impactful—was their way of eating and drinking. Spaniards are very social animals. They go out to eat and drink three to five times a week, and they don’t often make iCalendar invites to go to a restaurant. They just say “vamos a tomar algo”—which means, basically, “let’s go meet”—and they hop along to these tapas bars where you’re having a bunch of snacks and a couple sips here and there while standing around a big, long bar, and you’re moving along to multiple destinations in one evening. That’s the kind of energy I wanted to capture when I opened Labora. There’s a massive bar area, and you can pop in any day of the week, even Friday or Saturday when we’re fully booked, and there’s still going to be spots for you to grab a quick bite and a glass and maybe move on. In the back, there’s a proper restaurant where you can have a seated dinner, but it was designed very much for a large ebb and flow throughout the evening, and I think when you’re there you see that big movement. It reminds me of Spain.”

Labora, 433 King St. W., 416-260-9993, labora.to

“Stepping into Bodega 1900 feels like stepping into an old bodega in Barcelona, but the quality of the food is insane. Some of the best product and best cooks on the planet.” Image courtesy of @Bodega1900/Instagram
“This was taken at Boqueria Market in Barcelona. Places like this and the Olivar Market in Palma are social gathering spots. There’s a mix of fresh ingredients and little bars where you can have breakfast, lunch or dinner.” Photo by Daniel Neuhaus
“Barcelona’s El Chigre 1769 is a wonderful mix of traditional Catalan and Asturian, with vermouth, tapas and lots of Spanish cider. There’s always a buzz there.” Photo by @elchigre_barcelona/Instagram
“This is Elkano, a restaurant near San Sebastian that specializes in seafood grilled over live coals. Whole turbot is their thing, and the quality of the product and how they cook it is just so, so remarkable.” Photo by Mito.Eus
“Quimet & Quimet is an amazing stand-up-only montadito bar in Barcelona. It’s always packed, and all the food is on display.” Photo by Daniel Neuhaus

………………

Adam Skelly and Matthew Rushworth’s Texas

The owner and pitmaster of Adamson Barbecue have been serving painstaking barbecue since 2016, but they recently revisited the Lone Star state to see how the high priests of Texas barbecue are continuing to evolve the craft.

Adam: “Matt and I had both been to Texas before, but most of my staff had never been down there for a barbecue tour. How are we supposed to provide the most authentic Texas barbecue experience if these guys have never been down? It’s hard to verbalize, but there’s something that you learn going down there and lining up for barbecue and meeting the people and seeing it all first hand. So Matt and I took the staff on a trip in early August, and what we realized is that our food could hang with the real thing. But where we were lacking was in other departments like the hospitality, or the settings of the restaurant. It didn’t feel like Texas sitting at our place. There’s always something you can pick up from seeing the different places; it’s just about finding the little advantages that each one has. We also learned that we’ve built a reputation of being this great Texas barbecue place up in Canada. People were spotting us, pulling us out of the line and saying, ‘You guys don’t have to wait—you’re the guys from Adamson!’ It was really cool to earn that from those guys in Texas.”

Adamson Barbecue, 176 Wicksteed Ave., 647-559-2080, adamsonbarbecue.com

“Truth Barbeque is quite literally a shack on the side of the road between Austin and Houston. About six people can sit inside the actual restaurant. Every single thing on the plate was as perfect as it could be.” Photo by Matthew Rushworth
“The top pitmaster in Texas is at Snow’s BBQ, and she happens to be an 83-year-old woman. It’s like a time capsule of old-school Texas barbecue, a little shack in a small town, and there’s something cool about the sun rising while you’re waiting for the place to open. There’s almost a party atmosphere.” Photo by Matthew Rushworth
“2M Smokehouse in San Antonio is run by a guy who helped Adam and I out a lot the first summer Adamson was open, giving us feedback and tips for trimming and cooking brisket—and we finally got to try his.” Photo by Matthew Rushworth
“Lockhart, south of Austin, is the barbecue capital of the state, and Smitty’s is an institution. This is their pile of post oak, which has a very particular smell—the wood is just as important as any other ingredient.” Photo by Matthew Rushworth
“Some of the most incredible barbecue we’ve ever seen came from Willow’s Texas BBQ. It was inspiring to see someone producing that level of quality from a food truck behind a Houston dive bar.” Photo courtesy of Willow's Texas BBQ

………………

Alida Solomon’s Tuscany

The chef-owner of Tutti Matti is a student of Tuscan cuisine, and she makes an annual pilgrimage to Florence to tap directly into the cooking, characters and way of life that captivated her when she first went abroad to cook.

When I moved to Montalcino to cook, I had saved enough money for what I thought was going to be six months. I ended up staying almost seven years, starting in a very small trattoria in and learning to do everything from scratch in a Michelin-starred kitchen. I had my ass handed to me at first—I had no idea what it was like to work at that level. But I would come in every morning and the sun would be going up, hitting the hanging copper pots and pans, all shiny and beautiful. As a 20-year-old, it was like a dream. The day I had to break down an entire wild boar for the first time was one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever had, but it taught me that you don’t waste anything, and I brought that back with me when I opened Tutti Matti, where we’ve always done our own butchering. I visit Tuscany at least once a year, and I always spend three days in Florence, religiously—I really believe that as chefs, we owe it to ourselves to continue to educate ourselves by going back to what inspires us.

Tutti Matti, 364 Adelaide St. W., 416-597-8839, tuttimatti.com

“The last time I was at the San Lorenzo Market, I filled the car with 400 euros of vegetables and stuff that lasted us nine days.” Photo by Alida Solomon
“But my go-to at the San Lorenzo Market is Da Nerbone, a tripe stand that makes boiled brisket mixed with lampredotto on a warm bun, with salsa verde and hot sauce, with the top of the bun dipped in the broth. I always ask for a bowl of the broth, too.” Photo by amazingphieats/Instagram
“My friend Mirco Vigni does a version of cacio e pepe at his restaurant, Osteria Le Logge, in Siena, with straight up pecorino toscano and guanciale. He adds chives, too, which is so strange but so delicious.” Photo by Alida Solomon
“Whenever I go back to Florence, it’s always the same: I park the car at the hotel and then hit I Fratellini, one of the panini places that I love. You don’t sit: you stand on the street and you drink your wine on the street with your sandwich; I order the one made with lardo di Colonnata.” Photo by @ifratellinidal1875/Instagram
“I first met Dario Cecchini when I was 20 and we’ve been friends ever since. He runs Antica Macelleria Cecchini, an authentic Tuscan butcher shop—he doesn’t even have electrical equipment, so everything is done manually. It’s all about tradition.” Photo courtesy of Alida Solomon
“The chef at Buca dell’Orafo makes a frittata with fresh artichokes during artichoke season, and he barely cooks it, so the egg is super runny, but the taste of the egg is just so magnificent. He also serves deep-fried zucchini flowers and deep-fried rabbit; it’s mind-blowing.” Photo by @flavrsmith/Instagram

………………

Kate Chomyshyn and Julio Guajardo’s Mexico

Partners in life and the kitchen, the chefs have been travelling south annually for eight years, soaking up everything there is to know about masa, mole and mescal. (Note: After this story went to press, the couple announced they were no longer affiliated with Quetzal.) 

Kate: After our first trip to Oaxaca, we knew we needed to show Canadians what Mexican food really is. There’s a lot of Americanized Mexican food here, but it goes much deeper.
Julio: The first thing we do is go to the local market. A visit to one can be a real eye-opener to what a certain region has to offer. We also find people who are willing to take us into their homes to teach us traditional recipes. We’re hooked—now our vacations revolve around learning everything we can.
Kate: Mexicans are very proud of their culture, but not in a way that they want to keep it for themselves.

Julio: They’re happy to share, as it’s the only way to preserve the traditional recipes and techniques. Masa is at the heart of our restaurant, and we learned so much about corn and masa production.
Kate: And moles, too. There are two on our menu right now that we learned how to make in Oaxaca.
Julio: I would say almost the whole menu at Quetzal was inspired by all of our travels to Mexico—it’s like little memories from where we’ve been, pieced together with our own ideas.

“Juana Amaya, who has a restaurant called Mi Tierra Linda in Zimatlan, Oaxaca, is famous for her moles, and she gave us a class on how to make them.” Photo by Due Pinlac
“Quetzel’s barbacoa was inspired by this goat we slaughtered, deboned and cooked in Oaxaca. It was important for us to pay respect to the animal as they do in Mexico. We fed 25 people with that goat.” Photo by Due Pinlac
“This is Aquiles, our chili vendor at Oaxaca’s Central de Abastos market. It’s the best market—you can get everything there. But we recommend bringing a guide—it’s a massive maze.” Photo by Due Pinlac
“This was taken at a little restaurant we love that’s basically a tent in the corner of Oaxaca’s Central de Abastos market. They make the simplest, most delicious things, like tortillas with cheese and zucchini flowers.” Photo by Due Pinlac
“Pasillo de Humo in Oaxaca is insane. It’s just a big hallway of vendors who grill different meats for you. You choose your meat and someone brings you tortillas.” Photo by Due Pinlac
“The chef at Na’an Restaurant in Cholula uses only regional, local products. He makes beautiful food. It was only his second day open when we were there in 2017, but I think he’s gonna be big very soon.” Photo by Due Pinlac
“In Situ is literally a mescal museum. They have infinite varieties.” Photo by Due Pinlac

This story originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $24 a year, click here.