86 Common Collective
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Name: Trista Sheen 

Nickname: T-bird 

Child  'hood': I spent, from the age of 3 to 19 in Thorncliffe/Flemington Park. It was a pretty rough neighbourhood but very multi-cultural so I was exposed to a lot of cuisines. 

How you knew this was for you: My dad was a baker so I was always exposed to being hands on it the kitchen. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a vet, but I sucked at science. My second interest was cooking. Through my co-op program, I was placed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel (which is now the Intercontinental) and I instantly fell in love with the urgency, people and passion. These were my people. 

On one specific occasion, Michael Staadtlander did a dinner and it was my job to rip the heads off live BC prawns…and, it didn't even phase me. That’s when I knew this was for me. 

Best thing you cooked as a kid: "Hollandaise" (thanks to Knorr's packaged sauces) & shortbread cookies with my Grandma

After George Brown: Through an internship, I was placed at Scaramouche - and, at the time, had no idea what it was. I ended up there for 6 years. That’s what gave me my base.

Best Take-Away: Scaramouche is still one of the best restaurants in Canada, year after year, and they're not closing anytime soon. That restaurant taught me the power of quiet grace and humble confidence (and, in turn, how to be a secret threat).  I also find that I stick it out, I've been lucky to have long tenures at a few Toronto establishments. This industry is so fucking small. When young chefs jump around a lot, I don’t think it’s a good thing. You always have to be careful not to burn bridges, I learned that quickly. 

Teaching and the new generation of cooks: it can be hard to find young cooks that have the rare focus and dedication needed to do this job...but, that’s also my job. I want to push them. Sometime I wonder...did I fuck up that much?! I’m pretty sure I did. 

Top Chef Canada Season 2: I’m good friends with Steve Gonzalez and Dusty who were on the first season. They pushed me. As a female, it meant a lot to get in. 

Reality TV: It’s difficult, you are completely isolated. It’s a social experiment as well as a chef challenge. People don’t know the half of what we go through during a competition like that, you're walking into the unknown every day. What I do respect, is that The Food Network realizes viewers want to see the talent; they want to see the cooking and the food. And, that’s why we’re there. 

Top Chef All-Stars: There was definitely hesitation! Season 2 of Top Chef Canada was the hardest thing I ever had to do. The stress level on TV is only half of what the viewers get to see. So to know you are going to compete with the best of 4 seasons is pressure 2.0. On the flip side, I would hate to pass up an opportunity that not a lot of people come across in life, so it would have been a regret if I said no. 

Being on Top Chef All-Stars, I wanted to prove that I could go through this again. What I learned from Season 2 was confidence in myself. I was out to do my personal best. It’s funny. I’m not a competitive person, but when the opportunity comes knocking at my door, I can’t say no. I also knew I had an amazing bunch of supporters and I wanted to make them proud once again. 

Regrets? For sure. But, the one thing I won’t take back: I still hate brunch. I have eggs at home, I’m good. 

Thoughts about Nicole (the winner of Top Chef All-Stars): I was so happy Nicole won. She killed it all season. I was not just wanting a female to win, but the most deserved. I was also very torn because Dusty from Toronto (my hometown) is a friend of mine. When we are all competitors on Top Chef, that’s all we look at, I think that’s an important way to look at it. 

On leaving the kitchen: When I’m at George Brown, it’s a different kind of professionalism. Sometimes I just want to put my head down and work. I want to keep up my skills without having to check my email 18 times a day. It’s a big transition. But, that's why I'm at Richmond Station once a week. I missed the boys; my crew.

On opening your own place: I’ve never really been motivated to open a place in Toronto. But, I have thought of opening a sweet little place just outside of the city. The pressure of Toronto is too much to keep up with. I live by my mom's mentality: “I’m here for a good time, not a long time.” I want to be able to find a balance, which is what I have now.

Dating another chef: Ricky is the best - calm, cool, collected. He’s coming up in his career, but we like to keep business separate. It’s been a long time since we’ve cooked together. Sometimes I think we should get a little more nerdy about it. But, I think it’s healthy to bond over other interests - basketball is very hot right now.   

On the creative process: It can be hard - like writer's block. I like to think of a theme. For example, at Crush, I had a dish called Yellow Brick Road. My favourite movie is Wizard of Oz, so I used that as inspiration.

Favourite thing to cook: I love to make chicken soup. I add so many secret ingredients. It’ll be my signature dish if I ever open my own place. 

Secret ingredient: Love and miso paste.

Favourite thing to eat: anything that’s cooked for me.

Where you'd take your best friend for dinner: Enoteca Sociale - my best friend is the GM but it’s still fucking proper. It’s a neighbourhood restaurant, good eats, done well. Everything is made in house and their sourdough is the bomb. 

 

Name: Meghan Robbins

Nickname: May, and MeeMaw

Current gig: CDC at Superpoint, Ossington

Child 'hood': Niagara Falls - people are always surprised to find out that people actually grow up here. 

First food memory: Hating onions, I could pick them out of fried rice (and often would). Also scooping only the sugar off my oatmeal and trying to figure out how to not eat the rest. Both of these problems no longer exist. 

The decision: I didn’t always want to cook food. My mother tells me at one point I wanted to be a pizza delivery person, based on my interest in eating pizza. My grandfather owned a restaurant through my childhood, but I ended up working FOH at a couple restaurants in Niagara. 

There are a few elements that alined and clicked in me, that made me think “Wait I want to make food for other people”. Here is my abbreviated story.

I ended up in food because I was young and confused with my career path. I finished University [in Political Science], moved to Toronto and didn’t know where to apply my degree (a story I hear from so many cooks). I’ve always worked, so I naturally found work, and eventually ended up selling pastries uptown. I was a vegetarian at this point, so I was always cooking for myself and figured I would apply to the kitchen and catering department at my work. I remember having an interview with the Chef, where I felt kind of intimidated and “dumb” (for lack of a better word) because I didn’t know a ton about popular Chefs, or popular restaurants around the city. But I knew I was capable of doing the job if given the chance. 

I did not end up getting the position. 

I didn’t give up though. I ended up at Terroni on Queen St, where Marco Bruno gave me the opportunity to learn. Shortly after I enrolled in school, and started eating meat again. 

After hours at home: At home I like to make sandwiches, salads, and Mexican-ish food.

Most important tools in the kitchen: 

  1. Clean, dry towels. 
  2. A great dishwasher.
  3. Properly sturdy & appropriate length tongs. 

After service craving: When I’m drinking, I want wine. When I’m not drinking I want carbs. Nothing specific, my cravings change like the tide. 

Gender in context: I didn’t used to think about it, or maybe I never used to noticed that there was an imbalance. Not that I overthink it now, because I think there are women doing great things so I try to focus on the positive. However in recent years I have noticed people not recognizing me as the Chef, or being surprised that I (as a woman) was the Chef, or looking at my male Sous Chef and still saying my name in a small speech (that last one happened only once). 

Is there still a gender issue in kitchens? I think it exists, though I have been fortunate enough in my experiences to work with a good blend of both male & female teams.

Why do you think that women—the gender most associated with food and cooking—have lagged so far behind men in professional kitchens: I honestly don’t have a straight answer. I find it mind boggling that women have played such an important role in this area over time, but get shut out on the professional level. When you hear people, and Chefs speaking about the people who influenced them, or who they learned from growing up, it’s typically a female role, yet when they learn professionally it turns into a male lead. 

The driving force that lead to women being more recognized as equally creative, capable, talented, smart, etc people in other careers didn’t hit the hospitality industry. But I’m starting to feel the movement. I can only assume that the same primitive thinking that guided everyone into thinking that women were primarily supportive, and everything we do was to make those (men) after us stronger, hasn’t yet been shaken off. It has people including ourselves thinking we can’t do it, or keeping us from speaking up, and making those of us with a more gentle ego look weaker.  

The females you met at culinary school: Out of the people I knew from school, four women continued/were cooking. None of them were in head Chef roles (last I knew), and I’m not sure of their current whereabouts, but I know at least one of them is still cooking.  

How we can help: Scholarships at hospitality schools, Internal awards programs in schools for women in specific hospitality fields (they do it at the Oscars), Female forward career days for youth, Equal opportunity hiring in schools and/or the field in conjunction with more publicly recognized female presence in hospitality events, Female mentorship programs. 

Most rewarding feeling: When customers enjoy their experience, and the team is in good spirits - at the same time.

Good leadership: a good leader shows patience when required, is a team player, and treats their team with respect.

Best meals of all-time: Trippa alla Milanese at Trattoria Milanese, Burger at La Xampanyeria, Cod & Octopus at L’Abattitore

Best advice: “Having a clean and organized space, means you have a clean and organized head during service” something I learned early on, and continue to pass forward to others where I can. 

Your friends are in town, where do you take/send them: Crafted, Bar Raval, Itacate, Union, Superpoint, King Noodle. I like to supply options for various parts of the day and various genres of food then let people pick. 

One week of culinary inspiration, where would it be:

Places I’ve been: Bologna

Places I haven’t: Chicago 

There are too many to choose from!

What does it mean to you to “live a good life?” Being happy, which includes being successful enough to help others, and the planet, and travel to gain knowledge and experience about other cultures and foods. 

Your legacy: [to be known as] a positive, hard-working leader, quick thinker, community figure, and tasty food maker. 

Name: Tara Lee

Nickname: TL, although when I was a younger cook people called me Bird. I’m from Thunder Bay and somehow it morphed from TB to Tbird to just Bird. 

Current gig: Head Chef, Eastbound Brewing Co

Child 'hood': Thunder Bay, ON (right now someone is thinking: I’ve driven through there.)

Those Niagara peaches: Being a chef was never on my radar. I went to university for Sociology. And, even then I didn’t really know what I wanted to get up to. My best friend had moved to St. Catharines, so when I finished up at Lakehead, I moved. No real plan. I started working in retail (anyone who knows me now laughs a lot at the thought of me giving fashion advice)!

Once I moved to Niagara, I had to learn to cook for myself. Being in the Ontario wine region, surrounded by super fresh and local foods inspired me to pursue a career in it [Niagara peaches in the height of the season: probably the best food on the planet]. I enrolled at Niagara Culinary Institute and was part of the first class who has access to all of the shiny new equipment.

While I was there I made great connections with some of the chef professors, which led to my first kitchen job. The chef and sous chef at this job were a huge influence on my life. They were at my wedding years later!

Abroad: As a recent graduate, I worked for the Canadian Pavillion in Japan - what an interesting cross-section of modern and traditional cultures. Some of the food in the smallest Izakayas there, doesn’t even touch the higher end places here. 

First food memory: This might not be my first, but it sticks with me. I loved pickles as a kid, and I remember I had to go to the doctor because I was sick, a cold or flu or something. My mom and the doc decided to play a joke on me and told me I was sick because of pickles and I couldn’t eat them anymore. I was devastated. 

Signature: Pickling and preserving is probably my favourite thing in the whole world. There are so many amazing flavour combinations. It can add so much to a dish. And when it’s made from scratch, you can taste the time and care that has gone into it. I make these green tomatoes with a beer vinegar & love making pickled eggs with tons of malt vinegar. 

After a busy service: I crave beer! There is nothing more satisfying than finally getting to sit down and enjoy a cold, crisp beer. Everyone sits down together and you unwind. *Tara's husband, Dave Lee, is the Master Brewer at Eastbound and makes some incredible barley pops

Beer pairings: no one ever drinks what you want them to with the food they’ve ordered. So, I tried to make things that go with a lot of different beers. For me, brewing is easier to equate to cooking than winemaking. I would say a lot of the dishes on the menu have beer incorporated in some way. It's great to braise with, we use it in our mustard, in our pickle brine..

Sour beer: definitely something we're planning on doing. There's a lot of it out there, and some really good ones. When we went to San Fransico, we went to Russian River Valley where they're making some incredible sours. 

Gendered roles: when I was graduating, the guidance counsellor there asked me how I felt about entering a male dominated industry. Which up until that moment I hadn’t actually thought about. There were so many female students in the program it hadn’t even occurred to me. 

I’ve worked in kitchens where there are strong female role models, and another where I was the only girl in the kitchen. I’ve only felt like I was passed over once for a job, but I’m in a much better place now, so I guess everything happens for a reason. 

I’ve also been called to apply for jobs specifically because I was a woman. Not sure that makes sense either. 

I’ve recently being doing some hiring and the amount of female applicants was almost non-existent. Maybe there’s less interest to work in a traditional kitchen anymore. 

Is there an issue: Yes. Of course. Can I pinpoint exactly what that is? I wish. Every time I hear another story, I shake my head. But I also think it’s not all kitchens. 

Female friends from school: I think I’m the only one [cooking]. I can think of two that are still in the industry in some capacity. But none in a chef position. 

Legacy: I try to lead by showing what I expect from people instead of just telling them. I don’t yell. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t get angry. 

I have lots to teach, but I let people show me what they’re made of first. 

I think people see me as a chef that is very present. And I’m always watching, so no shortcuts. I’m supportive and I don’t tolerate laziness. And don’t lie to me. We have some past employees that I use as cautionary tales. 

A very open kitchen: We have an extremely open kitchen, guests can sit right at the kitchen bar. I’m always super proud when the cooks get to engage the guests because they are so curious what we’re up to. From where I stand at the pass I can see every seat in the place. Sometimes it’s overwhelming thinking that people chose us to have a first date, birthday party, after work drinks, book club meeting. We have amazing regulars already. We’re not even a year old!

Never ever: I was sous chef to a woman years ago that actually made me second guess working in this industry. She was the opposite of what I saw myself as a chef. She yelled, was demeaning. People didn’t respect her. If your kitchen can’t work as a unit, there’s no point. You can’t force that. 

Best meal: On our honeymoon we went to Chez Panisse. It was a gift from the restaurant I worked at the time. Everything was so perfectly executed. There was a squid dish that was so simple. And we had goat for the main done on a fire girll. So good. The hospitality was incredible, professional while still being personal. We also got a tour of the restaurant. 

Sage advice: Never take a job for the money.

On the docket: we just start doing licensee [Eastbound beer]; we want to do more events & get together with other people in the east end (it’s not that far over the bridge, we promise).

East end local: The Wren on the Danforth. Great beer list. Always good food.

Living your best life: At the end of the day when you look yourself in the mirror, are you satisfied? Satisfied with the things you could control. And confident in knowing you get another crack at the other stuff tomorrow.

Name: Amira Becarevic

Nickname: Mira…or Chef lol

Current gig: Chef/Owner Mira Mira + Mira Mira Catering

Child 'hood': Toronto

Finding your path: My mom is an amazing cook and I always wanted to learn more, so I applied for a summer job at a catering company…and here I am 18 years later

If not this, what else: Sculptor/Artist

First food memory: My parents roasting and peeling bushels of peppers to preserve for the year

A bit about your journey and working at Mira Mira in Chef’s Assembly Hall: Chef’s Assembly is a curated group of talented chefs and their teams, doing their “greatest hits” dishes. 18 restaurants under one roof. 

My career started in prep and catering, bartended myself through Culinary School. From there, I worked at Four Seasons Whistler, Fairmont Royal York Toronto, Splendido, Reds, The Chase, Colette Grand Café, etc (Sous Chef to Chef de Cuisine to Executive Chef) then decided I was ready to spearhead my own dream and start a business for myself, using all of the knowledge I had gleaned and had passed on to me through great teachers.

Best mentors and why: Chef Jason McLeod, Chef David Lee, Chef Michael Steh and Chef Dana Hauser. All of these Chefs taught me that dedication and skill have no gender. If you want to achieve something, work hard and make it happen.  Their knowledge, trust and patience molded me into the Chef I am today.

Favourite thing to cook: Holiday meals

 Philosophy behind Mira Mira: Healthy and delicious - we try to serve balanced and flavourful dishes that just happen to be healthy. It feels great to cook what comes naturally to me (the food I love)- it’s the best feeling. Running the business is challenging but the small wins make it more rewarding than ever, knowing our team is all in this together is priceless.

Challenges faced as “The Boss”:  [It can be hard to see people move on] I’m happy to see such talented chefs go on to greater challenges for them but it can be hard because we’re such a tight knit team. You miss them, but the good news is that we always keep the friendship going and we often have catering events that bring new and old colleagues together again.

The best employee: Really good-hearted people. Can’t teach that.

Do you think about gender in the kitchen: Thankfully, not often.

Reasons for it: Old kitchen culture has held back so many people in general - crazy long hours, high stress, substance abuse and burnout are real issues. If you add “having a family” to the equation, it’s nearly impossible. The fact that we are finally talking about this is huge progress and chefs are finding smart solutions to find balance and positive cultures. It doesn’t mean you’re less badass to work a few hours less and hire a prep cook. It’s the smart thing to do - thinking of the long game.

Have your culinary buds stuck with it? How many hold ‘Head Chef’ roles: Yes and yes, nearly all of them.

How can we encourage females: It starts from the top. It’s every Chef’s job. (and with the shortage of culinary staff, it’s in everyone’s best interest to make the workplace as appealing and professional as possible) 

Best saying: We are nothing without the whole team. Cooking with love and care wins every time. The sayings are true. 

Reward: Watching someone taste our food and genuinely enjoy it. 

Meal: Alinea - so creative and absolutely spot on flavours.

Advice received: “Love Food.” - Emma Herrera

Next dream culinary destination: Tokyo

What are you most proud of? My team. It’s like the Broken Social Scene of chefs - always working individually on side projects but coming together as one for the same vision.

Legacy:  [A Chef] with longevity. I’ll have wins and fails, but I’ll continue doing what I love many years from now. I have so many ideas for projects that I’d like to see come to life - this is just the beginning.