Ask someone about their favourite meal and more than likely they will tell you about a simple dish that was slow-cooked alongside a great deal of love and patience. These favourite dishes, often prepared by a mother or grandmother, personify the term comfort food and have the power of filling our stomachs, while also transporting us down memory lane.
Getting back to basics has become a movement of sorts today in the culinary world. Stripping the pomp and circumstance that can often accompany fine dining, the new movement is opting for a more traditional menu and less traditional atmosphere, choosing to juxtapose the gastronomy revolution with traditional cooking methods.
In Toronto, Canada, chef Kanida Chey is using an age-old Argentinian cooking style to breathe new life into the diverse Toronto food scene. As the Executive Chef at Branca, a restaurant James Bateman (Chey’s childhood friend) and Chey opened less than two years ago, Kanida Chey uses a live flame and a special in-house smoke room to slow roast whole animals that are locally sourced in Ontario.
With a culinary career that stretches back fifteen years, Chef Kanida Chey brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to Branca. His unique culinary stylings have earned the Parkdale restaurant critical acclaim, which has culminated in Branca receiving a number of awards, including Toronto’s Most Romantic Restaurant, Toronto’s Top New Restaurant in the West End, and Top New Restaurant.
We caught up with chef Kanida Chey to find out more about his distinct cooking style that has Torontonians dusting off their great grandmother’s cookbooks.
Hello, Chef Chey, thank you for your time. What inspired your friend James Bateman and yourself to open Branca?
A few months before meeting James I found myself craving smoked meats. On my days off, I was either reading about or eating barbecue. The simplicity of it was very compelling. During this time, I had been cooking food that would be considered progressive. I was using state-of-the-art equipment to alter textures and flavour profiles of ordinary dishes.
As beautiful as the food might have been, I started to feel uninspired. I started to look at the food I was creating as shallow. It was missing the charm that had inspired me to become a chef. That’s when I started researching natural methods of cooking. That, in turn, led me to Argentinian cuisine. No vinegar-based marinated and spice rubs. Argentinian barbecue relied completely on the quality of the product and a natural method of cooking. Coincidently, James had been traveling through Argentina and fell in love with the cuisine for the same reasons. After months of research and traveling, Branca was created.
Why is live flame cooking important in the culinary tradition and, more particularly, why is it important for executing the menu at Branca?
It is important because it’s the most natural way to cook. There’s something very primitive and organic about cooking with live fire. I honestly think every chef should know or at least want to know how to start a fire from scratch and cook over it.
Almost every thing that is on Branca’s menu is done over live fire. All the proteins are cooked all day over the fire pit. The ambers left over from the fire are used to heat the grill. The live fire and its by product (ambers) are the most important aspect of the restaurant.
Can you describe the in-house smoker you use at Branca?
Branca has a traditional Argentinian al asador. It’s a concrete fire pit surrounded by metal crosses. All proteins are wired on to the crosses. We chop wood daily and start a fire in the center of the concrete pit. The meat cooks all day and is lowered or raised over the fire. The flame lightly kisses the meat and imparts a smoked flavour.
How do you choose your menu items?
The menu items reflect the seasons. I work around product that is in its peak. From fish to meat to vegetable, I will only use the best.
How was it for you as a chef to transition to cooking Argentinian cuisine when Branca first opened?
It was difficult at first to be honest. As a chef in a modern city, you get used to the easy methods of cooking. If you turn an oven to 350F it will stay at that temperature. It was completely different at Branca. Here I had to deal with an element that was in a strange way alive. If you didn’t put enough wood in, the fire would die. If you put too much, it would get too hot. On top of that, we had the natural weather factors to deal with. If it was a windy day, one side of the meat would cook, while the other side stayed raw. In the winter, the fire would die if you left it unattended for a while. On rainy days, the wood would become damp, causing lots of smoke, but no heat. The list of variables was endless. But, through practice and constant testing we figured it out.
How do you think the Toronto food scene has evolved over the past three to five years?
The Toronto food scene has hit a reset button. More and more, I hear about restaurants opening with wood fire ovens and grills. Five years ago, everybody was using gels and powders in these modern dishes to the point you didn’t even know what you were eating. Chefs are becoming more aware of local products. There is an understanding that simple flavours are actually the most profound. Chefs are going back to basic food. There is more focus on quality rather then the cost of product. It’s an exciting time to be cooking.
Can you explain a little more about where you source your products for Branca and how you were able to connect with these sources?
I get all my proteins from The Butchers Son. The owner Matt and I have been friends for almost a decade. Matt comes from a long line of butchers. I first met Matt when I was a sous chef. I would order meat from his dad at the time. Matt would work early mornings at the butcher shop and deliver product in the afternoon. Now, ten years later Matt has his own shop.
With his help, I am able to source out the best quality meats, from grass fed beef to antibiotic free chicken. I get my produce from Phil’s place in the St. Lawrence Market. I grew up in that area, so I have known them for a while now. All my produce comes in locally and daily. I have always made the effort to educate myself in who and where my ingredients come from. I have a close friendship with all my suppliers. We work together to get the best ingredients to the guests.
I heard Mr. Bateman and yourself are working on another project, any clues?
Right now we are enjoying the success of Branca. We are both extremely passionate about food, so we have some ideas floating around. I will keep you posted.