Toronto’s star chefs are going international with their own restaurants
Eating Jamaican at Ting Irie
Toronto’s culinary landscape has never tasted better.
With offerings that skip from Egypt’s foole to Korea’s gamjatang to Mexico’s tortas and back again, the multicultural eats have been garnering plenty of international attention. Although world-renowned chefs like Daniel Boulud and David Chang have set up T.O. outposts (Café Boulud and the Momofuku empire, respectively), some local restaurateurs are swimming against the current and testing the waters abroad, following Susur Lee’s path. With doors opening in distant locales — from Japan to the Persian Gulf — right now, the world is clamouring for T.O.
Everything Irie in the Emirates
For Craig Wong, of Patois fame, his first international restaurant is more than a stone’s throw away. Located in the United Arab Emirates, Ting Irie is proudly heralded as “Dubai’s first Jamaican restaurant.”
After discovering Wong via social media, a curious investor made the trip to T.O. to try Wong’s food. The (rather private) investor was blown away by what he ate, and a partnership was born. Although Ting Irie has maintained much of Patois’s Torontonian spirit, the menu has been shaped by local culinary culture.
“Dubai is a little more high-end,” Wong says. “We definitely did take into account the Dubai culture.”
This is most evident in the Chip O’Mon dish, which riffs on the Chips Oman sandwich, a local classic. The original is regional comfort food at its best; fried paratha smothered with cheese, chili and topped with spicy Chips Oman crisps.
“It’s their equivalent to something as Canadian as ketchup chips,” Wong says. “It’s something very native, very nostalgic for these guys — something that goes back to their childhood.”
The Ting Irie take sees a burger served on a pineapple bun — the Toronto Bun — with another homage to home: Canadian Angus beef. Classic Jamaican dishes, including jerk chicken and oxtail, also dot the menu.
Ting Irie’s reception has been both encouraging and surprising.
“What I noticed was how familiar the flavours were to people in Dubai,” Wong says. “They might not have had Jamaican curry, per se, but it’s definitely a culture that embraces Jamaican food without really knowing too much about it. We just felt nobody could get that in Dubai — it just suited the locale.” As for the potential for further global expansion: “We’re always talking,” Wong says.
Kinka takes their izakaya-meets-sushi concept to Japan
Going Japanese in Japan
Other familiar names abroad include Kinka Izakaya, currently operating four different spaces across T.O. Its first foray into the international market might perplex at first glance: it has opened an izakaya in Japan. Nestled in Tokyo’s renowned Shibuya district, the move was one CEO James Hyunsoo Kim had always envisioned.
“It was always a goal of mine to open a Japanese restaurant in Japan,” Kim says. “One of the objectives of the company has always been to introduce certain concepts and styles of Canadian dining to the Japanese market — specifically dining experiences that locals have never experienced before.”
With the largest number of three–Michelin star restaurants in the world and a flourishing culture of affordable diners and bars, competition remains fierce in Tokyo. Kim, however, believes he’s offering something different. “It’s rare in Japan to find a restaurant that serves both izakaya-style small plates and sushi.”
Kinka Modern Japanese combines two of the most popular Japanese dining options together under one roof.
Added to that are some hints of Canada: some freshly sourced Nova Scotia lobster, for example.
“Generally speaking, very few restaurants in Japan and very few Japanese chefs know how to handle lobster sashimi properly,” Kim says. “Lobster is a luxury in Japan.”
The spacious restaurant also differs greatly from the small, tight restaurants that traditionally typify Tokyo dining. With these unique elements, Kim hopes to draw the crowds in and already has plans to continue Kinka’s global expansion.
Massimo Capra dishes out Italian at Soprafino
Eating Italiano in Qatar
Massimo Capra’s international venture began when he opened Boccone Trattoria Veloce at Pearson International Airport. It seemed a logical next step to fly the concept off to another locale. Capra, a T.O. culinary stalwart, was approached by the management of Qatar’s booming airport in Doha. Soon, Soprafino was born. The upscale Italian trattoria offers meals to travellers passing through this busy international hub. Although the menu changes frequently, it boasts many of Capra’s most recognizable dishes and is supported by pastas, breads and sauces made in-house.
Chef has made some concessions to local traditions: “There is no alcohol, and we cannot use pork products of any kind. We are not going with the Qatari culture. We are respecting their traditions and rules but offering Italian cuisine.”
Already in talks to expand his restaurant empire into other regions of the Gulf, Capra’s Soprafino appears to suit the fine dining needs of weary travellers as well as the local populace. “The culinary scene is very diverse — similar to Canada,” Capra says. “The Qatari nationals love Italian cuisine and they love North American food.”
With some of T.O.’s most popular restaurateurs making successful strides in uncharted culinary terrain, it seems a truth universally acknowledged: good food can draw crowds anywhere. It’s never been a better time to export Toronto.