A Place at the Table

Toronto chef Lisanne Begin talks about life in quality kitchens

The next time you’re looking at a beautifully plated meal or dessert at a restaurant, picture the chef sketching the dish first. “I actually draw the plate when I’m creating a new menu item, and the illustration helps me figure out if there’s something missing—there’s not enough height or I see that these textures are all smooth and creamy and I need something crunchy, or there needs to be something cold,” says Lisanne Begin, who learned the technique while she was studying at Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa Culinary Arts Institute.

Begin is a sous chef at Barcelona Tavern, a welcoming Mediterranean tapas spot in Toronto’s Liberty Village neighborhood, as well as a pastry chef at the chic Lavelle, a Japanese fusion restaurant in the Fashion District. In her 13 years in the restaurant industry, she’s taken note of several distinct shifts, including what she describes as a growing disparity between home-style, family-run operations where cooks learn through apprenticeship and mentorship, and fine dining establishments, which tend to hire chefs who have a culinary school background. She’s in favour of combining the approaches: “I say do both. There’s nothing to stop you from getting your piece of paper from a community college or private culinary college, and also working under a fantastic chef that inspires you.”

Begin has also seen more women becoming chefs. “There are definitely more women in the kitchen now, and I wonder if that has to do with programs on the Food Network showcasing female talent, which may have encouraged women to enter the field more. It’s opening up.”

At the Barcelona Tavern, Begin’s favourite menu item is currently a pimento cheese dip that’s baked in the oven with roasted cauliflower and served with locally made corn tortillas. “I’m a fan of anything with cheese, but also it’s a great texture combination with the warm creamy dip and crispy tortilla.” And at Lavelle, one of her creations is a Japanese-influenced dessert: layers of morello cherry jelly, cake with coffee syrup and creamy dark chocolate mousse (“lots of textures and all of them yummy.”)

She says one of the best aspects of the job is teaching new menu items to her staff of 20 at Barcelona Tavern. “I love to see my colleagues nailing a new dish after I’ve taught them the recipe and the plating. That’s kind of my ‘hooray’ moment, when I see them being successful at something I taught them.”

Liberty Village

Liberty Village is a vibrant downtown Toronto neighborhood bordered by King Street West, Dufferin, Bathurst, and the Gardiner Expressway. Formerly an gritty industrial area—with the tall chimneys, brick architecture and converted factories to prove it—it’s now a mix of modern condos, lofts, restaurants and shops, and home to a thriving number of start-ups and creative businesses. If you want to go see a game, it’s a short distance to the stadia that are home to the Toronto FC soccer team, the Argos football team and the Marlies hockey team. “At Barcelona Tavern, we’ve become a hub for the pre- and post-game party to meet for a pint and a bite to eat. I like that welcoming aspect,” says Lisanne. While you’re shopping, strolling and picking out one of the great eateries to try, watch for the incredible street art and murals.