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Christmas traditions from Toronto's top chefs and bartenders

With the return of in-person festivities finally on the table, we head inside the homes of five food and drink pros to find out their favourite Christmas traditions.

Christmas traditions from Toronto chefs | Chef Sous Chef's Christmas wifesaver

In many ways, 2020 felt like the year that wasn’t — especially when it came to the holidays and Christmas traditions. We had to forgo boisterous family gatherings in favour of Zoom calls and meals together were replaced with food drop-offs on the front porch, all to curb the spread of the pandemic. Now, with an in-person holiday season on the horizon, there’s an extra special buzz in the air and an excitement that’s almost palpable. This year, we're going all out with our holiday gifts, cooking up a storm with the most festive recipes and pairing it all with the best bottles of wine at the LCBO we can find.

In the spirit of this renewed holiday season, we got a sneak peek inside the homes of Toronto’s chefs, bartenders and food personalities to find out what their favourite Christmas traditions are and how they'll be celebrating this year. From breakfast bonanzas to pancakes for furry family members, these holiday rituals will melt your heart.

Whether reinstating old Christmas traditions from the before times or starting brand new ones with family and friends, one thing’s for sure: We’re all determined to make this holiday season the best one yet.

Philip Lago & Mystique Mattai

Chef Sous Chef

Christmas traditions from Toronto chefs | Philip Lago, Mystique Mattai and their daughter Lennox
Christmas traditions from Toronto chefs | Chef Sous Chef's amaretti cookies
Christmas traditions from Toronto chefs | Philip Lago's Christmas wifesaver
Christmas traditions from Toronto chefs | Philip Lago and Mystique Mattai dig into the Christmas wifesaver

After enjoying planning their wedding together, Philip Lago and Mystique Mattai were looking for a new project. The couple felt that their relationship had blossomed in the kitchen, so starting a food blog seemed like a natural next step. In 2015, the duo started Chef Sous Chef — and now, one cookbook, Food Network series and baby later, they’re still making magic in the kitchen together.

One thing that’s always been a part of their holiday celebration is the Christmas ‘wifesaver’.

“It’s something that Phil and his family used to eat every holiday for breakfast,” says Mystique. “They always laughed at the name because it’s such a non-progressive title. But the wife essentially has bread, she has cereal, she has milk, she has eggs, and she makes it into this breakfast casserole. His mom would make it the night before and bake it in the morning because it was the easiest thing to always feed six kids plus themselves. I remember meeting Phil and he’d tell me about this dish and I was so weirded out by it because it wasn’t anything that we ever ate. But it’s such a sweet story and they all still make their own version of it every holiday. It’s just a nice thing to start Christmas morning off with.”

But Philip and Mystique’s Christmas festivities usually start before the big day.

“We typically do Christmas with Philip’s mom and his stepdad a week before Christmas,” says Mystique. “It’s pretty wild, as somebody who comes from a family of just me and my sister. Their Christmases are six kids, spouses, almost 10 grandchildren now, and there’s usually about four or five dogs running around. It’s like the opening scene of Home Alone,” says Mystique.

“I have four brothers, so it’s five boys and one girl,” says Philip. “Now we’re all grown up and all we have is nieces so it feels more tame to me than when I was a kid. But I guess for an outsider, it’s pretty wild.”

Both of their family celebrations are boisterous, and have food at the centre.

“The kitchen is very much the heart of the home for both of our families, so the food is always such a fun part of that, too. With our family, we typically do a potluck. Everybody brings something. Usually, the host is making a turkey. There’s always a curry on the table,” says Mystique. “We definitely have our signature dishes, like we always bring twice-baked potatoes now. If Phil doesn’t have twice-baked potatoes when he comes, he’s kind of not invited anymore,” she laughs.

“And then Boxing Day, we do Christmas with Philip’s stepmom. We used to do it with his late dad, but we still keep that tradition going,” she says.

As for their daughter Lennox, she has her own Christmas tradition, too.

“Another memory that Phil has from his Christmases is his mom would allow each of them to have a Christmas tree in their bedroom, which I thought was the sweetest thing,” says Mystique. “We did the same for Lennox. We got her a little Christmas tree and we made her own ornaments. It’s little things like that. We’re trying to weave in our own kid traditions that we had growing up with her as well.”

Farzam Fallah & Sam Medeiros

The Cloak Bar and La Palma

Together for five-and-a-half years, Farzam Fallah and Sam Medeiros met when they were both working at Richmond Station. After a stint in Hong Kong, they moved back to Toronto where Farzam is now the head bartender at Marben and The Cloak Bar and Sam works as the sous chef at La Palma. Now the couple shares an apartment, a dog named Bella, a foodie page (@ourkitchenpassport) and, of course, the holidays.

Christmas traditions from Toronto chefs | Farzam Fallah and Sam Medeiros

Growing up, Farzam’s family never really celebrated at this time of year, so Sam’s family has roped him into their celebrations. “My family takes holidays very seriously,” says Sam. “Everyone adores gift giving. It’s not always about the most expensive or the large grandiose gift, but more so just for the laugh of it all. We’ll put a can of tuna in a box, in a box, in a box, in a box. You’ll spend all this time unwrapping boxes to get a can of tuna at the end. It was always about the jokes or, as we got older, little gags.”

“My mom will take all my watches and replace the battery, then she’ll just give me a box of all of my watches. And I don’t understand why I’m getting my possessions back. Then I realized that it’s the kind gesture of replacing the batteries,” says Sam. “That’s always been a huge thing in my family to give gifts and spend time and have these cute little jokes in our presents. With Farzam, I wanted to convey that. I remember the first year, I gave him like 10 presents, but they were all silly things. One was a stick of deodorant, but it’s more so just to get him to unwrap a bunch of things and be a part of it. And I remember it being very meaningful for him.”

And presents aren’t the only tradition they have. Sam and Farzam put their culinary skills to work hosting family and friends.

“Every Christmas Eve we cook up this big feast and it’s about 10 to 12 people that come over,’’ says Sam. But turkey isn’t on the menu. “It’s almost always porchetta, and it’s just because we selfishly want to eat porchetta, but I don’t want to make it any other time of the year,” laughs Sam.

“Then on Christmas Day morning, we’ve always done pancakes. Nothing fancy, literally just pancakes and maple syrup and butter,” says Sam. “But now our dog is roped in on this tradition where she gets a pancake as well. No maple syrup or butter for her, though.”

Over on the drinks side, Farzam has all the classics covered and puts a little twist on them.

“When it comes to drinks and holiday cocktails — like mulled wine or a hot toddy or eggnog — it’s around this time of year that people usually start craving it. I love taking those recipes and playing around with them. An eggnog is essentially a custard, so it’s very easy to switch out the booze or incorporate different flavours. Same thing with a hot toddy. You can switch out different infusions and add different tea blends to get new flavours out of it,” says Farzam. “Sam is always one for a sweet, warm drink right at the end of the night, so it’s always one of my favourite things to start playing around with those recipes at this time of year.”

Calvin & Tina Su

Butter Baker

Ten years ago, brother and sister duo Calvin and Tina Su opened Butter Avenue, a French bakery specializing in macarons. Eventually, that evolved into Butter Baker, a friendlier, day-to-day style bakery with pastries, cakes, cookies and more added to their macaron offerings. As president, Calvin handles the business and marketing side, while Tina is the executive chef. On top of working together, they also celebrate the holidays together.

“We have three siblings here so we usually go to each other’s houses,” says Calvin. “We’ll coordinate and see where shall we celebrate.”

“Usually it’s Calvin’s house because he’s the oldest,” laughs Tina.

Calvin and Tina’s parents are back in Taiwan, where they’re originally from, and visit for the holidays when they can. But between aunties, uncles and cousins in the GTA, the Su’s still manage to have a full house on Christmas Day.

“We’re a little bit more cozy because we usually do a potluck,” says Calvin. “My wife usually makes a big cocktail bowl for the adults to drink. Everybody’s usually standing. We get our food and just walk around. And kids of course are just everywhere. It’s more casual.”

On the menu, you’ll find the traditional turkey and accompaniments, but the real star of the show is dessert.

“We run a bakery so all our friends and family are actually looking forward to what we have for the season. We usually bring our most popular cakes, cookies or our gifts,” says Calvin.

“I think most of them just want to skip the turkey and get into desserts and the gift baskets,” says Tina. “We usually give out a gift basket to everybody that includes a gingerbread house and a lot of our other creations. I think that’s the most exciting part about our party. It’s very festive.”

The Su’s attire also plays into the festive feel while bringing in Chinese tradition.

“We tend to go for a red-ish colour. It’s more festive. And in Chinese culture red means prosperity too,” says Tina.

Matthew Ravenscroft

Gia

Toronto’s resident vegetable expert, Matt Ravenscroft is responsible for giving us a whole new appreciation for plant-based dining, first at vegan spot Rosalinda and now as the culinary director at plant-forward restaurant Gia. He celebrates the holidays with his wife, Kate, and their new baby, Logan — and, of course, plenty of veggies.

On Christmas Day, Matt kicks things off with a potato rosti.

“It’s the one time a year when I make it because it’s kind of an arduous task, because I find it stressful to flip a rosti. Every time I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I can do it,’ and then Kate says I can. And then I do it,” laughs Matt. “And a rosti, everyone can eat it. It’s vegan, the way I make it. That’s important too. And everyone loves a potato. It’s this magic thing that happens with this potato.”

Matt continues: “For some reason, the Christmas breakfast just feels special to me. There’s a calmness to it. Christmas dinner feels chaotic. It’s six hours and gone in 30 minutes, whereas breakfast is chill, you put on some great music, everyone has a
coffee and reflects.”

The night before the big day is usually spent with Matt’s family at either his brother or sister’s place.

“My mom and dad are divorced but also besties. It’s amazing. The whole family comes together — my dad’s wife, my stepfather, they come too. Step siblings sometimes come. That energy is very different than the Christmas morning breakfast. There’s no formality in terms of sitting down. Everyone brings a platter, be it a cheeseboard, breads and dips, crudité — obviously, the crudité is kind of my world. Everyone just puts it on this big table, browses with plates, fills up the plate. It’s very fun but very quick. Then we basically watch the kids annihilate presents for like 30 minutes — just throwing them at them, and they destroy it, scream with excitement, move on to the next one.”

Following what Matt describes as a very fun “calamity” with his family, they head to his in-laws’ for a change of pace.

“It’s very relaxed. We all sit at the table together. I have total carte blanche in terms of the vegetables to make and I love it that way. And everyone seems to love it that way. I’ll usually make a mash, a roasted squash and a roasted brussels sprouts dish for everyone to enjoy,” says Matt. “It’s more formal but same sort of chill vibe. Everyone’s just hanging out enjoying themselves and basking in each other’s company. There’s a little bit of reflection too. The year is ending; we talk about things we loved and things we look forward to as well.”

One last tradition to cap off the holidays happens on Boxing Day, Matt’s birthday.

“On my birthday, we sometimes go to Chinatown and enjoy an amazing meal,” says Matt. “I was raised doing that because there’s not a lot open on Boxing Day and it’s so fun for that reason.”

Afia Amoako

The Canadian African

A few years ago, when Afia Amoako went vegan, she started her food blog The Canadian African to document her journey and show how she adjusted traditional Ghanaian fare to her new lifestyle. In the last year, her blog and TikTok account went viral. Now she juggles her newfound success while also pursuing a PhD in epidemiology.

Christmas traditions from Toronto chefs | Afia Amoako and her mother

Afia’s holiday celebrations revolve around her Ghanaian culture. “Christmas is a big deal in Ghana,” says Afia. “I spent most of my childhood in Ghana.”

Afia, along with her parents and sister, immigrated to Canada in 2012. In Ghana, Christmas was a big affair with extended family coming in and out of the house. Now they’re still adjusting to a Canadian Christmas with just the four of them.

“Our family is still trying to figure out what works best for us as an immigrant family. But over the years, the thing that’s been consistent is definitely my mom baking all the cakes before Christmas. That is something that we did in Ghana, too,” says Afia. “She’ll bake a bunch of carrot cake, chocolate cake, and gift it out to people. People will also make cakes and gift them to us.”

On Christmas Day, they usually go to church. “On Christmas, when you go to church, you wear your Sunday best,” says Afia. “Then New Year’s is when people wear white.” While traditional clothes can be worn year-round, they save their best quality garments for the holidays. “We wear a lot of our traditional clothes, it is a big thing, our fashion. There’s the kaba and slits, which is a blouse and a long skirt. People will wear kente, which is a woven cloth from the Asante region. You will see more elaborate styles during the Christmas season.”

After church, they might change out of traditional attire, or just wear it while they eat. “My mom will either make jollof rice or fufu. I think this year it might be fufu. And she makes her melon seed soup, because it takes a long time. And that’s a Christmas soup too. The next day, we can eat jollof or we’ll eat the atidua, which is beans and yam or boiled plantain. That is a very specific tradition... Because both my parents are Asante, which is our tribe, that is what they did when they were kids. It’s eaten during Boxing Day.”

As for the festivities, presents and Christmas movies aren’t really a part of their culture. “It’s definitely centred around food,” Afia says. “And just talking for hours.”

Afia’s parents don’t drink alcohol, so instead they enjoy sparkling apple cider and malt. But they don’t need to imbibe to have a good time. “My parents are very upbeat. They’ve been married for so long. So it’s very much lots of laughter, my dad probably telling us again, his story about growing up in the village. It’s reminiscent of their lives in Ghana and how things have changed a lot for them. But it’s like any other family that does Christmas. It’s very festive,” she says.

“The Christmas celebration is centred on the people and the relationships that we have with them,” Afia says. “Leading up to Christmas, you’re going to someone’s house to eat, or you’re staying at home and people are coming over. If they can’t come over then you’re making food and sending it to them.”

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