"Now what?” is the question many had to ask themselves when their lives and livelihoods were interrupted by a virus that once felt far away. While COVID has brought so much to a crashing halt and several to their knees, it’s also pushed people to find answers in an unexpected, yet familiar place: the home.
Our living (sleeping, eating, co-working, bathing) spaces have become so much more than a place where you can forgo pants and watch bad reality TV. It’s where we can find comfort, seek creativity and even start an online food business.
One day you're in the kitchen hosting pasta classes on Instagram, FaceTiming bagel recipes with your best mate or cooking the Filipino food you grew up with, and the next, your pre-orders for the week are selling out in seconds, that's your food and your face on the evening news and you’ve got your own professional Toronto kitchen.
This may not be everyone's lockdown legacy, but it is the story of a few courageous home cooks who took what they had and made something delicious out of it. Talk about some serious inspiration for your next takeout order and while you're at it, support some local Toronto small businesses, too.
6 Toronto home cooks on what it's like to run an online food business
Jess Maiorano, founder, Pasta Forever
“I thought that restaurants would be closed for two weeks, not a year,” says Jess Maiorano, who was a pasta chef at the now permanently closed Woodlot when the pandemic hit. To pass the time in those early, socially distanced days, Maiorano started offering virtual pasta classes over Instagram from her kitchen and delivering hand-rolled cavatelli and stuffed ricotta and herb tortellini to people’s doors. “I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere, and it took off,” she says.
One year later, Pasta Forever is still going strong with an expanded menu of weekly meal kits, two kinds of focaccia, from-scratch sauces and, of course, fresh pasta in all kinds of shapes. Needless to say, it’s outgrown the square footage of her Parkdale apartment. “Making that shift from being a back-of-house-worker with a bunch of boys in the kitchen to being the front-and-back-of-house of your own business is a very strange shift that I didn’t think I would be taking, but here we are,” she laughs.
With the exception of a driver who helps with deliveries, it’s still just Maiorano running the whole show, from making the web shop to shaping every single noodle by hand. “I watch a lot of YouTube videos, I bug other pasta chefs, I ask a lot of questions — I think that’s the best way to learn. I feel like a kid playing with Play-Doh half the time. It’s a lot of work and people think I’m a little crazy, but I love it.”
I watch a lot of YouTube videos, I bug other pasta chefs, I ask questions
Peter Pham, founder, Phamilyeats
After years of cooking professionally in Toronto and Hong Kong, Peter Pham returned home burnt out. “I lost focus of why I wanted to cook, so I took a break and went into scrap metal recycling,” he says.
Last March, while Peter was temporarily laid off, his friend who had recently moved to P.E.I., was craving Toronto takeout and asked Peter to send patties to her. “I didn’t think they would travel nicely, so I told her, ‘Let’s do a Zoom class’ and I walked her through it. It was my first time making beef patties and I loved the whole process,” says Pham.
He posted the patties on Instagram and to his surprise, some friends asked to buy them. “Then it got to a point where I was selling to people I didn’t know,” he says. From there, Pham spent four months getting the filling recipe right and his hobby grew into the business Phamilyeats, with Peter “the patty man” Pham delivering his fresh, spice-packed beef patties and pot pies to people all over the city, including a notable Toronto Raptor.
Then, the burnout crept back in. “I was working maybe 90 hours a week and I knew I had to make a decision to keep my passion or my full-time job.” In February, Pham, who now operates out of a commercial kitchen, was able to quit his 9–5. This summer, Phamilyeats will have its own permanent storefront.
“In a time like this, people seek comfort and food is the best way to find a moment of happiness. People always want more filling, but they never get it and I think that’s why they enjoy my patties — you get way more filling than you’d think.”
Food is the best way to find a moment of happiness
Jesse Labovitz & Adam Fujiki, co-founders, Sherm’s Bagels
“I’d love to be playing shows, it’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, but this transition has felt so natural,” says Jesse Labovitz, pro drummer for hardcore band No Warning and now pro bagel maker. “The community aspect has a punk rock vibe to it,” he says about his bagel shop Sherm’s Bagels, which he co-founded with best friend Adam Fujiki.
“We were making pizzas at our homes and I had a piece of leftover dough, so I made the shape, boiled it and baked ’em. The next day I wanted to make proper bagels, so we did some research and found a Montreal-style recipe and kept tweaking it — we were FaceTiming. We’re still always tweaking it, but we’re really pleased with where it’s gotten to,” says Labovitz. He’s not the only one — Sherm’s Bagels has gained a dedicated bagel fan base almost overnight.
“The whole week sold out in 30 seconds. I watched it go,” he says of their second official pre-orders from their website. Before, orders were made through Instagram DM and then Labovitz and Fujiki would spend the week hand mixing dough with wooden spoons. They recently bought a mixer.
I attempted to get a dozen for myself on their third round and somehow got through, then watched as 18 time slots a day for two weeks sold out in four minutes. “You get a nice feeling from making food for people who love it,” continues Labovitz. “I toured as a drummer all my life and you feel that love from a crowd. With food it’s even more of an instant connection.”
The whole week sold out in 30 seconds. I watched it go
Wesley Altuna, founder, Bawang
“I grew up in a family where everybody cooked. I was always around the kitchen. But not once did I ever think, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll be a chef.’ This is completely out of left field,” says Wesley Altuna who has spent the past year becoming exactly that and more. "I don’t even know what to call myself because I’m doing everything from washing dishes to cooking and delivering. It’s been a crazy ride,” he says.
At the onset of the pandemic, Altuna cooked as a way to cope with losing his job and his father. “It all happened around the same time. I was really depressed, so I turned to cooking. All this extra food would just end up in my fridge, so I packed it in things like margarine containers and dropped it off to friends,” he says. Little did he know that he was planting the seeds of Bawang, his wildly successful Filipino comfort food business that Toronto has literally eaten up, putting Altuna's face on everything from CBC news to a viral Eater video with more than three million views.
“I’m so grateful for all the support from the city. I still sit there sometimes and I’m like holy shit," he laughs in disbelief. And while the media features and sold-out orders of dishes inspired by Altuna's Ilocos Sur region have been incredible, the growing pains of starting your own business are an exciting, albeit, humbling whirlwind.
"One thing that I learned from my dad is that you can’t wait for time to fix things, time will not wait for you. It’s okay to feel bad about something, but if you don’t move, nothing will change. All the things that happened last year forced me to move in such a way that it led me to this," says Altuna of his unexpected journey.
"Man, it’s fucking scary running your own thing — you’re not in control of a lot. Each time you put something new or yourself out there, you’re being vulnerable. The fear is constant, but each time I break through, I’m adding another layer to the callus that I’m building."
It’s scary running your own thing — you’re not in control of a lot
Kimberly Ng, founder, The Good Goods
“Making and giving people food is my love language," says 23-year-old Kimberly Ng who taught herself how to bake from the internet. In university, Ng started a vegan donut shop around campus, but after graduating she let her donut dreams go and joined a startup.
When the first lockdown hit, she felt compelled to create again and began making quarantine dessert boxes that she sold through Instagram. But it wasn’t easy: “The mochi muffins were the best-selling items, so we decided to go all-in [on the mochi] and create different flavours. I would bake on weekends and stay up all night.”
Mochi, a sweet Japanese rice dough often wrapped around ice cream, has been popping up all over Toronto; Ng’s butter mochi is inspired by the baked Hawaiian version. “I decided to bake them in muffin tins because I wanted everything to be easily distributed, then it turned into a mochi muffin,” she says. Out of Ng’s many late nights in her kitchen came mochi flavours like churro crunch, white chocolate hojicha (roasted Japanese green tea) and the idea that The Good Goods could, in Ng’s words, "go full-time legit."
In October, she quit her job at the startup and began baking her much-loved mochi muffins and other baked goods in a commercial kitchen. "Entrepreneurship is really romanticized. I love creating my own thing, but once I quit my job and that stability was gone, I had a lot to learn and it's not as glamorous as I thought."
For encouragement, Ng leans on her online community of mochi muffin lovers and fellow creators. “My friend, who is an artist, said to me, ‘you just gotta keep working until your next great day,’ and I always keep that in mind. A lot of things fluctuate, but when it’s not going well, you just gotta keep going.”
Entrepreneurship is really romanticized. I had a lot to learn
Becca Pereira, founder, Spice Girl Eats
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When the pandemic derailed Becca Pereira’s plan to go to culinary school, along with her job as a receptionist, she started cooking — a lot.
Separated by the lockdown, her mother, who is a chef, began hosting Zoom cooking classes for their family. “It felt like I was home with her and it tasted like her food, so I assumed that I wasn’t half bad at it,” Pereira says. By September, after months of practice in the kitchen and experimenting with recipes from her grandmother’s handwritten cookbook (which her mom still doesn’t let her touch), Pereira decided to do her own Indian takeout food inspired by her family’s culinary history. The name: Spice Girl Eats.
“It doesn’t feel real — it’s grown a lot. I’ve actually always been very disorganized, so this was a slap in the face,” she laughs, but completing over 70 food pickups in one day is no joke. The butter chicken, which she credits for starting it all, is the only menu item that stays the same every week. “It’s so different from any butter chicken you get at Indian restaurants because it’s not sweet, it’s tangy and spicy. People will order seven portions and then eat it every day,” she says.
To help keep up with orders, Pereira’s mom wakes up at 4 a.m. every Tuesday to drive from Barrie to Spice Girl Eats headquarters at the Depanneur commissary kitchen on College Street. From there, Pereira, her mom and her sister get to work cooking up the week’s orders that are picked up that evening. “In the middle of our day we’re like, ‘has anyone had water yet?’ It’s madness, but we’ve definitely gotten better at it,” she says. “I have people who ordered the first Tuesday and have ordered every Tuesday since. I’m still shocked.”