By Carmen Gómez-Cotta
All you need is love the Beatles sang once, because the key to everything in life is love and passion. “The only thing that matters is how much love is put into a dish and how passionate you are about what you’re doing”, said David Sihdu, owner of Playa Cabana restaurant.
Being used to seeing Cafetería always crowed, it’s impressive as I stand here with the place all empty and quiet, the chairs and stools upside down on the tables, and the constant hustle-and-bustly kitchen now in silence. I feel privileged having the entire Mexican-inspired cafeteria to myself as I probe Sidhu for answers about his journey to becoming one of the most relevant and influential personalities in the Torontonian hospitality industry. He shyly smiles at this statement since he doesn’t consider himself influential at all. “We’re just putting out there honest food and an approach to everything and people are responding”, he says.
To him and his crew this is the path to success. Two ounces of love, one ounce of passion and a lot of soul, that’s a recipe that everybody likes. “There always has to be an element of soul in the dishes. I think the success of the original Playa Cabana was the fact that the food was so soulful: a lot of rice, beans, sauces, big portions. If there is no soul on every dish, it’s not gonna make it on the menu because it lacks something”.
And it really seems to have worked out for him. Since he opened his first restaurant on Dupont and Davenport in 2011, he has opened six more and has built Más Playas empire* (more beaches in Spanish). Now he laughs, and talking confidently and fast he explains that it is not an empire but just “a group of restaurants that reflects our ever-growing passion for hospitality. We like creating authentic dishes and cocktails that people want to come back for. The more authentic you are and the simpler your approach to things is, the more they come.” To Sidhu, that’s a safe rule that always runs successfully.
Although he acknowledges it’s not just the food or the beverage, or even the decoration or the service. “You can’t just focus in one area; you have to put a lot of effort in every aspect in order to create a good atmosphere and experience. It’s a about creating a unique and authentic experience overall.” And by authenticity he means that the experience has to be genuine and the staff has to be on board with the philosophy in the overall feeling of the restaurant.
Isn’t that the reason why people go out in the first place? Most want a break from their daily routine by spending time with friends and family, and being surrounded by an authentic, real vibe place is just what patrons are looking for.
All of Sidhu’s places are true and genuine. Each one he opened he’d like to see as a white canvas, a space where to express a new desire, idea, and a deep feeling. “There always has to be a reason. They say that what is personal becomes universal; if there’s not a personal reason for something then it’s not going to ever connect universally.” When he first opened Playa Cabana he just wanted a place where to serve real Mexican food, because there was none in the city. When he came up with Cantina he was very interested in what was happening in The Junction and he felt there was a huge creative energy in the area. Then the memories of his Korean eating experiences while on Bloor St. inspired him to experiment with this cuisine. Later, due to much time spent in Mexico cooking with chefs in tiny homes, the idea of a new restaurant was born: Cocina Económica; a small place that wasn’t about big profits, but about authenticity, soulful, slow cooking, and with real Mexican food coming from a very authentic place. Now with his newest addition– which opened at the beginning of 2016 – he started with the idea of a real Mexican cafeteria, which is a coffee house in Mexico that evolves into a restaurant. “I had many incarnations in my head and we had to work a lot until we came to the concept that I was envisioning”, Sidhu pointed out.
Every one of Sidhu’s restaurants was born out of a desire to build exciting, different and unique concepts: spaces to create new, fascinating and authentic food. Authentic food in his case means that every dish prepared is made from the heart, with that love and passion that is Sidhu’s personal seal, using ingredients and culinary traditions that come from very different parts of Mexico.
The result: delicious, real Mexican food that is always presented in a casual way – which seems to be what people like the most about Más Playas restaurants. Besides the fact that Mexican cuisine is very ‘easy going’, “food has become more casual in the last years. Even the biggest chefs who were doing things that were perceived as less approachable now are becoming less intended. They all want to go back to cooking on wood, to rustic, to casual dining”, he said.
He agreed that in the city, “old times are over. Those days of white table cloths and marble are gone and they have given way to more informal places with charcoal menu on the walls”. And he appreciates this change because diners have also evolved, and now tend to connect more with the establishment and the story behind it, the decor, the realness, the authenticity.
“I think people, especially in this part of the town are looking for the coolest or newest dish, but then they’re also families that come out for dinner, friends that just want to meet for a social gathering, nice food and a great time. Those are, in my eyes, the people that make the industry go around, the ones that are really defining the dining culture.”
YYZ, food destination
With the city changing and growing as it is now, he has no doubts that Toronto is becoming a food destination. “You have big names, chefs in the city that are in the top ten (like Bar Raval or Bar Isabel and Grant van Gameren) along with other chefs that are doing many unique things and are putting Toronto in the map.”
After this categorical affirmation, I couldn’t help but ask why then the city (the country!) has not a single Michelin Star. To Sidhu, it’s a matter of time but also a matter that the city has not built a true character of its own – until now. “We didn’t care that much if people didn’t respect us -by this I mean chefs and restaurants-, and we were doing our thing, and being passionate, and cooking the food we wanted to cook. Thanks to that there are restaurants now that are looking to become that first Michelin Star restaurant.
It’s all part of the evolution of the city. How do you create a successful atmosphere, by doing something like Alo is doing, and aspire to that Michelin Star? It would be nice to see that happen,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next 5 to 10 years we get one. That would be a great thing for the city, because having a Michelin Star restaurant says and does a lot for a city, for the food industry, for the tourism, for the economy.”
Generally speaking, though, he considers the city lacks “real Italian places. I love Italian food and, believe it or not, I think Italian places have taken their food and turning into a bit fancy. To me, Italian food is still very regional and whenever a restaurant is trying to do fancy-regional food, I feel like it never works out. They don’t match very well together.”
He also appreciates that regarding the hospitality industry the city still has challenges to face, like expanding the borders beyond downtown. “There’s so much density down there that it is becoming a little bit saturated and people should start realizing that downtown Toronto is not always the best launch patio for restaurants. The city is expanding, so even North York, Markham, Scarborough are also great spots with huge opportunities. There’s a huge market out there, and I think there’s a lot more density too if you look at how many people live in those areas.” The only difference, as he ironically pointes out laughing, is that they have to drive to the restaurants down here.
Well, let’s see where the city goes in the few next years!
*Más Playas: Is the group of seven restaurants that David Sidhu has built, including Playa Cabana, Cantina, Hacienda, Barrio Coreano, La Libre, Cocina Económica and Cafetería.