Customer Spotlight: Rasa Bar
We talk to David Schwartz of Rasa Bar about what it’s like to cook at one of the most popular restaurants in Toronto.
David Schwartz is an up-and-coming cook at Rasa Bar, a restaurant on Harbord Street in Toronto owned by The Food Dudes. Schwartz came to Rasa from DaiLo, where he honed his cooking skills — particularly his Asian cooking skills — and learned what it was like to work in a busy, demanding kitchen in Toronto’s burgeoning food scene. We sat down with Schwartz to discuss what it’s like to cook in an open kitchen, the importance of local and seasonal produce, where the Toronto food scene is headed, and more.
How did you get into cooking?
David Schwartz: I was studying Political Science and Psychology at the University of Western Ontario, and every time I heard of someone I knew of who was working in the food industry in some way, I’d get jealous and I’d wonder why I wasn’t doing that. So I changed my career path entirely: I transferred to Fanshawe College, where I studied Food and Beverage Management. I didn’t originally intend to focus on cooking entirely, which is funny because I’ve spent every waking hour of the last seven years cooking, either professionally or teaching myself at home. While I was in school I began to cook at a few different restaurants, and I would hold dinner parties for my friends. Those were both great learning experiences.
After school I moved to Toronto, where I worked for a short time at Rose and Sons and Big Crow. Then I had a bit of an odd job as an in-house food services person/cook, but I didn’t love it: I mostly made breakfast and snacks, and all I had to work with was a convection microwave and a hot plate. I left and started staging at different restaurants, which basically means you work for free while you figure out whether a place is a good fit. I began staging at DaiLo, where I landed because I’m infatuated with Asian food; that’s mostly what I cook, and about 80% of what I eat. One day — I’ll never forget it — I was having a really bad day at work, I was almost ready to quit, and the chef from DaiLo called me and serendipitously offered me a job. I started two weeks later.
How did you get from DaiLo to Rasa?
DS: I was at DaiLo for just over a year. I left to go backpacking through Japan and the Philippines and China, and when I came home I actually only looked at Rasa. I came in for dinner one night, I loved the food, and I asked if I could come and stage. I really liked the environment, and soon after they offered me a job. It’s a very unique kitchen: most kitchens are run military-style, with a brigade-type system where there’s a head chef, a sous chef, and everyone answers to that. Rasa is more collaborative: we all work on dishes together, and everyone has input when it comes to the menu. We still have a head chef and a sous chef, but we all work together. There’s a level of respect across the board. It’s very cool, especially for me as a young cook. Most of the time, young cooks don’t have any creative input for a long time, sometimes 10 years. I gravitated away from that old-school kitchen mentality. DaiLo’s kitchen was very intense and very talented. I was forced to either step up my game or get the hell out of there.
What kind of food do you cook at Rasa?
DS: The menu at Rasa is “Torontonian.” There’s Italian influence, Chinese influence, Middle Eastern influence. We work a lot of dishes around ingredients specifically, so we can keep our menu seasonal. I tend to lean towards Asian and Middle Eastern dishes, but I’m working on diversifying my skill set: I like to focus on one cuisine, but I would also like to mix it up more.
We try to keep our menu seasonal, which allows us to be more creative with our dishes."
Rasa has an open kitchen, where diners can see you cook. How does that change the dynamics of the kitchen?
DS: Kitchens, generally speaking, are not the most mild-mannered places. They’re sort of a vacuum; they often feel impermeable to the outside world. That can be good because it creates a comfortable environment, but it could also be offensive to diners. So having an open kitchen tempers that quite a bit. The people I work with at Rasa are all great people; the open kitchen doesn’t have a huge effect on our personalities because we’re all nice and calm and collected, but that is the biggest difference between open and closed kitchens. You’re forced to mellow out and be aware that people are watching you. You need to be cleaner, too.
How busy do you guys get?
DS: Very busy. We have 40 seats inside the restaurant. I started at the beginning of summer, and we opened up the patio, which was an additional 40 or so seats. But we don’t add cooks when we open the patio, so it’s four cooks in winter and four cooks in summer, even though the restaurant doubles in capacity. Through the summer we were pretty much sold out every night, and now we’re still very busy, particularly Thursday to Saturday.
What are your hours like?
DS: All the cooks get in around 11:00 am and leave around midnight. Those hours go very fast, though. It’s crazy. At DaiLo, we didn’t take breaks at all: we’d cook staff meal and eat it standing at our stations. Sometimes it would just sit there for three hours before we ate it. This is just the nature of working in most kitchens. At Rasa, we force ourselves to sit down and eat for 10–15 minutes. There’s always something to do, so if you don’t force yourself to take a moment, you end up going through 12-hour days on your feet with no breaks.
"It’s easier to make something taste great when the product you’re working with is of higher quality."
Is there a lot of turnover in the kitchens you’re familiar with?
DS: The most. It’s crazy. Rasa is unique in that there’s virtually no turnover. People leave for specific reasons: the pastry chef, for example, left to become the executive pastry chef at Food Dudes. Another guy left to work in Australia. No one has left because they didn’t like cooking here.
Do you get a lot of odd diner requests?
DS: We get a lot of requests in general. People are very finicky when it comes to their food. At Rasa, we have no limits when it comes to requests or changes, which can be a little punishing at times. But we take allergies and sensitivities very seriously, and we make sure people’s dining experiences are flawless.
One of the weirdest requests I’ve ever seen: this wasn’t at Rasa, but we had a diner in who was allergic to chlorophyll. They couldn’t eat anything green. That was a tough one. The most difficult request we get — this happens about once a month — is when someone is allergic to garlic and onion, which cuts out 95% of any menu.
Does your menu change a lot?
DS: Yes. We try to keep our menu seasonal, which allows us to be more creative with our dishes.
Do you think that buying local, seasonal produce is important?
DS: Absolutely. I try as best as possible to cook with local and seasonal products. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Asian ingredients that aren’t grown here and you can’t get local. But I am a huge proponent of supporting local wherever I can, especially when it comes to proteins. And local produce, which just tastes better. It’s easier to make something taste great when the product you’re working with is of higher quality.
Is it important to know where your ingredients originate: from which farmers, producers, etc?
DS: Yes. That is something I think about constantly. Recently, I’ve been thinking about opening a grocer or something that connects the gap between the consumer and the farm or the produce supplier. I think that’s extremely important with the way that factory farming is going. I’m really conscious of where my meat comes from; whenever I buy meat, I try to buy meat from a place I know is good and is treating the animal properly and actually cares about the outcome, instead of just making a dollar. That, for me, is a main priority.
"Hopefully, more and more chefs and cooks will veer away from mass production in support of real farms that put actual care and effort into the growth of their animals."
Should restaurants tell diners what farms or where their food comes from?
DS: I do think it’s important to educate people on where their food comes from. But there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. A lot of restaurants will throw little tidbits of information into the menu: this meat comes from this butcher, etc. But there’s also an obnoxious way to do it, where restaurants plaster that information all over the place. No one wants to see that. Instead, encourage people to be inquisitive about it.
Do you interact with vendors at all?
DS: I don’t deal with the actual ordering, but I deal with vendors face-to-face when they come in and drop off the product. I know all our vendors.
What do you think are the most important factors when choosing which vendors to work with?
DS: Reliability, timeliness, willingness to interact with chefs who want a specific product. It’s incredibly frustrating when an incomplete order comes in with no warning or update.
Do you have specific cooking tools you like to work with?
DS: So many. A lot of cooks are religious about knives, so that’s the obvious one. I have a lot of knives. That sounds weird when I say that. Spoons are another one. I use a fish spatula every day, an offset spatula, tweezers. That’s another big one. And tweezer tongs.
Rasa serves mainly tapas-style dishes. Do you prefer cooking small plates or full entrees?
DS: I see sharing plates as the future, as truly modern eating. A la carte dining, where everyone’s ordering an appetizer and a main, is pretty antiquated now. There is still a time and place: I eat a lot of ramen and pho, and soup is a dish I want to myself, but generally speaking I think sharing plates offer a lot of flexibility for both the diner — who gets to try a lot of different plates — and for the kitchen. It takes a lot more man power to cook seated meals.
What are your thoughts on the Toronto restaurant scene? What trends have you seen popping up here?
DS: I think it’s growing. There’s a lot of potential. Relative to other major cities it’s a bit immature; there were a lot of great restaurants over the past few years that were ahead of the curve, and they shut down because the diner scene wasn’t ready for them. I think we’re at this weird point where we’re moving out of high-end junk food into more fine-casual food, which I really like. That’s the trend I’m seeing. There are a lot of chefs coming from fine-dining backgrounds and opening more casual spots.
One thing I hope we get more of is casual tasting menus. One of the best meals I’ve ever had was a casual tasting menu in Austin, TX, at this place called Barley Swine. There isn’t really a place in Toronto that does that yet. I love eating that way: it’s really interesting, and it changes regularly. You need to be a great chef to execute a tasting menu properly, though: it’s very difficult, it requires more cooks and it’s expensive. I think part of what prevents that from being more of a reality here is that our winter is long and product is limited in those months.
What is a common misconception diners have about food?
DS: That vegetarian or vegan food is healthy all of the time. That one rattles me. That stuff can be fried, too.
What do you think is a positive change that the food world is on the verge of?
DS: I think the North American food world is trending towards vegetarian-focused food because of the environmental implications of factory-farmed meat and unethical fishing practices. Not to say that meat will be entirely out of the picture, but hopefully, more and more chefs and cooks will veer away from mass production in support of real farms that put actual care and effort into the growth of their animals.
Where do you see your career heading in the next 10–15 years?
DS: I don’t really know yet. I know that I want to work towards helping people understand food and cooking better, and educating them on the products they’re eating, why they should eat a local piece of meat versus something else. I don’t know if I’m going to do that through a restaurant of my own or something else. Right now I love cooking. I love the creative outlet that it allows me on a daily basis, but I wouldn’t mind having more of a balance between having an actual life and cooking. I’m not quite sure where I’m going to end up, which is very uncharacteristic for me. I’m just going with the flow.