When I call her, La Lola Catering co-owner Vanessa Stankiewicz is preparing for Smart Serve Ontario, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario’s responsible beverage alcohol training program. It’s part of a larger plan for the Preston, Cambridge-based business, which began operations in Waterloo Region in September, 2019. The accreditation will serve La Lola well as they open up another avenue in their business: gearing up for their liquor license, which should be approved shortly.
“So I need to get this ASAP,” says Stankiewicz. “It will be great to be able to now sell customers a mixed cocktail with their food purchases. I also make a killer authentic Sangria, and I look forward to bottling that up.”
In the midst of a polar vortex, the word Sangria alone conjures images of warm summer afternoons and the camaraderie of al fresco dining that accompanies: while the beverage made with wine, spirits and fruit absolutely defines the sunny Iberian Peninsula, it also captures the ambiance of La Lola, the inside of which vibrates with Spanish-food goodness.
Stankiewicz and La Lola’s relatively recent appearance in this part of southwestern Ontario had a meandering path: Mississauga to Madrid to the Kitchener Market – where their first local impact took root a few years ago – and now to Preston and a store they share with Virtuous Kitchen as La Lola’s business has grown. Rapidly.
Creating an Authentic Spanish Taste
Born in Mississauga, Stankiewicz is 50 percent of the La Lola team she shares with her Madrid-born partner Miguel Pastor. Of the city on the shores of Lake Ontario, west of Toronto, she says the 700,000 residents have a culinary milieu rich in international flavours and tightly-knit multicultural communities; it was part of her food inspiration. Her mother, born in Spain, also gave her a strong connection to the food of her background – at the same time she would cook with neighbours from other countries.
“I was exposed to many different international foods. Neighbours behind us were Portuguese, the neighbours in front were Greek,” Stankiewicz says. “Beside us was a Filipino family and not far away was a Lebanese household. One of my best friends, even today, is from Jamaica. It made you open to and become interested in all kinds of food.”
Her mother’s specific birthplace was the tip of North Africa, in Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city bordered by Morocco and south of the Strait of Gibraltar; Stankiewicz was baptized there and returned frequently to Spain. Those interconnections she might describe as an accidental cross-cultural education that culminated, needless to say, in a local Spanish food-business. And she’s found a lot of the same multicultural connections in Waterloo Region.
Food, though a passion for Stankiewicz, came after other interests. Studying psychology and archaeology at the University of Waterloo, she eventually moved on to fashion design studies at Seneca, followed by a 22-year stint working in the European fashion industry. Pastor, similarly, was in a different career too: “I met Miguel in Madrid, in 2007, after about four years after having moved to Spain,” she says, adding that Pastor was in IT before he switched and got training in culinary arts, eventually working in some Spanish restaurants.
With Stankiewicz having let the fashion industry run its course and with Pastor expressing an interest in heading to Canada – and the southwestern Ontario that was Stankiewicz’s origin – the pair, with plans forged in Madrid, decided to set up shop as a catering company: there was a gap in the food market they felt they could fill. “I knew this area pretty well, and we both knew Spanish food, something that wasn’t necessarily well-known here,” she says. Additionally, Stankiewicz has oenological training: La Lola Catering, she says, offers tastings of Spanish wines and spirits to complement Pastor’s cooking. “Wine is a huge part of Spanish culture, and I want to represent it even better here.”
Paella Parties and Tapas
To build their brand, Stankiewicz says La Lola rented a stall at the Kitchener Market, did paella parties, Christmas parties and corporate and private catering that publicized through word-of-mouth their authentic Spanish cooking. Business grew quickly – by November, 2019, they had developed a line of retail products that were stocked in a Guelph specialty food shop. “We did a lot of pop-ups with local breweries too,” she says.
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We see this more and more within our food culture: anywhere you go in the world, food is regional, cooking is regional and ingredients are regional. It’s a reality Stankiewicz understands, especially given the wonderful variety within Spanish food culture, from Madrid to the Canary Islands. La Lola, she says, tries to reach widely and inform as well as entertain with their food.
Take in a La Lola paella party, as I have done, and though it is dish you have likely had before (and perhaps even tried cooking yourself), there is much to be learned about the ingredients and techniques, says Stankiewicz. “I don’t want to say we are educators, but we are trying to expose this community to food and a food culture that they perhaps don’t know a lot about. Our niche is providing a Spanish culinary experience that isn’t found here.”
She stresses that while there are many Latin American restaurants in Waterloo Region, the Spanish food experience is different. Since Stankiewicz and La Lola opened the store, it has specialized as a delicatessen with Spanish meats, cheese, olives and other products and groceries – and soon wine. “We will be able to showcase wines from various Spanish regions throughout the country, and many not available in the LCBO,” she said. Spirits, sherries, a Spanish moonshine, and vermouth, according to Stankiewicz, have seen popular growth in Spain over the past few years, and she hopes to transfer that interest, and those beverages, to La Lola. The vermouth, especially, is an interesting and traditional accompaniment to tapas.
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However, the education element comes into play despite Stankiewicz’s assertion that La Lola is not an “educator.” She debunks some myths about Spanish food at the same time she and Pastor create as authentic as possible Spanish food and wine experiences. She notes that paella, though hugely popular, is not really the country’s “national” dish; that, rather, is tortilla Española,” a thick “omelette” with egg and potato. “We are recognized for paella, but I would claim this tortilla is the Spanish national dish. You can’t go anywhere in Spain and not find it,” she says. “The Christmas version has black truffle and Brie.” (It’s brilliantly delicious, indeed.)
Tapas, as well, has been too liberally applied to the “small plates” that many restaurants serve. “Originally, we’re talking ages ago, a glass of wine was served with a slice of cured meat over the glass to keep bugs out. That covering was called a tapa, a lid. It’s not an appetizer but only a little bite or sample that accompanies your drink.” She adds that beer is huge in Spain and is often served with tapas – and some olive oil-fried kettle potato chips. “With spirits, it’s fried and salted Marcona almonds.”
That educational aspect, it would seem, comes naturally to Stankiewicz when she talks about the foods of Spain and her childhood memories – and as inspired on the La Lola menu.
“Miguel and I are trying to showcase some of the popular dishes in the various regions of Spain,” she says, admitting it’s a big task. “It’s hard to encompass it all, but we try to touch on pretty much every area of the country. It’s a taste of Spain.”
Andrew Coppolino is a writer-broadcaster, and is a food columnist with CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. Following a stint as a cook at a restaurant in Kitchener, Andrew chose to work with food from the other side of the kitchen pass. As a food writer, he is dedicated to promoting and nurturing culinary businesses and advocating for local chefs and restaurants. Andrew’s work has been published in newspapers and magazines across Canada, the United States and England. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.