The holidays will be different in 2020, and local restaurants and food businesses have created new ways to gather virtually and entertain and exchange gifts with family and friends, or thank staff and employees at year’s end.
At the time of this writing, the province has been plunged into yet another – and perhaps the toughest – set of pandemic restrictions. It’s not merely a lockdown: it’s a shutdown, including closed patios, that is going to cause further pain to an already staggering restaurant industry in Waterloo Region.
Yet kitchens and cooks and front-of-house staff persevere; they put their heads down and work so we can eat.
It’s two o’clock – just as the shutdown closure has been announced by Doug Ford – and head chef Annie Street is in the kitchen at Uptown Waterloo’s popular Loloan Lobby Bar moving ahead quietly with mise en place. She’s prepping for a dining room which will seat, as a series of staggered and socially distanced “last supper” reservations, a couple dozen guests in the dining room and the attractive and distinctive bar which blends Art Deco accents with a classic colonial cocktail lounge bar and its revolving-door entrance.
For Street, a few years of work in a restaurant front-of-house after high-school graduation evolved into a decision to attend Conestoga College’s School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts, yet the Kitchener-born chef came by her love of food and kitchens honestly.
“My mom’s side is Russian and Ukrainian, so when they cooked it was for a small army. I mean hundreds of cabbage rolls and stuffed peppers. And a ton of potato salad. It was crazy,” Street says.
“While I was always involved with the preparation of all of it, I never really considered a job in the culinary field until I met my husband, then boyfriend, who was running the restaurant I started at in Listowel.”
At some point, she says, extra hands were needed in the kitchen, and Street made the transition to cooking. “I absolutely fell in love with it,” she adds – and a career was born. It was while she was at Conestoga that Street worked a co-op term with Paul Boehmer, chef-owner at Bhima’s Warung in Waterloo. “It was the only restaurant I applied to for co-op. It ended up working out, and I stayed for about three years.”
That decision represented a significant learning curve: from oma’s cabbage rolls and batches of pierogi to, arguably, Waterloo Region’s most interesting and unique food experience with a reputation that reaches far beyond Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge.
One aspect of learning included working with a new language when it came to southeast Asian ingredients for which Bhima’s is renowned. Boehmer, of course, is well familiar with the Indochinese Peninsula and the massive Indonesian archipelago and the people who live and cook there – he formerly owned the Loloan Restaurant of Seminyak, Bali, which he re-envisioned and brought to robust life in its Uptown Waterloo incarnation.
“That language and the flavour profiles and techniques needed to cook with shrimp paste, fish sauce and fresh chilies. It wasn’t something that I had worked with very much before,” Street says of working in a Boehmer kitchen.
If you talk to ten cooks, I’m willing to bet that a good majority of them would say that, after a long, hot shift in the kitchen, they’d decide to head somewhere for an icy beer and a plate of Thai noodles or pho. “There is just something about southeast Asian food that my palate seems to enjoy,” Street agrees.
In spring 2019, she left Bhima’s for a stint as saucier at Langdon Hall and Jason Bangerter’s kitchen – until the pandemic shut things down. The Langdon experience, she says, was another style of learning curve, given the differences in cuisine and approach. Her former work was with sweet, sour, salty and bitter, she says: “They are big, bold flavours. And I learned how to work fast and efficiently in the kitchen with Paul. At Langdon, it was the remarkable craft and the nuances of plating and subtlety. Hints of thyme, or that tiny drop of lemon that change an entire sauce.” (Boehmer once cooked at Langdon Hall, it should be noted.)
Of course, the number of cooks in the kitchen varied as well, from three to more than a dozen. “Both kitchens had such good teams,” Street adds. “I had a great time at Langdon.”
Following a short adventure 260 kilometres north to MacTier, Ontario, and the Oviinbyrd kitchen with former Langdon Hall chef Nigel Didcock in the spring of 2020, and amid the pandemic’s layoffs and furloughs, Street found herself the chef in the Loloan kitchen starting in July, 2020. Today, with yet another lockdown in place – including shuttered patios this time – she’s joined in the kitchen by sous chef Sean Rae Guba Pambid and some weekend help.
While a tight restaurant staff is putting out a small menu of four apps and four mains for pickup and delivery – along with an order and walk-up “tuk tuk” terrace-menu of wood and charcoal-fired take-away – they are eagerly looking ahead, Street notes.
“Our big focus for the future, when the pandemic dust has settled, will be our tasting menu, either weekly or bi-weekly. It will have ingredients and dishes that we have never worked with before. Even for Paul, it’s been a long time,” Street says, adding that the goal is to have something ready for when customers can return to indoor dining. “We want people to fall in love with us all over again.”
Somehow, this time will be different given what we’ve been through.
Until then, she’s looking forward to the challenge – and the excitement of cooking regular new menus and seeing what a small staff can do. What makes Loloan and Bhima’s unique, in Street’s view as for many others, are southeast Asian food experiences that draw on unique ingredients and cooking techniques Boehmer learned in the time he spent in southeast Asia – and which he brought here and embedded in the dining psyche. “It was food that wasn’t widely available here, and it’s stood the test of time,” Street says.
Street is an example of another test of time: Is there a fairly high percentage of female chefs who have cooked at Loloan and Bhima’s and gone on to start other businesses in the region? Street would tend to agree. “Definitely. Paul welcomed me into the kitchen with perhaps somewhat limited experience and gave me a chance.” Bhima’s can be an intense kitchen – and open to the view of customers in the dining room – and Street says it takes a lot to be able to learn the flavours, the menu and the language that goes along with it. “I’m biased of course, but both restaurants give cooks an opportunity to learn and grow.”
The learning hasn’t stopped, she says, and she envisions herself being behind the stoves for quite a while. “That’s the dream, obviously, but things change over time.” When the world returns to some fashion of normal, Street says travel and cooking will be on her itinerary – that’s a significant part of learning, she believes. “I’d love to do some stagiaires in southeast Asia, wherever they might have me. That is where my culinary heart is, and it’s the food I love to cook at home myself.”
As for observations of the local food scene, Street sees a big change even in just five or six years. “There’s been a boom in young chefs taking over kitchens and putting their spin on food. I don’t want to say ‘melting pot,’ but we have people from all over the world working together to cook food that is familiar to them and now us. Every cuisine has some sort of pasta or dumpling, for example, and all of these cultures have come together so well here.”
Though the hurly-burly of the pandemic is still upon us, Street hopes that these cooks can continue to find the space and the kitchens to pursue what they want to cook as an expression of who they are.
“I think we are going to see more of that in the future.”
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.