When you think of Mexican cuisine, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it tacos? Or perhaps tortilla chips and guac? While those might be the classics we’ve adopted in Canada today, they are not a complete reflection of Mexico’s complex food culture. From the over 21,000 different types of native corn species to the ancient Aztec recipes of mole, Mexican food remains an impactful cooking style that transcends the common stereotypes. Mexican food is spicy, romantic, rigorous and fruitful. From coast to coast, Mexican food encompasses a wide variety of ingredients and flavour profiles.
We recently sat down with Michelin star Chef Steven Molnar of Quetzal [KET-‘SÄL] shortly after he received a Michelin star. We dug deep into Oaxaca’s food culture, discovered the inner workings of Quetzal and reminisced on the important of familia in the kitchen. Gather round the fire fellow foodies, we have a story to tell.
Bringing tradition to the table
Like most young chefs, Steven began his culinary journey with a love of French cooking. After a brief time working at a French restaurant in Whitby, Ontario, studying in Lyon, France and living in Montreal for six years, Chef Steven made his way to Toronto with his sights set on growing his career. Chef Steven recalls his experience working at Bar Raval as “immersive,” where his love for tapas and family-style dishes came to life. From there he went to work at Bar Isabel, and soon after became the Head Chef at Quetzal. “Everything is meant to be shared at Quetzal,” says Steven. “It’s how people appreciate and enjoy food around the world.”
Chef Steven’s first time in Oaxaca, Mexico was in 2019. During his time, Chef Steven was able to experience a wide variety of traditional Oaxacan foods. “Everything from the corn to the mole was just incredible,” Steven mentions. “We do our best to source as much as we can from Mexico, like our dried corn and chilis.” While Chef Steven does source a lot of specialty ingredients from Mexico, he also recognizes the importance and value of working with local Canadian farmers. “Part of what makes this food so special is how we’re able to combine locally sourced goods and integrate them into our traditional Oaxacan recipes,” he says. Part of what puts Quetzal in a league of their own, is their ability to create immersive dishes while maintaining approachability for anyone new to the cooking style.
Fiery flavours come to life
One of the most notable features of Quetzal has to be the wood burning fire by the chef’s table. “Cooking with fire is inherently romantic,” says Steven. “Understanding the flames and how they impact the food is a relationship we try to foster here at Quetzal.” Honouring the culture is key at Quetzal. Chef Steven wants guests to be taken back in time to experience what food was like before modern technology. You could say his passion was forged in fire.
During a revisit to Quetzal, we took the opportunity to try their signature tasting menu. We sat at the chef’s table so we had a bird’s eye view of everything going on the line. Everything was immaculate. From fresh to fiery hot, each craving we had was satiated with every course. A standout dish was the roasted bone marrow with Argentinian shrimp, tortillas and the most delicious wild flower honey and garlic confit glaze. It’s no surprise that nearly every tasting menu includes this expertly crafted dish.
Family is everything at Quetzal
While Chef Steven is the leader of the ship, he gives a lot of his thanks and gratitude to his Quetzal family. “We’re a team that really cares about each other,” Steven mentions. “When we received the Michelin star, the whole team (new and old) were live streaming from the restaurant, everyone was there with love and support.” Steven recalls the experience of getting the call from Michelin as a “lifetime achievement” — a special moment him and his team will never forget. Quetzal joins a intimate group of other prestigious Canadian restaurants like St. Lawrence in Vancouver and Toronto’s famous Alo restaurant by Patrick Kriss.
To represent our city is an honour, and to do it within a Mexican restaurant is a dream.
With very few Mexican restaurants recognized globally, Chef Steven feels the immense responsibility of maintaining the authenticity of Quetzal. Steven hopes people are willing to explore the depths of Mexican food and culture. “Mexican chefs and restaurants need more recognition,” Steven says. “It’s so much more than just cheap eats.” Often it’s the French and contemporary restaurants that get the most notoriety — for better or worse. However, with all the success of Chef Steven’s restaurant, it’s clear that the renaissance of Mexican cuisine is just heating up, and it’s all starting here at Toronto’s Quetzal.