As owner of the catering company Toben Food By Design, Executive Chef Toben Kochman tells Sara Waxman he takes cooking for the masses personally.
HOME GROWN TALENT, GLOBAL TRAINED TASTE: My parents exposed me at an early age to all sorts of food, both through home cooking and dining out and travel. I think that my sub-conscious took me toward food early on. As a teenager, to earn money, I worked in restaurants, paving my way to becoming a doctor. I studied Sciences at McMaster University and then I traveled all over Europe and the Middle East and just ate. From that moment I realized cooking was really my passion, my calling.
MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING: I finished school with a Bachelor of Science, but I ended up moving to Paris about two weeks after I graduated, and that’s where I did my culinary training—at the Cordon Bleu. A French chef that I worked with for a long time in Paris, and his sous chef, really took me under their wings. I was one of the few apprentices that could actually communicate in French, would stay and help with all the pastries and desserts into the late hours, working a 16-hour day. They hired me and taught me what it was to really work in an incredible place and learn all the different systems.
COMING HOME: Living on a young cook’s salary in a little shoebox apartment in Paris is quite demanding on the wallet. I missed my family and my friends in Toronto, it was time to take that next step in my career. I ended up doing stints at Susur, Sotto Sotto and Auberge du Pommier here.
CATERING TO OUR NEEDS: I was doing some freelance chef work and was approached by two really great charities for gala dinners. I didn’t know what the nature of catering was at that point. I was 26. They said, ‘would you like to cater our dinner party next month for 40 people, it’s my husband’s 50th and he loves your food.’ I took to it. With catering and events it’s very personal. In restaurants, you’re in the back and don’t really have much of a connection with the people you’re cooking for.Having the opportunity to do all sorts of big galas and work with amazing charities and create special memories for weddings, for engagements, things like that, you’re really creating a memory for people and there’s that gratification when you can play out their exact vision. It’s not like a restaurant, where they’re coming to you and this is my menu as a chef, enjoy it, and either you’ll love it and come back or you’ll go somewhere else. My clients will say, ‘we love Mediterranean food, it’s spring time, would you be able to create a Mediterranean feast? And so I get to play out that for them, which is very special in their eyes, sharing that with them.
MULTI-CULTI COOK: I love slow food, something you can braise. Also, with my background in French and also in Asian, I love food that you put a lot more love in at the front and then you can just let it go and let it transform itself into something completely different. I love rustic, I would say definitely beef and lamb for that. I’m passionate and constantly striving to push my limits in terms of the types of cuisine that I’m learning, and I don’t like to stick to one particular style. I am lucky to have a strong technical background.
FAMILY BUSINESS: You have to look at the business side for how to make it successful, instead of just cooking for the sake of cooking. I brought in my sister, Elana Kochman, as my partner. She has two degrees, which both play well in the business of food: she is able to create these magical events and has a very creative, artistic flair. I have 12 full-time staff, plus my sister and I. I have a full-time set of chefs and we take care of between 1500-2500 people’s worth of food every week. You put your heart into the food and your heart on the plate, we do things such as basic corporate lunches, and we do everything from scratch, to the most high-end of dinners and cocktail parties. Every day is a challenge. It’s definitely an acceptance of a lifestyle that can be physically taxing. Being a business owner and not just being a chef is also mentally taxing. Because, if you’re not doing well you can’t just leave and go look for another career. It feels great knowing that I did this myself with my sister and started from the ground up.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE KITCHEN: We started packaging some products for certain clientele we had worked with. So I thought about my own baked goods, certain preserves, sauces and soups. Soups had always been a comfort food and I love soups, the French are amazing at soup and I learned early that with some fresh herbs and a great homemade stock you can turn it into something amazing. And Elana created these beautiful baskets and we started sending them out. Our clients loved them and wanted to order from us. It’s now called Good For You Gourmet.
GOTTA HAVE FAITH: In life, humility is always the key and to keep learning and improving, and not feel that I am the be all and end all. I want to be the type of chef that people know as acting with my heart first. But, eventually, you have to learn how to delegate and lead by example, but you have to learn to trust people and I think it’s a lesson in life in general, being able to put your faith in people and know that their vision and their philosophies are on parallel with yours, and treat them well.
Toben Food By Design, (416) 659-5139, firstname.lastname@example.org
Good For You Gourmet, to order, or for retail availability at gourmet food shops in Toronto, go to www.tobenfoodbydesign.com