Chef Antonio Soriano describes himself as a ‘multicultural native’. Growing up between the old world and the new, with a French mother and a large Latin American family, his cooking is a reflection of who he is. A rich tapestry of life experiences, family, freedom and celebration which have found belonging at Joni restaurant inside the Park Hyatt Hotel in Toronto.
Soriano came to cooking after dropping out of law school in Argentina and finding his calling after staging at a Buenos Aires restaurant. “I just loved it. There was no chance I was doing anything else,” he says looking back. Later attending Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and honing his skills in two and three Michelin star restaurants, Soriano rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s greatest legends before later opening his own restaurant, Astor, in Buenos Aires.
Fast forward to this latest project, and he’s embracing the novel challenge and demands of a much bigger operation with the maturity that’s grown from nearly two decades in the trade. Running a kitchen team of 40 in a restaurant with over 100 covers - open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, functions and room service - he’s still smiling over Zoom, even after putting in some 140-hour weeks.
While the pandemic wreaked havoc for the industry in general, the enforced pause worked in his favour. “What for a lot of people looked like a nightmare, for us, was an opportunity since we were opening a place, to give us some time to go deeply into the concepts and think what we would do in this new kind of world,” he explains.
Soriano, who named the restaurant after the singer Joni Mitchell, put in the ideas, concepts and built the team from the ground up. Now, much like fatherhood, he reflects, it’s time to watch the project grow. “When you create a restaurant it’s like having a kid, you can plan whatever you want and put the boundaries and the setting, once it’s open you can’t control anything anymore. Like when a child goes to school. Now it’s like, whatever people want to make of the restaurant,” he grins.
But the easy-going 45-year-old chef wasn’t always so at ease with himself or his food. It took a couple of decades to overcome his ‘burden’ of never belonging, before a final epiphany. “I woke up one day and thought I’m lucky enough to know three cultures and being a chef, and it’s like this food is part of me.” From this moment he found the freedom to finally be himself.
“Coming here I found a place which is naturally multicultural,” says Soriano of Toronto, one of the world’s most multicultural cities, with over 250 ethnicities and 170 languages. “I’m almost like a stranger everywhere, until now. I am French, I feel French, my passport is French. I grew up in France, but my name is not Jean Claude. It’s Antonio Soriano and I was born in Lima. So, for French people I’m French, but I’m not as French as they wish. In Peru, where I was born, I speak like an Argentinean. And in Buenos Aires, I was born abroad so I’m not really a porteños. I have to give context to who I am to give context to my food," he explains.
Embracing his early food influences - from boeuf tartare in France to a love of ceviche and seafood garnered from feasting with family and friends in Lima - Soriano was exposed to a sense of celebration that came from a family that survived political exile. Much like him and his food, rather it is the sum of his influences. “I don’t believe that chefs have a style of cooking anymore,” he says. Instead, he describes his food as a technique applied to the best fresh and seasonal produce, dictated by nature and his suppliers, but ultimately, "without limitation".
Soriano also wants to break the barrier of what it means to be a hotel restaurant. Coming from small restaurants, or hotels, mainly in Paris, he’s built what he calls a 'dream team' of chefs from independent or Michelin-starred restaurants, rather than hotels. “I think what’s different is the mentality and if you want to build an amazing restaurant experience you need to find people with the right mentality,” he explains. “I was able to break that barrier of what 'hotel' means for the industry and convince them that we can do what we do in restaurants in this kind of set up." Most importantly, he says, even though many of his team are multilingual, "it’s about ‘speaking the same language in what we want to achieve”.
Having survived his formative years in high-end old-school kitchens ruled by tyranny and fear, which he puts down to stubbornness, he runs an empowered team and meditates daily. “I’ve got super lucky and have good intuition for a good eye for people," he says, after almost 15 years leading teams. The team also get to pick the kitchen playlist, despite his passion for The Beatles. “I think it’s this understanding that we are just stronger when you have more people around. And it’s safer for everybody. I learn a lot from them. I’ve been part of teams for 15 years. I don’t impose a way of cooking, I can impose a concept, that’s it. At this age, it’s more about what can I bring to this profession that gave me a good life in a lot of ways.”
The restaurant’s menu is created by the synergy in his core team, as they experiment and brainstorm dishes and recipes. "John is fascinated with koji. There’s a dessert dish we created with a koji ice cream. The flavour’s so unique it’s like nothing I ever tried in my life," he says.
He's also obsessed with the seasonal produce available from local suppliers and the value in good supplier relations. He recounts a recent victory and the realisation of a decades-old dream to finally serve mangalitsa pig after a two-hour conversation to convince a local supplier. They also do everything in house, like butchery, which gives them greater liberty with ingredients.
In Toronto, with the great outdoors on the doorstep, Soriano takes his ethical responsibility as a chef very seriously. “Here the level of awareness is refreshing and gives me a lot of hope in the world, it's amazing to work with and everybody really cares,” he says.
At the restaurant, he is always concerned about sustainability. “We have respect for the life and the death of the product and also to bring something new. So, we use everything. We even have a fridge for leftovers," he says. He holds up a picture of a miniature duck mould to highlight a new idea he's just had for making fun bar snacks out of foie gras offcuts, before talking turning turnip tops into powder to finish his beef tartare. "Nothing makes me unhappier than full bins.”
Thinking about the future, it looks like he's found a home for a good while. “I’m going to stick with this baby for a while," he smiles. But much like his cooking, his dreams have no limits. "We have a chance to change the world in a small way and that’s what we try to do.”
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