We spoke with David Lee, executive chef of Toronto’s Planta restaurant, on the challenges of opening Planta and his philosophy about the foodservice industry.
Education: UK Hertfordshire School
Years of Experience as a Chef: 20 years
What are your earliest memories of cooking and why do you think you were drawn to a culinary career?
My earliest memories are from when I was growing up in Mauritius between six and 10 years old. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in our family’s gastro pubs and restaurants. I was always around food, and therefore, it seemed very natural for me to pursue a career in cooking.
How would you describe your current restaurant Planta and what makes it unique?
Planta is a casual, vibrant, plant-based restaurant, serving dishes inspired from all parts of the world. Planta is a unique restaurant because we do not use any animal products in our food preparation.
What have been some of the challenges of opening Planta?
One of our biggest challenges was creating a menu that was fully satisfying, not only for people who already enjoy a plant-based diet, but also for those who eat meat.
What have been some of the positive surprises and successes since opening Planta?
The reception has been overwhelmingly positive. People are excited to try this style of cooking!
How would you describe your philosophy about food and the foodservice industry?
My philosophy is that the food has to be honest, sensible, and approachable.
What issues concerning foodservice are you particularly passionate about?
First, sustainability. It’s very important to acknowledge the impact that the foodservice industry has on our planet. We are aware that, generally speaking, the foodservice industry isn’t typically environmentally friendly, and wanted to show what we could do to build a restaurant that could mitigate those effects. What we feed our kids and put into our bodies is so important not only to our health, but the health of our environment. Since I’ve started eating only a plant-based diet, I’ve never felt better (in terms of my energy levels). Second, local sourcing and foraging. It has never been more exciting than now because of suppliers like 100KM foods. Before 100KM foods, there was no way for us to get these beautiful ingredients besides actually driving out to the farms. It is so much more accessible now. When I go to Brickworks or Wychwood markets, I see other chefs going to pick out their produce and that’s fantastic.
Who were your biggest influences/inspirations for becoming a chef and what drives you to do this every day?
My grandparents, my parents, and the great chefs of France. Steven Salm (laughs); we’re passionate, we love what we do.
If you knew you were going to be exiled to a desert island, what three ingredients or food items would take with you?
Champagne, pasta, Manni olive oil
Is there any type of cuisine that you would like to experiment with?
I think I’m doing it right now; Planta has been an awesome culinary experiment.
What is your favourite food combination or ingredient right now?
Kombu. It’s a source of umami; we use it a lot at Planta. We sous vide, cook, and marinate with it. It’s very unique.
What are the essential ingredients for success in the foodservice industry today?
Buying great ingredients and having great suppliers.
What are some of the most interesting or unique challenges of being a chef?
My biggest challenge is trying to control all of the dish ideas that come to my mind. The seasons are so quick in Canada that you have a very small window to realize those visions and keep them on the menu.
What advice would you have for aspiring chefs as they enter the industry?
Getting a great foundation and not being too quick to take an executive chef job. It takes time to get all of the skills to have a long-lasting career.