Having a family that enjoyed cooking drew Ivana Raca into the culinary world. When she was seventeen, one of her teachers discovered that she enjoyed cooking and convinced her to do a culinary apprenticeship program. She was selected out of the top twenty apprentices in Ontario to do a placement at famous chef Mark MacEwan’s flagship restaurant North 44. Raca says, “It was the perfect kitchen to start in. I was the first girl in the kitchen and I just worked my way up. I felt like I had to work twice as hard, so I just said yes all the time and absorbed everything I could.”
Canada's Chefs in Conversation: Ivana Raca,Toronto ON
Chef Ivana Raca uses seasonal, local ingredients and cooks with an eye towards respecting those ingredients and showcasing their flavours at Raca Café and Bar in Toronto.
Chef Ivana Raca
There were two experiences with Mark MacEwan’s restaurants that helped shaped Raca. The first was opening a restaurant with MacEwan and taking on the sous chef position there on her 23rd birthday. It was her first time opening a restaurant from scratch. The second experience was becoming the executive chef at MacEwan’s gourmet food store called 45 Cooks. There was a lot of pressure on Raca but she says, “It was a big moment for me but I definitely handled it. Mark wouldn’t have put me in that position unless he thought that I was ready.”
Another formative experience for Raca was working with Chef Paul Froggatt in Australia. Raca says that he was an intense chef to work with and she learned a great deal but she discovered that his style of food didn’t suit her approach to cooking. She explains, “At the end of the day, people say ‘Wasn’t that the best pasta you’ve ever had?’ instead of ‘Wasn’t that pretty?’ I think to a certain extent, I try not to pass that boundary. People crave flavour.”
Locally sourced ingredients are at the heart of Raca's approach to food and cooking. She goes shopping on her days off and sources out as many local products as she can. An example of her commitment to using local ingredients is the fact that she freezes summer berries to use in her café’s smoothies all winter long rather than bringing berries in from elsewhere.
This commitment also stems from Raca’s environmental concerns. She feels that chefs have the perfect platform to help influence people’s thinking on food and where it comes from. She explains, “People think that chefs are the coolest thing right now, so because we have such a strong voice, we should try to make people aware of what we’re doing to our environment.”
Stuffed dates with Stilton
Raca finds inspiration for her dishes from many sources. She could simply be driving down the road or watching something on television and an idea might be sparked. Raca also finds inspiration in seeing new produce that’s in season, picking it up and cooking with it. Her mind is open to whatever influences come her way.
Her commitment to using local products also comes from the quality of those products. The chef points out that people tend to think more about quantity than quality in their ingredients. She says, “A lot of people will go to the grocery store and they’ll go for the biggest strawberry they can get. It’s so funny because that’s the opposite of what you want to see. Anything that’s small and compact has so much more flavour.”
Veal bone marrow arancini with pear jam
Flavour is another reason that Raca sources her ingredients locally. She tries to use no more than six ingredients on her plates so the taste of each element is paramount. Raca points out that not using properly grown, locally sourced ingredients would cost a great deal of flavour in a dish with the approach that she uses. It’s a challenging way to cook but it’s the approach that she favours.
Having an open mind is one of the major traits that Raca hopes to have as a chef. She feels that every day is a new experience and she tries to learn as much as she can.
Honesty, hard work, dedication and a positive attitude are traits that Raca wants to see in her kitchen team. Her own approach is to turn negative situations into positive ones and she likes a team that responds with the same attitude. Having a team that works well together is far more important for Raca than her individual abilities as a chef.
The chef’s travels through Asia have been a major source of inspiration for her. She has drawn inspiration from the food and the culture of the countries that she’s visited. She says, “I was never into cooking Asian food until I experienced Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Asian street food was just mind-boggling. I couldn’t believe what was out there!” She’s going to embark on a tour of Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines in the winter to top up her inspiration.