If he wasn’t a chef, Luis Valenzuela says that perhaps he would have been an astronaut. “There was a very famous astronaut who said the only thing I can see from space was the earth without frontiers, that that was quite beautiful,” he says pensively. His draw to internationalism doesn’t stop there; it certainly shines through in his cuisine. As we sit down at Torito Tapas Bar, the Spanish restaurant in the Kensington Market where Luis is the Executive Chef, he seems completely at ease, settling down in his white uniform and graciously pouring me a glass of water.
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico – also the birthplace of Tequila, he adds, smiling – Luis always had a strong perception of Canada as an international country. “I really believed that Canadians were generally more open-minded than Americans,” he says, and perhaps it’s true, because the country has certainly lived up to Valenzuela’s expectations. “Canada has become my home,” he confesses. Despite his now strong connection to the city of Toronto, Luis had originally intended to come to Canada to learn English, then return to Mexico and give English lessons while training to become a chef. His plans went awry when he met a chef who introduced him to the culinary program at George Brown College; he enrolled and never looked back.
Despite having an impressive resume and years of experience under his belt, Luis’ path was not always so linear. He recalls a convention where he worked alongside chefs with household names, and spent time chatting with them afterwards. “The whole question about how we knew we wanted to become cooks came up, I was quite embarrassed because everyone at that table had an extravagant, growing up, childhood story – you know the grandmothers would make foie gras – my family was the most typical common, normal family in Mexico,” he says, reliving his distress. So how did it happen then, that a young teenager in Guadalajara decided he would be a chef? “When I was about 15 or 16, someone mentioned to me that this person I knew wanted to become a chef, and it was the first time I even realized that it was a profession,” Luis says, incredulously, “and so I went and saw a kitchen in a restaurant and saw how everyone was yelling and screaming there was something that happened within me and I thought maybe I want to do this.” The next obstacle, he explains, was getting his father on board. “He didn’t pay all those years of school for me to become a cook,” Luis says, grinning mischievously. Realizing that he had to carve his own path, Luis decided that Canada was the place for him.
And now that he’s achieved his dream, after working in kitchens day after day, it’s easy to assume that he gets tired of it – but Luis shakes his head, no, giving an extravagant explanation for his love of his career. “There’s two types of chefs,” he tells me, “the ones that are obsessed with their job, and the ones that have a lot of passion.” Luis takes pride in being on the passionate end of the scale, and explains that you can tell when a chef is passionate versus obsessed, because the people that work for a passionate chef are happy. “When I started working in the kitchen I thought, I do want to have that happiness in my life, and this industry gives you that, if you’re passionate enough and not obsessed, it gives you happiness.” And his interactions with waiters and kitchen staff as they begin to arrive for their evening shifts tells it all. They stop to chat for a few seconds, exchange hugs and a kiss on the cheek, and then go on with their business, clearly harboring no resentment towards the man who runs the show.
It is without a doubt in his mind that Luis says one day he will have a restaurant of his own. Based on his personal preferences and lifestyle, the restaurant would of course have some Mexican food – perhaps Luis’ personal favorite, Oxtail – but would also have an international flare. “I do not want to have the best restaurant in Toronto,” Luis concedes, “but I want to please people; I want them to have a good time.” He has his eyes set on a Mexican location as well – with the added bonus of spending time with his family, who still live in his hometown. But for now, he’s enjoying the ride, and making sure that he doesn’t lose sight of what’s important in life. “This is my lifestyle,” he says, gesturing to the kitchen, “What I do is not my work, it is my life.” Words of true passion.