Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
You’ve been recognized for your ability to take classic comfort food dishes and add your own personal twist to catch guests’ interest. Can you share your inspiration behind this style of cooking?
At each of The Drake Properties, we always want to lure people in with familiarity, while also being surprising and catching them off guard. So when it comes to food, we take a classic and throw in a curveball by elevating or giving it an unexpected twist so that it has been a memorable moment for guests.
I'm fortunate enough to have a great workspace to experiment within and a team of amazing chefs with whom I work with collaboratively to create our menus. I don't want to create an environment where I'm handing staff a menu and then just telling them to execute it. We all get together and work on our dishes as a group.
For example, we were recently at the Drake Devonshire and took a drive to meet a farmer who is going to be growing produce for the restaurant this summer. Those are the moments of inspiration where all the forces come together; the chefs, the providers, what's in season. That's where it always starts.
Describe your process for maximizing flavor in taking fan favorites to the next level, using cooking techniques such as fermentation and slow-cooking.
To make something great, it's always a labor of love and we have to be willing to put the time in for our fermentation processes, whether it's for our vegetables, bread, or charcuterie. We don't cut any corners. We invest the time and have the space at the Drake Commissary to build flavor profiles.
For example, you can taste the sour in our sour dough because it's now 4 years old and the depth of flavor only comes with time. You can't cheat that or rush it.
Take our brisket as another example. The flavor profile in our brisket is a 14-day process that we go through from brining, curing and smoking to then slow-cooking. Could I do it in 5 or 6 days? For sure, but I don't think we would get the same profile.
At the end of the day, for me, it's all about committing to something and seeing it through.
When developing your menus, you opt for local sustainable ingredients. How do you feel that these components impact the overall flavor profile of your dishes?
It's about what's in season and available at the moment, these speak huge to flavor profiles. I'm not going to be serving anyone strawberries in February, they're not in season so it makes no sense to. That being said, I may have made a strawberry jam months ago so that I could preserve the fruit during its’ peak season to offer in the winter.
It's important to use the ingredient at the right time, capitalize on when they are available and then figure out how to draw out the lifespan whether that be through pickling or fermentation.
Explain how you have successfully adapted your signature cooking style across all of the Drake Properties. For example, how did you go about ensuring consistency in the flavors of your menu at each location?
I have a really strong team I get to work closely with and it starts with the hiring process, finding like-minded people who believe in sustainability and commitment to food, not about taking shortcuts.
I've been doing this for a while now and as companies grow, like The Drake has, they have a moment in time where they decide, "how do I find efficiencies to ensure consistencies in flavor and execution?" That's when I see businesses go in one direction where they start buying things off a truck and know exactly what it's going to be like all the time because it's made off-site.
I'm fortunate for The Drake believing in my food philosophy and we went in the other direction, filling our own facility and becoming our own supplier of food. I also get to lean on like-minded chefs; making things together.
What is Chef Ted Corrado’s signature dish and flavor?
I am quite proud of the Drake Burger. It's a feature I inherited when I first came to The Drake but I was able to change it. I started using a sustainable supplier for the beef. Steven Alexander of Cumbraes and I got together and we worked on our beef patty formula; how much short rib is in it, how much brisket, how much fat content. I then started making the bread for The Drake so it became my burger bun that we served it on. The style of the burger hasn't changed, it has always been patty, bacon, cheese, Russian dressing, bun, but I've gotten my fingerprints all over it now.
Summing up my signature flavor in a couple of words, it’s Toronto cuisine. I was born in Toronto, grew up here, cooked here and still do so, my flavor profile reflects my time in the city. When I was growing up, I knew where to go for good Korean food, I knew where really good Indian was, I knew my pizza place if I wanted Italian. To me, that speaks to the flavor and how my palate was developed, having had access to all these unique neighborhoods in the city. I now reflect that in the way I cook my food. I don't shy away from big bold flavors or spices. Instead, I take from my experiences and with my experiences being in such a multi-cultural city, I get to put that on my menus.
Which new flavors and ingredients can we see making their way onto the Drake Properties’ menus?
Classic dishes have a certain connotation with decadence or childhood nostalgia, but may not be healthy, so where we'll be taking our classics now is, "how can we make those classics a healthier version of themselves?"
For example, we have a Caesar salad that doesn't have actual Caesar dressing but if you tried it, it tastes exactly like it. We fermented romaine dressing that gives it the richness, depth of flavor and creaminess you'd associate with a classic Caesar dressing. Instead of anchovies, we added seaweed for an umami flavor.
Spring is such an amazing time once the rhubarb and asparagus starts popping up. It's like a Christmas that goes on for a few months, leading into summer; it's go-to time in Ontario. Outside of the actual ingredients, the season's exciting because of the connection I have now with a lot of farmers in Prince Edward County who are putting seeds in the ground to be grown for us this year. I'm looking at seeds with them to see if they can do something unique that isn't seen on every menu.