Last fall, I had the distinct pleasure of assisting the CVB in showing a well-respected Toronto-based food writer around town. I am often called upon by various organizations to show visitors our city’s best (and best-loved) edibles, so I was happy to oblige. Little did I know that Mary Luz Mejia, the food writer, producer, and event hostess extraordinaire, would be such a delight. After a brief weekend filled with talk of all that Buffalo’s food scene is, was and can be, I felt a bond with Mejia and her equally erudite husband, Mario. It is a remarkable experience to watch someone become fond of our fair city, particularly someone who arrives with limited expectations.
Since then, Mejia and I have become Facebook friends, and occasionally share tales and stories of the culinary circles we both work in, which are very different and yet have many similarities. I was pleased to have the opportunity to invite her to return to Buffalo this weekend, where, after a couple of days filled with food, art and sightseeing, she will act as a judge at the final battle of Nickel City Chef’s second season. To say that she is qualified for the role is an understatement.
As a television producer, Mejia is responsible for multiple Canadian television programs, all of which have focused on food. Under her belt she has three seasons of Street Eats, a few seasons on Fearless in the Kitchen, and a major role in the production of At the Table With…. a program featuring culinary luminaries from all over the world. Her television work has appeared on Food Network Canada, The CBC, A&E, Slice, VIVA, W Network, Equator HD, Much Music, Knowledge TV, Vision TV, CanWest Global and at the Toronto International Film Festival.
As a food writer, her stories have appeared in enRoute Magazine, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Life online, Canadian Living Online, Asian Gourmet Magazine, Edible Toronto, The Bakers Journal, Amoi, The Queen’s University Alumni Review and, in the United States, Saveur and Latina magazines. She is also the Food Trends columnist for Suite101.com, a very popular Canadian website.
With all of her travels and food experience, I thought it might be fun to ask Mejia to tell us about her last experience here in Buffalo, and how it has shaped her opinions about our area and our dining scene.
Mary Luz Mejia, food maven
Birthplace: Medellin, Colombia
Places you’ve lived for more than a year: Medellin, Colombia, Cambridge, ON (where we first landed), Hamilton, ON (where I grew up), Oakville, ON (where we moved to when I was in Grade 10), Kingston, ON (where I went to university), Vancouver, BC (1 rainy year), Hollywood Beach, FL, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and Toronto, ON (where I live now).
Can’t-live-without-it oddball pantry item: I collect fine salts from around the globe (and yes, I use them all), so you’ll find everything from Nova Scotian Sea Salt from out east, Murray River salt from Oz, and very special salt I picked up on a recent trip to Oaxaca that was collected in the state’s Isthumus region. It’s a superb, clean-tasting salt from salt water lagoons.
Favorite dish to prepare for others: I like simple, honest food that’s not too fussy (especially when I’m cooking), so I like to prepare dishes like roasted chicken with my own Latin or Mediterranean spice rub, roasted, herb-flecked potatoes, a crisp, green salad dressed with some Spanish olive oil, herbs from my garden, sea salt and lemon juice. Top that off with a good glass of Ontario wine and we’re good to go. If I’m feeling really inspired, I might even make my famous apple apricot cake or a Latin American Tres Leches Cake (that’s 3 milks) infused with Caribbean Rum. Si Senor!
Favorite ethnic food: Latin American fare is near and dear to my heart, from Colombian empanadas to Argentine churrasco and Peruvian ceviches, [also] Lebanese, Persian, Spanish, and anything in the Mediterranean realm, as well as the clean flavors of Asian food, especially Japanese. I think I was Asian in a past life!
Guilty pleasure: Dark chocolate, single estate preferably. Better still if it’s Fair Trade.
Most under-rated kitchen or cooking hint/product/tool: The microplane. It’s the ultimate zester, cheese grater and spice grater all rolled into one!
Favorite cooking show/celeb chef/cookbook: I have a soft spot for Chef Norman Van Aken and his family (his son Justin is a pastry chef) after I interviewed him and directed his episode on the bio-doc series, At the Table With… for the Food Network Canada. The man is a most talented chef with the soul of a poet. I’m also itching to see Chef Maricel Presilla’s ode to Latin American cooking. She holds a Spanish Medieval PhD and so you know her research will be deep and measured in this book that’s taken her 15 years to put together! Her restaurants are in Hoboken, NJ (Cucharamama and Zafra) and are simply amazing!
What did you expect from Buffalo before your first visit here?
I frankly wasn’t sure what to expect, other than I’d been reading that the downtown core had been going through some sort of renaissance over the past few years. That piqued my interest and I thought, Okay, I’m going to drive down there and see/taste for myself what’s going on. I’m glad I did because all of the stereotypes are just that, worn out labels that no longer hold water or reflect the significant changes going on in Buffalo.
Was there anything you were particularly surprised by during your last visit?
Yes, a few things actually, The quality of the food I tried, and how pleasant people were to us. We could stop complete strangers and ask them for directions and we’d be kindly told how to get to where we needed with a side of friendly banter thrown in. We dined at Sample and Tempo and enjoyed two outstanding experiences. Both of which were very different and thoroughly enjoyable.
And the Bidwell Farmers Market was so good to see- celebrating/supporting your own local food ways is key to a healthy community. I still mourn the fact that I can’t get White Cow Dairy here in Toronto though! Best yogurt and dairy drinks ever!
Any ideas/opinions or summations that occurred to you after you returned home? Friends of mine would initially laugh us off (my husband and I) when we told them about how much we’d enjoyed our stay in Buffalo. It wasn’t until my sister-in-law and her husband went down for themselves, ate at Tempo, and another Greek place they raved about, shopped in Elmwood and enjoyed Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House that they too became unofficial Buffalo evangelists! Seeing is believing, no doubt about it.
What are you most looking forward to seeing/seeking out upon your return?
I had a chance to interview Chef Carmelo Raimondi for a piece I wrote and have heard about Carmelo’s in Lewiston for a while now, so I’m making reservations for dinner, without fail. I also look forward to revisiting Elmwood, your Wegmans (now that’s a grocery store), the Lexington Co-Op, and to trying Chef Krista Van Wagner’s food d
uring the Nickel City Chef competition.
Special plans during your visit?
IF I’m lucky, I might squeeze another visit in to the Bidwell Farmers Market now that the warmer weather is here, and catching up with Buffalo-based friends that I look forward to seeing again!
What is the biggest misconception you think your fellow Torontonians have about Buffalo and about Buffalo’s food scene?
Most Torontonians only know Buffalo for its shopping (read: outlet malls) and sports. Not as many know that you boast a modern art museum like the Albright-Knox, or several Frank Lloyd Wright houses, live theatre venues and some really talented chefs. Alas, most still think yours is a beer and Buffalo wing kinda town, working class to the core. And hey, I grew up in Ontario’s Buffalo equivalent, Hamilton (home of many a steel mill), so I say that with all due respect. Torontonians however, want to be excited, charmed or at least given something they don’t have here and you’ve got that, they just need to discover it firsthand.
Where would you send a WNY foodie on a weekend in Toronto? Best kept secrets?
High end: You’d have a great time on the patio of Auberge du Pommier in the summer; you literally feel as if you’re in France. Jason Bangerter is one of my favorite chefs in the city. He’s young, enthusiastic, energetic and very creative.
Mid range: We’re lucky to have Chef Jose Hadad making some of the finest Mexican–NOT Tex Mex–food here in Toronto. He’s from Mexico City and his food is always creative, fresh and just like what I’ve had in Mexico. If you get a chance, go for an order of his duck mini-tacos or his quail mole poblano. Divine.
Low end: Akram’s Shoppe in Kensington Market for the best falafel in the city! His trick? He forgoes chickpeas saying they absorb too much oil. Instead, he goes for a trifecta of mung, soy and fava, fried fresh to order with his wife Hyem’s sauces. It’s like being in downtown Beirut!
If you could offer Buffalo advice about promoting itself to tourists, what would it be?
I’d say bring a taste of Buffalo to Toronto!! Tasting/seeing is believing so bring us your best Nickel City Chefs and have them cook for Torontonians at a few venues around the city. Engage the citizens here to share in what you do so well, in the various styles in which your chefs prefer to cook. My guess? After sampling what your cooks can do, people here will be booking long weekends around the clock for more than shopping or hockey! Amen!