Cooking Up Diversity

Toronto’s Chef Nikko Jacino loves trying new things, supporting up-and-coming chefs, and following his moods to set the tone for his dishes.

Photos courtesy of Nikko Jacino

Chef Nikko Jacino says he loves finding the little “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants in Toronto that have amazing, authentic ethnic cuisine. He says the multiculturalism in Toronto really creates a diverse foodscape.

“I’m not so interested in the top 10 restaurants that Toronto has to offer,” he says. “I am more intrigued to find the places where a chef learned traditional cooking practices that were passed down through generations of their heritage.”

In 2015, he helped start Toronto’s Underground Chef Cartel and its Underground Chef Battles, which showcased up-and-coming chefs in the city and also allowed well-known chefs to defend their reputations as being the best.

Jacino’s love of the culinary arts started when he was about 9 years old, helping his parents cook for elaborate dinner parties, which they hosted almost every weekend for some 20 or 30 guests.

“Food to me is very much like music,” he says. “Sometimes your mood will [decide] what you want to listen to. I relate this to food — if it’s raining outside, maybe something more hearty and good for the soul. If it’s summer, something more airy and/or seasonal to the summer heat.”

He is now the official chef for the luxury kitchen appliance-maker Gaggenau, at its Toronto location. He spends much of his time teaching others to cook at interactive events hosted at Gaggenau’s kitchen on King Street East.

“I take a lot of pride and joy in teaching others who want to learn about cooking,” he says. “[I] hope that my small amount of time with them will inspire them.”

Seared Rib Eye Steak with Roasted Eggplant Puree

Preparation: 25 minutes
Cooking: 25 minutes
Serves 4

An 8-oz ribeye steak

For eggplant puree:
1 eggplant, cut in half / ¼ white onion, cut julienne / 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped  / ¼ cup white wine / 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

For quinoa salad:
1 cup quinoa, uncooked  / 1½ cups water / ½ pint cherry tomatoes, cut into halves  / ½ pound cremini mushrooms, cut into quarters / 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

For dressing:
1 bunch basil / 1 bunch cilantro / 1 bunch mint / ¼ cup vegetable oil / 1 tablespoon lemon juice, strained / Salt

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Quinoa salad:
Pour the water into a small pot and bring to a boil. Add the quinoa, cover, and reduce heat to a low simmer. Cook for 20 minutes or until all the water has been absorbed.

Remove the quinoa from the pot and spread it out on a sheet tray. Fluff with a fork and allow it to cool.

In a medium-sized pan, add a generous amount (2 tablespoons or more) of vegetable oil and place it on the stove over high heat. When the pan is hot, add the cremini mushrooms and sauté for 6–8 minutes or until there is some browning. Just before removing the pan from the heat, add a couple pinches of salt to the mushrooms. Set aside.

After washing and drying the herbs, place them in a blender. Add ¼ cup oil, a pinch of salt, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Blend until smooth, adding more oil if needed.

To assemble, place quinoa, seared mushrooms, and tomatoes in a bowl. Add dressing, toss lightly, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Eggplant puree:
Rub the eggplant with oil and season it with salt. Place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper, flesh side down. Place tray in oven and cook for 30 minutes or until the flesh is tender.

Remove and allow to cool 5 minutes before handling. When the eggplant is cool, remove flesh from skin with a spoon and place in a metal bowl.

In a small pan over medium heat, sauté onions and garlic for 6 minutes. Deglaze with white wine and reduce until almost evaporated.

Remove and place the mixture into a blender with the eggplant. Add 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil and blend. If the mixture is not blending well, add more oil until it forms a smooth puree.

Ribeye steak:
In a medium-sized skillet over medium high heat, add a touch of vegetable oil. Season one side of the steak with salt. When the pan is hot, carefully lay your steak in the pan, salted side down.

Season the other side of the steak with salt and sear each side for 2 minutes for a medium-rare finish. Remove the steak and let it rest for 5 minutes before cutting into slices. Place three slices with each of the four servings.