Get to Know a Chef: Andrew Richmond, La Carnita
It's always a party with chef Andrew Richmond and the La Carnita crew: a pop-up taco and art production that, understatedly, has swept the street food scene in Toronto. At its most recent event, La Carnita drew thousands of attendees to the Brick Works for music, art and the team's inspired gastronomic creations. Richmond, a savvy designer and self-taught chef says he draws much of his love for bold Latin American flavours from his travels with wife Hassel Aviles, creator of the popular Toronto Underground Market. Recently, Richmond and I connected to discuss the madness of operating a pop-up, details of La Carnita's new permanent digs, and how he plans to deal with the hordes of loyal fans that will undoubtedly follow him to College Street.
What makes a good taco?
I like to go for pretty strong contrast. That would be textural, flavour wise and it would also be visual. One of the biggest things for me would be texture.
What do you recall about your first real taco experience?
The idea to come back to Toronto and bring it here and do it like no one else had been doing it was from the Mission District in San Francisco. I was doing a lot of work in Silicon Valley and traveling back and forth and the district is full of taquerias and burrito joints and really interesting street food. Coming back home and not having an outlet like that here was disappointing. There were some taco joints like El Asador but they just didn't have the youthful energy that a Grand Electric is bringing, or what we're doing.
The thing that sold me on the taco is just the fact that it's a blank canvas. It's really cool, you can do so many different things; you can be super traditional or you can just go nuts with it from a creative perspective and get fusion from all sorts of different cultures. And it still manages to work if it's done correctly. So for me, it was just a very malleable medium to work with.
Is La Carnita a one trick pony? What else can we expect to find at your new, permanent location on College St?
We have lots of stuff in the works: tostadas, we'll definitely have some salads, we'll have some sides, we're working on some cool desserts. We're drawing our inspiration from Mexican food and moreover street food, and there's some Asian flavours finding their way in there. It's going to be a restaurant, so it's going to be a spectrum of things that all make sense together. At the same time we're going to be very focused on how we do things, so it's not going to have a three-page menu. I think less is more if you do it right.
What are the main challenges associated with running a pop-up operation? What pain points is having a permanent spot going to ease?
It's just always on the road, always traveling, always moving so much equipment everywhere. The idea of having a restaurant is great because it's all centralized. But by the same token, your menu goes from three to four items to however many and it's just a different beast because you're catering to people ordering now. There are obviously a lot of logistical things involved that need to be ironed out.
At your most recent event there were a lot of complaints about the line-ups. What's the maximum you'd wait in line for food?
I've waited for 45 minutes to an hour, and I've waited for Grand Electric for an hour and a half. The beauty of that is that I was able to go to The Cadillac Lounge and have a pint while I was doing that. I've been to all the Food Truck Eats events and I've waited a long time for food there â I don't mind waiting. UNO was awesome and people missed the mark in terms of what we were trying to do there, and that's probably our fault a little bit. We really wanted that night to be about the art, not the food. But I guess we can't really do that.
How do you best deal with such massive crowds?
You need to be organized. Also, you need to be pretty strict about what it is you're serving. I mean, when you're serving 1000 or 2000 people, you're not going to do a menu where they're going to sit there and hem and haw about whether they want this or that. We've been successful with just bringing together three things at five bucks an item or four ucks an item. Because when there are that many people, you can put things out pretty quick. So I think it's just keeping things focused and well thought out.
Geoff Hopgood recently told us that pop-up restaurants are one fad that needs to end. What do you think has made them so popular?
I think people tend to get creative when they're in the pop-up realm. People react to creative things, just like Geoff Hopgood is a creative chef and he's good, so people have a very positive reaction to what he does. There are different kinds of pop-ups, but we found a way to put forth two loves: a love for street food and a love for street art. People reacted very kindly to that, and I think they saw the creativity behind it and the fact that we weren't following the traditional business model. We were making it up as went went along and just stayed true to what we love.
As chef who's now settling into a permanent location, do you think the pop-up trend is going to continue? Or do you suspect it will fizzle out or evolve in some way?
I hope it evolves... I'm sure it will continue, but I don't know. It will be interesting to see what happens. By no means were we the first to do this. We might have been ahead of the curve in Toronto, but people have been doing this for a long time.
Where did you learn to cook?
I grew up in the country, so we raised chickens and had beehives, and I've cooked my whole life. Up until the last year, we've cooked pretty much every meal at home. I've just been very passionate about it, trying new things, having people over and constantly working at the skill. I'm always researching online about ways to do things and different cooking techniques, like learning how to butcher a rabbit from Youtube.
Did you always want to be a chef?
15 years ago, it was either chef or design school. I looked at them sort of similarly because I find both trades are the work of an artist. I went into design, but I don't remember the defining factor in why I made that decision. I kept on cooking while I was in design and I'm applying a lot of the same creative skills to the culinary world. So it is something I wanted to do since back then.
What are some of your favourite places in Toronto to source ingredients? Are there any ingredients you find difficult to source?
Kensington is somewhere I go a lot. It's got some interesting things. I also like to go to farmers' markets, and there's some good markets up where my parents live. Fennel pollen was something for a while that I couldn't find. And I know you can get it, but it was kind of difficult to.
When you're not making tacos, what do you like to do for fun?
I like to listen to music, and I like to read cookbooks like they're going out of style. My father is an English teacher, so he used to lock me in my room on summer break and make me write essays, and I'd have to read a book a month. So I've always resisted reading to a certain degree, but I've got bookshelves upon bookshelves of cookbooks.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Most underrated ingredient? Beef tongue
Best culinary tool? High-powered processor
David Chang or Daniel? Boulud If I had to pick one, but David Chang because he sticks more to the street style. But Diana Kennedy truly inspires me.
What's one thing people would be surprised to find in your fridge? Applewood smoked cheddar... though maybe they wouldn't be surprised â that's not a good one...
Favourite Toronto restaurant? I've been going to Bar Salumi a lot.
What's one dish you can't live without? Tacos!
What's one food trend that needs to end? Cake pops
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Photos by Morris Lum
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