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June is Pride month, when the world's LGBTQ2+ communities come together and celebrate the freedom of love and self-expression. This up-and-coming queer chef has always believed that food is the best vessel for showing love, and has the power to bring people together more than anything else in the world.
Chef Shai Mandel is a Toronto-born chef, Ontario certified teacher and entrepreneur. As an inherent giver and sharer, chef Shai’s mission is to spread love and bring others joy anyway she can. Cooking, baking and teaching are simply the tools in which she uses to fulfill her mandate and make this world a better place.
Mandel has forever been fascinated by food. She’s always loved experimenting with it and is genuinely excited by the fact that you can take ingredients and turn them into a million different dishes.
"Preparing food was never something I was pushed into or pursued. It was just kind of meant to be," says Mandel. "Some of my earliest memories cooking are in elementary school when I'd roller blade home at lunch, rummage through the fridge, concoct something delicious and then head back to school just in time for the bell to ring."
From a young age, Mandel had found something she connected with whole-heartedly that brought her joy, and that she could use to express herself.
Mandel began her career working alongside her mother and aunt who own Twisted Sisters Gourmet Pretzels & Treats, a pretzel company based out of North York that is currently on hold due to the pandemic. As a tween, she loved making these confectionary delights. Her experience working there paved the way for her to secure more intensive positions working for catering companies, various restaurants and other food service businesses over the course of her 14 years in the industry.
Though preparing food has (and always will be) Mandel's first passion, she also has a strong love for teaching.
"Just like food, knowledge is meant to be shared."
Six years ago, there was barely any culinary resources or programming available for kids. At that point in time, Mandel dedicated her life to helping youth learn to cook, as she believes it to be an integral skill.
With the intent of starting her own culinary school, Mandel took the appropriate steps needed to ensure her dreams and aspirations would come to fruition. The first step was to receive her Undergraduate degree from Wilfrid Laurier University in order to then qualify to attend their Teachers College program.
By the time she graduated, she already had a wealth of knowledge and experience working with food, but the next part of her plan was to attend George Brown's Culinary School, where she wanted to attain the 'cooking student' perspective to make sure all her bases were covered before starting her own business.
"I really wanted to challenge myself in that program. Perfection is really important to me... it's why I like baking and cooking. When there is something super hard to achieve, and then you achieve it, the reward is so enjoyable," says Mandel.
After completing the program, she began work in fine-dining, as she wanted one more year working in a high-quality establishment, before starting the company.
In 2016, Mandel founded Rooks to Cooks, the GTA’s leading culinary school for children. The company was designed to empower youth to become more independent by building self-confidence and supporting self-expression through culinary education. To date, they have educated over 8,000 youth, and are highly praised for their professionalism and innovative culinary education programs for kids aged 4 to 18 years old.
Mandel started the company by running in-home private lessons, classes and events, but wanted to find a way to scale her services so that more children could be reached. This desire sparked the vision for cooking summer camps, which paved the way for the company's rapid and impressive growth over the past 5 years.
In 2017, she held her first in-person camp with 170 campers and two staff. In recognizing the camps potential, and the tremendous impact they had on her student’s lives, Mandel and her team opened nine more locations in 2018, educating 1,300 students and employing 36. The following year, she secured two more locations, servicing 2,200 students and 56 employees, and was positioned to run 15 classes simultaneously in the GTA in 2020, with a record-breaking 3,000 students and 70 staff members.
"The growth of the program was very quick and intense. It was one of the most challenging, but rewarding years of my life," says Mandel.
Government restrictions impeded the company from running their entire 2020 season, which they had been preparing for, and had up-fronted the costs for since the Fall of 2019. With no means to make up the deficit, the only way to escape bankruptcy was to close their offices, downsize their team and find another way to generate revenue. Despite feelings of exhaustion and defeat, in May 2020, Rooks to Cooks pivoted and went virtual, which ended up becoming quite successful, especially during the darker days of the lengthy Toronto lockdowns.
“The birth of our virtual programs was most definitely the silver lining of this pandemic, for both our team and our families. Without them, we would not have survived, and we hear on a regular basis how much the classes have benefited our students' lives during this time," says Mandel. "They offer our students the opportunity to learn these skills from the comfort of their own home, which helps them build confidence and comfortability working in their own spaces, and allows their parents to build trust in their abilities too."
The virtual classes are still being held and have since expanded to include corporate team-building workshops, birthday parties, after-school programs and more. With the new platform, Mandel has been able to employ various new chefs, service new communities and countries, and was even able to position the company to be sold, which recently closed this Spring. She remains on as president working alongside the new owners, to ensure Rooks to Cooks will continue to grow and blossom.
Mandel has proven herself to be a remarkable business woman, and owes much of her success and hard work ethic, to the fact that she has been able to remain true to herself. Being a queer woman in the hospitality industry has been nothing but a blessing for Mandel.
"Being gay protected me from so much of the abuse and aggression that can take place in some of these restaurants. Being in committed relationships with women since coming out, I was able to focus on my craft without the distractions of unwanted advances or comments that so many of my female co-workers experienced by our male colleagues," says Mandel.
As fate would allow, it was because of an industry job that Mandel met her fiancée, Vanessa. She was working as a pastry chef at the Walper Hotel in Kitchener, Ont. where she caught wind of a beautiful young lady dining at the restaurant. Her roommate, who worked as a server at the time, overheard this woman expressing her desire to find a female partner who shares her love of food, and immediately found Mandel to relay the juicy intel. Without hesitation, Mandel scribbled her number on a napkin and coordinated it's delivery with the message: "One of our chefs in the kitchen heard she was beautiful and wanted her to have this."
They connected a few days later and set their first blind date, where Mandel showed up with home-made chilli chocolate marble cheesecake brownies and a hand-written note with all the ingredients––just in case she wanted to share with her roommates, who might have had any dietary restrictions.
The rest is history, and Vanessa now serves her role as front of house manager and sous-chef in their home kitchen, where she sets the most stunning tables, collaborates on the menu planning, helps with prep work and is the official taste tester for all of her fiancée's delectable creations.
Shai Mandel with her fiancée Vanessa Cormier and their new puppy, Quinn.
When it comes to inclusivity, Mandel believes that everyone deserves a seat at the table.
"When people are sharing in a meal, it connects them and puts them on the same wave-length. Nothing makes me happier than being able to serve a meal that everyone at the table can eat, and enjoy together," she says.
Inspired by her family, she has developed a recent fixation on gluten-free and vegan cuisine––it's one of the modalities of cooking that Mandel feels like she can express herself through so clearly.
"The fact that my cooking is all-inclusive, is even more important to me. Inclusivity of all people is a common theme of all things I do in my life," says Mandel.
"When I think about community and togetherness, I think of always being able to make food and develop programs for people that are often left out due to who they are, where they come from and their dietary restrictions. Food is love, and when people are sharing food, it's amazing. It's positive, it's necessary and it brings people together."
Chef Shai Mandel's Signature Vegan and Gluten-Free Coconut Key Lime Pie, which you can find the recipe here.
For Mandel, cooking is about so much more than food and nutrition. She is fascinated with the science behind it and has a plethora of tips when it comes to preparing a well-rounded, delicious meal.
Her first rule of thumb: You can always add more, but you can't take away. When you're cooking without recipes, always add the ingredients in small quantities, tasting and adjusting as you go. The same applies for seasoning. Whenever in doubt, you can add a pinch of salt or acidity, to enhance the flavour.
Mandel breaks down the definition of 'taste', as the five different sensations felt on the tongue when you eat. There is bitter, sweet, salty, sour and umami. Flavour however, can be defined as the combination of taste and smell.
In order to make flavourful, experiential dishes, Mandel focuses on adding powerful aromatics, and ensures the five tastes are well balanced. Once she is happy with her product, she layers up by considering textures, like crispy, soft, smooth, creamy and crunchy, to elevate the dish even further.
"If you're ever looking for the perfect margarita garnish, or rub for your meat, use anything grainy like salt or sugar, and mix with a citrus zest, or any aromatic of your choosing. Rub it between your fingers, and it will release the natural oils, which is the essence, or aroma, of the ingredient," Mandel shares in her last tip, which will come in handy when creating seasonings for food and cocktails alike.
The future is bright for Mandel, as she continues to focus her efforts on pursuing ventures that allow her to do what she loves. As a long-time lover of recipe writing, program development and cooking, she is happy to stick with that for the rest of her life.
"I love teaching, I love cooking and baking, and I love being with people, whether it be feeding a crowd or sharing my knowledge, I want to always be doing different jobs that have high value and are enjoyable to me," says Mandel. "Whether it's online, in-person classes, or even a Youtube channel, I want to somehow share my knowledge, feed people and live my most authentic life while doing what I love most."
Chef Shai Mandel's Signature Herb Packed Falafels With Zesty Salad and Tahini, which you can find the recipe here.
Mandel would like to see to it, that culinary education can become available to everyone, especially for younger kids in the school system. She has been called to support this effort, and strives to find a way in the coming years that people from all walks of life can receive a free culinary education.
The chef is a true inspiration for those wanting to share their knowledge and passion for food with the world. On top of educating and feeding others, it is her goal to help chefs and culinary professionals find a way to teach, so that they too can spread the love while nourishing our hearts and souls with lots and lots of incredible food.