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Food has always been a huge part of chef Justin Friedrich's life. From his childhood days helping his mother and father cook at home to working his way up to chef de cuisine at Buca Yorkville and even starting his own business during the pandemic, Friedlich is a Toronto-based inspiration in the culinary community, with a bright and food-filled future ahead of him.
Growing up in a Jewish household, food was always such an important thing to him and his family. With Friday night dinners and big parties always in full swing, he was constantly surrounded by lots of food and lots of people.
As a young kid, his parents used to call him "the garburator" because, after a meal, he would walk around the table and ask the others if they were done eating so that he could finish off their plates for them.
"All I did was eat. I was always a big eater and food was something I loved. As I grew up, I started to cook with my mom and I'd BBQ with my dad, and as I kept cooking, I got better at it and really started to appreciate the art of creating good food."
Though Friedlich knew in his heart that he was meant for the culinary scene, his parents wanted him to attend business school. They also warned him of the fickle, difficult lifestyle that comes with working in the food industry, but by the end of his third year at Western University, Friedlich had had enough.
Friedlich working BOH at Buca King Street.
“It just wasn’t me. I wanted to work with food so badly, so I dropped out and went to George Brown for culinary school, where I thrived in their two-year program. It was actually during my externship in my final semester that I was sent to Buca King Street, where my journey with food really took off.”
Though Friedlich underwent several shadow shifts at a variety of amazing restaurants in the city, Buca was the one that truly stood out. Between the incredible food and the people who worked in the restaurant, he knew that Buca would be an institution where he could discover his highest potential as a culinary professional.
“They’re always pushing the boundaries when it comes to food, doing everything head to toe with the butchery, and ensuring nothing goes to waste. The menu is always changing and developing seasonally, which really allows the team to cook out of the box and take creative risks.”
After four months of externship work, Friedlich was hired as a full-time employee at Buca, where over a span of four and a half years, he worked his way through the entire kitchen. He started on salumi, then moved to ‘fritti’ (fryer), to pizza, to morning prep (making fresh bread and pasta), to the pasta station, then grill station, before being promoted to sous chef, where after around six months, the pandemic hit and Buca was forced to close their doors.
In the beginning, like everyone else, Friedlich found himself sitting at home when the entire industry went dark. Though nice to take a little break, especially after working for several years straight in a kitchen, he wanted to join the home-cooking trend that caught rapid-fire when everyone was looking for something to do.
Prior to the pandemic, Friedlich’s friends and family were constantly phoning him up on a whim to pick his brain about how to cook and asking him a ton of questions. He had always prided himself on being an excellent teacher, especially around younger cooks in the kitchen, so he thought making some instructional videos for those at home would be a way to keep busy -- and help spread his love and knowledge of food.
He asked his wife Marlee if she'd be willing to tape a couple of trial videos for easy cooking at home, and the content very quickly exploded. Friedlich was blown away by the response from his viewers.
"People thought the videos were amazing and wanted me to keep going," he said excitingly. "Everyone was asking a ton of questions and I gained a huge overnight following from it, so I felt the pressure to keep on going."
Marlee continued to do all the filming and editing, helping Friedlich build his brand, all from his home kitchen. Now that he had acquired a loyal following, he felt he might as well try and monetize some of his cooking in order to support his family during such an unprecedented time.
Friedlich and his wife Marlee.
He began by making homemade pasta and sauces for a weekly delivery service and selling them all through social media advertising. Like the videos, his homemade goods blew up in popularity, keeping him very busy as he navigated his way to becoming his own wholesaler. He even went through four pasta machines because they would keep breaking from the insurmountable amount of pasta he was making.
To occupy other parts of the week, Friedlich started doing virtual cooking classes to teach aspiring at-home cooks how to prepare a delicious gourmet meal. He would send his students the menu in advance, along with a list of ingredients they would go out and purchase, and over a couple of hours, they would hang out on Zoom, drink some wine and he would walk them through preparing a delicious, restaurant-quality meal.
Friedlich ran these classes Monday through Thursday and was fully booked for months. Once restrictions were lifted, he thought he would transition into private dining in people’s homes, where he was busier than ever.
“My schedule just kept growing and growing until I was too busy with the private dinners, so I had to stop making the pasta and sauces altogether. When the restrictions were lifted, I kept doing the private dinners for a little while, but then those started to slow down as restaurants started opening back up, but that’s when Buca Yorkville called me and offered me the chef de cuisine position.”
With an openness to learn and a passion for growth, Friedlich is thrilled to begin his new adventure at the Buca Yorkville location, where the focus will transition from butchery to seafood. He is so thankful for the help and guidance of his mentor, chef Jorge Fernando Fiestas, the residing executive chef of both Buca locations, who taught him so much and saw the potential in him very early on.
When speaking on the future of the hospitality industry, Friedlich is confident that as long as restaurants can allow customers inside for dine-in, they will remain open.
"You could tell when we were in lockdown that people were itching to go back out for food. The second patios opened; even for that brief two-week period back in the spring, people were running back to restaurants. You couldn't even get a reservation because everywhere was fully booked. People just love to go out for dinner as a form of entertainment for the evening. It's a way to get out, and whether you're on a date or out with your family, everyone loves socializing over good food. I don't think that feeling will ever go away, especially in a city like Toronto, where there is so much of it."
As an individual constantly seeking new challenges, Friedlich finds his love for cooking keeps him sharp and humble. He notes that the restaurant industry is "not easy" and that there are "sacrifices you have to make to succeed, but if you really want to do it, there are endless possibilities."
With the industry constantly evolving, there is always so much to learn and so many different types of cuisine readily available, so it is Friedlich's mission to push the boundaries when it comes to experimenting with dishes and flavours.
"Every day is a new challenge and a new ingredient. The learning potential with cooking is unlimited. It's such a rewarding feeling to see someone's face after they take a bite of something I made, when it just blows them away."
Friedlich is full of wisdom for aspiring cooks. He believes good chefs can be hard to find because of how much dedication it takes.
"If you really dedicate yourself to anything, and you love what you do, you can really open up a whole new world for yourself. Be a sponge, absorb everything, work your butt off, and you'll get rewarded for that."
With over 10 years of experience in the industry, Friedlich has come to believe that a good dish requires a variety of elements. It needs proper seasoning, and most of the time, that means salt.
"Salt is like your best friend in the kitchen when used properly. Balancing salt and acid with texture, are three main components of trying to get something right. It's a fine balance of the right fat contents, with the right texture, and it's why food can be so complex."
Another Friedlich cooking tip is to follow the rules of "mise en place," which means: everything in its place. When cooking from home, most non-professionals will prepare one ingredient at a time while putting dinner together, but it becomes a whole lot easier when you have everything cut, prepped and ready to go at your fingertips.
"If you need to cut things, cut everything at once. If you know, for instance, that after you are done cooking, you're going to have to transfer something to a sheet tray lined with parchment, cut the parchment and get the tray ready. Have everything ready to go, and cooking is as simple as putting things together."
Both Buca Yorkville and Buca King Street are currently open for dine-in service both inside and on their patio.
Friedlich is ecstatic to be back in action working alongside his Buca family and will be spearheading their menu with an excellent array of mouthwatering dishes, perfect for an indulgent night out. He has made an industry of himself and has proved that hard work and dedication can take you to the highest places if you follow your gut (or, in Friedlich's case, his stomach) and stick to what you love.