Meating Chefs – Christine Mast, Sofia Restaurant
Married to the Meat
Once in a while, you come across someone extraordinary, who you know will go on to do great things. Exuding personality and a quiet confidence, Chef Christine Mast is that person. As the in-house butcher at Canoe, Christine was quite the respected protégé when we first met. I knew, then, I would, someday, witness her reign over her own Queendom.
After disappearing to Niagara and returning, determined as ever, as a stronger cook and leader, Chef Mast is helming Yorkville’s newly opened Sofia Restaurant & Bar. Focusing on ingredients and execution is her team’s key philosophy. Striving for approachable, but charming, they seem to be succeeding in bringing Italian beauty and a simple elegance to the table.
“Embrace the imperfections and make them perfect,” is a Christineism which really spoke to me. While living in Niagara, the season was coming up short for a lot of farmers as far as produce marketability and yields. Christine, however, scored on the bounty of flavour. Though farmers saw that peach as too small to be sold, Christine saw it as an opportunity. Off she went through the orchard, loading her pickup with bushels of each small peach that fell to the ground, enjoying it for what it was, – flawless. “This is something that is wrong with our society, because consumers focus on what something looks like, and not thinking about the possibility of what it tastes like.”
Do you think the nonna, picking through the marked-to-sell produce, isn’t going to go home and make something amazing with it? Minds and opinions need to change, we agree. The food world is filled with potential for perfection.
This is something that is wrong with our society, because consumers focus on what something looks like, and not thinking about the possibility of what it tastes like
After a discussion about how the economy shapes trends, we concur that it’s time for fine dining to shine again. The over-the-top burgers and fried chicken aren’t going away – which Christine and I would find devastating – but culinary sophistication must stake a place once again.
I haven’t dined at Sofia yet, but I drool at hearing Chef Mast talk about it. Her careful sourcing of ingredients – from the way the animals are raised, or the olives reminiscent of her grandmother’s kitchen, to the farm-sourced produce, and her leadership skills – gives me confidence.
Christine never stops learning, which she believes inspires curiosity in her team. To have teachable moments in the kitchen is tantamount to answering questions, so the team can also improve.
Cooking professionally since she was 19, Chef Mast started at a banquet hall, “which was total chaos, but I learned how to control the environment and dominate it by finding ways to be both effective and organised.” Jumping in the deep end during her two stints at Canoe was transformative and confidence-building. She takes something which makes her a true leader, from every experience,
…I learned how to control the environment and dominate it by finding ways to be both effective and organised
Her curiosity for butchery began, during her first tenure on the 54th floor of the TD Tower restaurant. Between that and a few other stints, notably, as Sous Chef at Claudio Aprile’s Colborne Lane, Mast became adept at working on proteins, a skill she later honed at The Healthy Butcher, where, inspired to learn even more, she unintentionally fell in love with the art form. “There is stuff that you don’t know that you don’t even know” sums it up for both of us, when it comes to the ancient art of butchery which, for Christine, was true love.
Chef Mast started at a banquet hall, ‘which was total chaos, but I learned how to control the environment and dominate it by finding ways to be both effective and organised’
Christine makes it her career focus to highlight ingredients. She constantly wonders, “Would Anthony Walsh or John Horne be proud of this?”
Both were mentors; respectively, Oliver & Bonacini’s executive chef, and the head chef responsible for her at Canoe. Looking back, those with whom she worked are her motivation, and speak to the solid core of the hospitality world in which she was bred. Good people beget good people, and I have much respect for Chefs Walsh and Horne.
On the recurring challenges of being a woman in a restaurant kitchen. Christine’s take is an interesting one. She has nothing to compare to. She is not a man, and hasn’t walked in men’s shoes, but she just knows that success doesn’t happen without a fight. “Be faster, better, stronger, regardless of your gender.” This is an industry of all shapes, sizes, colours, and gender identifications, but at the end of the day, you just have to perform.
That being said, “the bro culture is ingrained in the walls,” Mast affirms, though the sailor-like environment of the restaurants she worked in, was attractive to her; perhaps, another reason for her success. Swearing and yelling, eating in milk crate alleys, joking and teasing on smoke breaks, drinking cheap beers late into the night post shift, cultivate camaraderie, and draw in the strong, amazing people to work alongside each other in gruelling conditions. You have to be a masochist, of sorts, to love it.
Competitive environments suit Christine’s personality, which she knows are to her advantage. She was too busy working hard and focusing on being the best she could be to say whether being a woman
was harder, or whether it delayed her rise to where
she is now. She feels she’s where she’s supposed to be,
and she’ll use all her 16 years’ kitchen life lessons towards
success. I am happy she has arrived where she has, and
proud of the journey she took to get there. I am most
proud to call her a friend.