VL 1-on-1 with Chef / Owner Michael van de Winkel of Little Sister Indonesian Food Bar
You need only take one step into Little Sister at 2031 Yonge St. to know immediately that you are in for a very good time. The interior is best described in chef/owner Michael van de Winkel’s own words … “funky grunge”. Even when closed as it was when I arrived, the music is on and the eclectic selection is both loud and undeniably upbeat, the staff clearly enjoying their work, joking about their personal lives while preparing for what will be a very busy dinner rush in a few short hours time.
Michael’s calm demeanour allows those visiting to know they are in most capable hands. He answered calls, fielded questions from staff never once missing a beat in our conversation. Pride in the surroundings he has created abundantly evident without an ounce of egotism. He has built an extension of himself and it suits him very well.
Stacia Carlton: When looking for inspiration do you rely on the traditions of Indonesian cooking or are you reinventing the cuisine?
Micael van de Winkel: “I’m doing some traditional stuff… from what I’ve been taught in Holland. Certain things we alter a little bit here and there, but most of the flavours are very authentic. I try to bring it into a little bit more of a modern aspect, because in Indonesia a lot of the stuff is a lot of stews… each island, each part of the island has its own flavours. I did my military training in Holland and it was how I was taught. Is it traditional Indonesian? I think it is. It’s very traditional flavours. I have an Indonesian guy working for me and he’s says this is bang on. I think it depends on which island you come from… just like anywhere… the Italians or Greeks or anywhere… it might not be “like my Momma made it” for someone… but for someone else it is. Indonesia cooking has a lot of influence from all over. Certain things we’ve adapted to make it more approachable to the North American palate.”
SC: What do you land on some things trending right now in Toronto?
MvW: “I’m not too much of a trend follower to be honest. I try to do what I feel I can. I think if you try to follow a trend … I mean i’ve got to feel it. Apparently we’re on trend right now in terms that Asian food is very hot… I didn’t know it was hot… I just do what I do and apparently it’s on trend right now.
SC: What would you like to see more or less of in Toronto?
MvW: “I think I’d like to see maybe less Italian food… or maybe I should say if you’re going to do Italian food then do it better. Campagnolo is a great example of Mediterranean food. I hope we see more honest cooking.. not worrying about the trend… just cook from the heart. You’ve got to know your stuff. That’s something I’d like to see more of… staff knowing their stuff. When you go to NYC the service is impeccable… their whole attitude toward service. I wouldn’t mind seeing that more here.”
SC: Where do you shop for your ingredients?
MvW: “I go to Chinatown for a lot of my fresh ingredients. I have an Indonesian importer for some speciality items. They bring a lot for me. Buying local is tough. I use as much local as possible, but it’s not the most important factor to me. I’m sort of done with the whole nose to tail… 100 km… foragers… I was never really into it. It was never me. When I visit home and we go to the sea, then we have mussels. I don’t think that’s really sustainable here in Canada. It’s really good for a few months, but I mean how much white cabbage can you eat?”
SC: Where do you like to eat when you go out in Toronto?
MvW: “I don’t go out in Toronto too much. It depends what I feel like. Maybe on a Sunday I’ll go to Momofuko for noodles, sometimes to Chinatown, there’s a great place at Spadina & Baldwin I like to go for Pho. I like Cava a lot… great Spanish food. Obviously Bar Isabelle is good food. Really good sushi at Blowfish. I don’t go out as much as I should but Toronto is really up and coming. We’re getting on par with NYC. There are really good chefs that are opening up their own places now.”
SC: Where do you like to travel for food?
MvW: “I like to go to NYC for food. I go at least once a year. We do two lunches, three or four dinners… in one day. We’ll do three or four days like that and then we pretty much roll home. I love NYC for food. Chicago is a great place for food. I just came back from Argentina this year. That’s really nose to tail there. Wherever I go I try to eat where the locals are eating.”
SC: What was the last thing you ate?
MvW: “Last thing I ate? probably a cinnamon bun… probably not what you wanted to hear!”
SC: Do you have a motto you live and work by?
MvW: “Be who you are. Live and let live. Don’t judge. Try to find a balance… I like to work… I love my work but I need playtime too so I try to find that balance. It’s a non stop struggle to be honest when I’m running two restaurants, but it’s how I want to live.
The model for my restaurants is consistency. Gotta be consistent which is hard to achieve. Strive for your personal best. We try to convey that to the staff. You have to make sure it’s attainable and make sure you keep it at that level all the time.”
Honesty and balance are found in abundance at Little Sister, in both the staff, owners and their food. As the only truly Indonesian food restaurant in Toronto, Little Sister delivers a memorable culinary and social experience. Find them at Taste of Toronto July 2-5. Order your Tickets today by visiting Taste of Toronto Online.
Stacia Carlton is a culinary school graduate and food writer who would like to spend more time exploring the wonders that are Indonesian cuisine! Find her ramblings and recipes weekly at www.bestillandeat.com