Here we go again.
As restaurants in Toronto rise again from their collective coma — indoor dining afoot once more, next week — the jockeying begins anew for one of the hottest reservations: a table at swanky new spot Mimi Chinese. And with it, a re-re-reboot for the most buzzed about younger chefs in rarefied circles these days, David Schwartz.
One of the inadvertent stars of the pandemic — his service Sunny’s Chinese became a talk-of-the-town delivery option, topping 11,000 subscribers in 2021 — his profile shot up further with another feat: reinterpreting his delivery-only idea as a bricks-and-mortar reality when he opened Mimi Chinese on Davenport Road (in the old Mistura space) last fall. The response, particularly for the glamour-starved? Immediate. Check, check and check: its red-on-red bar; a vibe right out of a Wong Kar-wai movie; a spin on Mr. Chow-like sophistication (complete with bow-tied servers).
Food-wise, it was a cornucopia, with dishes riffing on varied regions of China while giving the Instagram crowd something to post about with a four-foot belt noodle (presented tableside, then cut with gold scissors).
If every decade brings a few chefs who pique the cognoscenti in this city — the 2010s, for instance, brought us names like Cory Vitiello of the Harbord Room (RIP), Patrick Kriss of Alo fame and Chef Nuit from her medley of Thai restaurants — then Schwartz is reaping his own fanfare now. For him, February brings not just the relaunch of Mimi (complete with off-menu, if you-know-you-know lobster dish, pssssst) but also the swan song of his 20s. The wunderkind turns 30 on March 6.
It is a moment that had him looking both backwards and forwards when I caught up with him.
“My dad is definitely my biggest influence in terms of how I eat. He never held back. He has no hesitation,” Schwartz started to say about the man who introduced him to chicken feet and more.
While his brood was always a big dining-out family and his palate shaped by having older siblings — the next youngest of his three sisters is a decade older — what he hasn’t opened up about before is the role food played when he lost his mom at 11. “My mom was also a big fan of dining out, specifically at Cantonese restaurants. I recall all of us using restaurant dining and takeout as a bonding tool while she was sick. This continued after she died.”
With a dad who was working a lot and trying hard to be a single dad to a young boy, the eating out became a solace to both; grief management. Hence the regular jaunts to Lee Garden and Wah Sing. “We would go to the Pearl on the Harbourfront every single weekend.”
OK, and yeah: “I always wanted Asian food. As a kid, I never wanted to eat Italian food. I love it now … but as a kid, it was Asian all the time.” So says the dude about a time long before he became further obsessed with an ancient cuisine, soaking up everything he could while travelling extensively through Southeast Asia; later, doing a stint at DaiLo (where he met Braden Chong, a long-time collaborator who is his executive sous chef now at Mimi).
Another touchstone from his childhood? Takeout menus. So many takeout menus. “I had this drawer in my house. Stacks. Every night, we would decide. We ate out a lot, but also takeout.” Indeed, he has a quasi-romantic nostalgia about them now: menus, an art form in themselves, are increasingly rare in a digitized world.
“The cooking didn’t really start for me until after my mother died,” he continued. “I quickly discovered that I really enjoyed cooking and hosting for friends and family. It became a healthy creative outlet, along with my music playing.”
For a while, music seemed to be his calling, but cooking increasingly won out. Schwartz was the kid, after all, who liked going to grocery stores more than anything else and would go shopping for braised pork neck, for instance, at to feed college friends. The memory suddenly erupts from him. As does one of spending all day making 100 steamed buns in college. Just because.
He likes music and food for similar and dissimilar reasons. “I like them both because they are highly experiential. But with music, it has permanence. When you record a song, it is there. With food, I like that the experience is fleeting, you are left with the memory.”
Sitting back with me now — ever boyish, like he just escaped the set of “Riverdale,” or like one of those junior programmers you might catch wandering around Palo Alto — he hopped around, subject-wise. One minute he was talking about the purity of a sunchoke; the next, about the complexity of Cambodia. Also, about a recurring dream he has, “where I am driving somewhere north of the city, a street that does not exist, going to a Persian bakery that is not real.”
What could it all mean?
While the success of Sunny’s definitely gave liftoff to Mimi, it’s an idea that had been in motion for some time. He actually got the keys for the space on Nov. 19, 2019, running a ghost kitchen from it for a bit while remaking it. A keen supporter, Adrian Niman, helped bring in investors.
And, well, he is ready to do it again: coming up soon is another restaurant, Schwartz confirmed, in the old Cold Tea locale in Kensington Market. A funkier sibling to Mimi, one might expect. A late spring opening is the hope.
As for his big 30th birthday, no plans to speak of yet. He will probably be in the kitchen.
This piece has been changed from a previous version to correctly state Adrian Niman’s name.