“Go to school”, “get an education”, “enroll in college or university”… We’re constantly encouraged to go to school, get an education, and pursue our “dream job” by going to college or university. But what if your dream doesn’t line up with a college or university pathway? What if you can learn more from hands-on-experience, travelling, and exploring new cultures? Of course, if you’re planning on being a doctor, maybe going to university is a good call… But for some jobs (ie: cooking) you can become absolutely extraordinary by travelling, listening, learning, failing, and experimenting with whatever ingredients you can find.
Chef Nataly’s Language Of Love
Chef Nataly is an immigrant from Syria — currently living and working as a chef in Toronto, Ontario. Since she was a young girl, Nataly had always been fascinated by the kitchen and creating new dining experiences for the people she loved most. She wasn’t always the best at expressing her emotions — but when she was cooking, her love and passion could be shared with everyone around.
“I don’t say I love you too often… It’s hard for me to express to someone how I truly feel. But, if I cook for you — it means I care about you. It’s how I show my love for someone.”
Chef Nataly’s passion for cooking had her dreaming of one day becoming a chef in Syria — but the idea of working in a kitchen was a little out of reach. Women weren’t always accepted into kitchens, and the idea of hiring a female chef was almost unheard of. As she grew older, her passion for food only grew stronger. She longed to have an opportunity to open her own restaurant and share her food with her community.
A New World Of Flavour
In 2015, Nataly and her family made the decision to move to Canada. When they arrived, food quickly became an outlet for her family to connect back to their roots. As an immigrant, it wasn’t easy to move places and start life in a brand new country. Their family’s surroundings changed, and it wasn’t uncommon to feel out of place in the big city. Food proved to be something that they could turn to for comfort and familiarity.
Chef Nataly and her family always set aside time to eat together and bond over their home-town flavours. Moving was difficult — but sharing a few platters of food always brought a sense of comfort and togetherness that nothing else quite could. Eating together allowed them to connect with each other and be reminded of their roots.
“Back home, eating together is so important. All the stores close between 2 and 4pm so that families and friends can get together to share a meal. That family-style eating is a tradition I definitely want to keep in my life. Wherever I am — regardless of if it’s a weekend or weekday — I consciously take the time to sit down and eat with my family. I love that idea of being together at the table — even if it’s just for a quick cup of tea.”
Following Her Dream Of Becoming A Chef
Nataly had always been fascinated by cooking — but now, she truly began to realize the significant impact food had on her life. Not only could food connect her to her own background, but it was also a gateway to be introduced to cultures she’d never experienced in the past. It wasn’t long before she fell in love with the depth of culture, incredible diversity, and openness to people of all genders, religions, and backgrounds that make Toronto the city it is. The atmosphere of Canada was much different from back home — and she finally felt as though she would be able to follow her dreams of becoming a chef.
Every Moment Is A New Opportunity To Learn
Soon after moving to Toronto, Nataly decided to enroll at George Brown College to study culinary arts. Sure, culinary school was a great kick-start into the industry — but Nataly found the true opportunities to learn and grow outside of the classroom.
“You can learn so much when you’re working out in “the real world”. To be honest, working at Starbucks taught me so much about how to work in food and beverage industry. It wasn’t fast-paced, and I could really focus on developing my leadership skills and customer management.”
Nataly jumped around from spot to spot — working at Starbucks, Joeys Restaurant, and eventually landing at La Palma. Every new job was yet another opportunity to learn. Nataly’s outlook was particularly inspiring — and her positive attitude is likely the reason she’s become a successful chef in the industry at a young age. Rather than dwelling on a “hectic job at Joeys”, she focussed on the benefits of the position. What COULD she learn? Could she work on leadership? Could she further develop her organizational skills or communication? Nothing was taken for granted — and she used every moment spent in the industry to improve upon herself and her abilities as a chef.
Finding Her Home At La Palma Restaurant
Unfortunately, finding a job higher up in the industry wasn’t always easy… Employers often look for applicants with experience in similar establishments. With only Starbucks under her belt, higher-end restaurants in the city weren’t exactly jumping on-board to invite chef Nataly into their kitchen.
“Unfortunately, a lot of kitchens in the city don’t necessarily give opportunities to young chefs without experience. But how are you supposed to learn? How is the next generation of chefs going to evolve if we can’t get that initial experience in the field? Fortunately, one of my professors at culinary school was able to connect me with the head chef of La Palma. I felt so fortunate to have that connection and get my foot in the door. Rather than focussing on my previous experience, La Palma looked at my qualities — and valued the reference from my professor. They set experience aside, and instead spent the time teaching me how to work at different stations and cook their dishes to their standards. I’ve had the chance to work as garde manger, chef du partie, and now I work at the pizza and pasta station. Some days, I learn about butchering meat or cleaning seafood. My job feels like an education in itself — and I always feel as though I am improving my skill set with every hour spent at work.”
Stepping Out Of Your Life And Into The Kitchen
Cooking isn’t a job — it’s a passion. It’s something that Nataly can continuously learn and improve upon. There’s no end to innovation, inspiration, or skills. Every time you step into the kitchen, you set your personal life aside — it’s you, the food, and creativity. You discover parts of yourself that you never knew existed, you learn about a form of art, and you become exposed to a variety of cultures, cuisines, and types of people. Cooking teaches you lessons that simply can’t be learned from reading a book or showing up to a lecture. It teaches you about the real world — and the beautiful connection between art, science, culture, and history.
“When you’re working in a restaurant, you leave everything else in your life behind you. You can ignore the problems going on in the world, and really take a second to BE in the moment. You focus your love and attention towards the food. And, when you share your love through food, you can really make a difference in someone else’s day. It’s not an easy job to have… If you don’t love cooking, you won’t last in the industry. It doesn’t pay well and it’s long hours. But the lessons you learn, the people you meet, and the love that you can share makes the industry so special…”
Inspiration All Around
Nataly’s ability to continuously take inspiration from others has allowed her to explore the culinary world more than most. She doesn’t need a library full of textbooks or a binder full of notes — instead, she uses every second in the kitchen to learn something new, ask questions, and challenge the industry.
“I take inspiration from everything and everyone around me. When I am creating dish I try to think outside of the box. Even if it’s a recipe that has been passed down to me from my mother, I’ll try to add some twist in it. Honestly, just being in a kitchen or going to a restaurant inspires me. I’ll ask the chef how to prepare a meal, I’ll try food from a new culture, and I’ll experiment with ingredients I’ve never seen before. I love working at La Palma because it’s been a constant challenge and learning about Italian cuisine. People often ask me why you don’t work at a Middle Eastern or Lebanese restaurant — but what would I add on my skills by working Middle Eastern cuisine? I want to continuously learn and grow — and to do that, I need to be exposed to things I’ve never done before. It’s all about learning — that’s how you can make something truly exceptional.”
Thank You Chef Nataly!
THANK YOU so much to Chef Nataly!!! I am so happy to have had the opportunity to speak with you and share your story. I love your outlook on life and positivity in the kitchen. There’s so much to learn from you and your experiences. You’ve worked incredibly hard, and are always looking to take that extra step forward to improve yourself and challenge the culinary industry. If you’re interested in checking out Chef Nataly’s incredible meals, head on over to instagram and follow her delicious journey @mediterraneanwhisk.
Before I let Chef Nataly jump back into the kitchen, I had just a few quickfire questions to ask…
What Are Your Favourite Three Ingredients?
“Lime, red chiles, strawberries”
What Is Your Favourite Meal To Cook?
“Pasta — any kind — it honestly doesn’t matter!”
“Manti — Armenian dumpling”
What Is Your Favourite Food Memory?
“On cold days in Syria, we would always make a lentil soup with a bit of spices in it. No joke, all of our neighbours would come over (or we’d go over there) and we’d eat it together to warm us up. I’ve made it sometimes in Canada during the cold — it’s such a simple recipe, and so comforting!”