Don Day’s Wife and I had a beef taco, a pork taco, a chicken taco and a fish taco for lunch today. And we’re not in San Miguel de Allende, not even in Mexico; we’re in Toronto, living in exile during these covid times.

The woman who created the tacos for us has rapidly become Canada’s most celebrated Mexican chef and, next month, she’ll be sharing some of her culinary secrets in an episode of Fall Fanfare, an online presentation brought to you by Amistad Canada in support of its project with the San Miguel charity, Patronato Pro Niños.

The chef’s name is Elia Herrera. You could say she was born into the business. 

“I was raised by my grandma when I was little”, Chef Elia told me. “My grandmother was a chef, started her catering business when she was fifteen, and almost everything I’ve learned about cooking came from my family.”

Born in Veracruz, Elia attended culinary school in Puebla and, before she made the move to Canada, fifteen years ago, she honed her talents in Spain, France, Belgium and Italy.

“My first love was pastries and that’s what I did when I first arrived here”, said Elia. “I knew I had to make the move up though. I knew, sooner or later, I was going to become an executive chef.”

Her restaurant, Los Colibris, opened four years ago. It was a very ambitious project. It featured Mexican cuisine in a city that usually pairs the word Mexican with the word cheap. It had 150 seats in prime real estate, just a hop, skip and three blocks from the deep pockets of Toronto’s financial district. It got rave reviews and Elia Herrera was soon competing on the television show, Top Chef Canada.

Today, thanks…or perhaps that should be no thanks…to some rerouting of city traffic and an epidemic, Los Colibris has temporarily been reduced to Colibri and Los Co Vegan, two stands in Chef’s Hall, a gourmet food court shared with 15 of Toronto’s other highly-esteemed chefs.

And how is Chef’s Hall’s doing? Well it is even deeper into the heart of the financial district than Los Colibris was and, today, at late lunch time, just 11 of the hundreds of seats on the patio were occupied.

“I’m looking at it as a break”, said Elia. “In some ways, a short break isn’t the worst thing that can happen to someone in the restaurant biz. I know we’ll be back. I don’t know where, when, or exactly what, but we’ll be back.”

While Elia Herrera and Los Colibris are on that break, Elia is keeping her Colibri Chef’s Hall menu simple, focusing mostly on some classic tacos like chicken tinga, pork carnitas, baja fish and shrimp a la diabla. Like almost every conversation about tacos, the focus of our conversation soon turned to reminiscences about our favorite tacos.

“Mine has to be al pastor”, I said, “though it always seems a little strange eating them before it gets dark outside.”

“When I was in college”, said the chef, “I think we found it almost impossible to go home when we left the bars or clubs without at least one taco al pastor.”

“That’s one of the things I want to talk about in my “A Taste of Mexico” presentation”, Elia continued. “I want to tell how tacos el pastor were brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants, how the meat changed from lamb to pork, how the meat is marinated overnight, how you don’t need a spit, don’t need to visit a taco stand in the middle of the night. They’re really not very difficult to make at home.”

Chef Elia Herrera’s “A Taste of Mexico” is the third of three presentations included in Fall Fanfare and brought to you by Amistad Canada and Patronato Pro Ninos. The series begins on September 24. Chef Elia’s talk and demonstration will be at 7:00 pm on October 18. 

For more information and to purchase tickets, go to trellis.org/fall-fanfare.

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