When you travel to Toronto, this multicultural metropolis, you’ll have a chance to sample delicacies from all over the world, but one of the national cuisines is not well represented: Austrian cuisine. Canada experienced a big wave of Austrian immigrants right after World War II and into the 1970s, but since then the number of newcomers from this small European nation has dwindled considerably, resulting in a shortage of Austrian eateries.
As an Austrian immigrant myself, one place caught my eye a while ago: an authentic Austrian café / pastry shop called “Konditor”, German for “sugar baker”. Over the last few months I have tried several times to drop by and try some Austrian dishes that I had grown up with, but every time I swung by I inadvertently picked a Monday or Tuesday when the establishment is closed.
Well finally, today after doing my interview with Sheila Blinoff and Carole Stimmell from the Beach Metro Community News, I decided to pay another visit to Konditor, and given that it was a Thursday today, I had finally picked the right day of the week. I came in right around noon into a small yet tidy establishment in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood, on Queen Street just west of Woodbine Avenue. This compact café has nine tables and three of them were occupied with enthusiastic patrons. The mood in the place was amazingly cheerful, with patrons chatting back and forth from table to table, and I overheard a conversation between two different groups of customers who both agreed that Konditor has the best apple Strudel and the best coffee.
Co-owners Benedetta (Ben) Stellino and Burgi Riegler
A group of three local business people sat down at the next table: Ernesto Monte is the owner of Meat on the Beach, known for its high quality meats; Arthur (Arturo) Bossio runs a local pest control company while his brother Tony is a general contractor who does a lot of work in the Beach.
Soon jokes were flying back and forth and Arturo started to inquire about the reason for my visit. He indicated that he is originally from Italy, from the southern region of Calabria, but came to Canada when he was a small child. Then Arturo joked with one of the owners, Benedetta Stellino, who also hails from Italy.
Two peas in a pod: Ben jokes with Arturo
People sometimes say that Toronto residents are rather reserved, and strangers are hesitant to talk to each other. Well, at Konditor, witty comments were flying back and forth, and complete strangers (including myself) were ribbing one another, having a good time.
The real reason I had come here for was to finally sample some Austrian cuisine, some munchies that reminded me of my time growing up in the Austrian Alps. So I ordered my favourite Austrian soup: Fritattensuppe (pancake strip soup) and a gourmet pork roast sandwich. Tasting the food of my birth country again, right here in Toronto, was great and the filling meal definitely hit the spot. The gentlemen beside me were already wondering how I was going to polish away a sizeable bowl of soup plus a nice size sandwich, but no problem here, this girl can eat….
Frittatensuppe and a gourmet pork sandwich
Guests kept streaming in, and Benedetta kept them entertained with her charm and an enviable gift of the gab. She definitely has a great knack for making anyone feel welcome, as if they had been friends for many years. She explained that on weekends this place really starts to hop. Finally, I had a chance to meet her business partner, and the pastry chef herself. Burgi Riegler grew up on a farm in Mürzzuschlag, a town in the beautiful province of Styria, only about 30 km away from my own home town in Austria. We sat down and chatted for a bit in our native German dialects, and then switched to English when the formal interview started.
Growing up on a farm, Burgi was introduced to cooking early on, having to prepare meals for her large family. At nine years of age she had already figured out her ideal job: she wanted to become a chef. She figured she might as well get paid for her favourite activity. After her local apprenticeship she spent some time during the winter tourist season in the Austrian province of Tyrol, working as a chef and skiing to her heart’s content. Although she would sometimes work 20 hours a day in the winter she would have the summers off.
But the big city kept calling her: Vienna. She spent several years in the Austrian capital, working in such esteemed establishments as the Hotel Bristol, the Hilton Hotel and Restaurant Corso, one of Vienna’s most renowned restaurants. She worked with some of the most well-known European culinary experts. While working in Vienna, she fell in love with pastries (who wouldn’t?), and took an evening apprenticeship as a pastry chef. Part of the reason was also to prove one of her previous supervisors wrong who had told her she was a “total loser with cakes”. Now Burgi had official credentials as an executive chef as well as a fully qualified pastry chef.
Just makes your mouth water, doesn’t it?