Chef Daniela & Soca
Montreal has exported one of their most talented Chefs to Ottawa. Her Venezuelan background, education in Spanish style cuisine, and time cooking in Miami, have all made Soca Kitchen the “OG” Spanish restaurant to go to, since it opened up in 2014. The eclectic mix of environments that Chef Daniela has worked in has brought new concepts to the city that people are extremely excited to dive into. They named their restaurant after a process during the sugar cane harvest (soca; the second harvest of the sugar cane crop), which her husband and partner Gustavo have had plenty of experience with due to their work on the family farm (which has been in the family for generations). I’m going to be super lame here and say that after my first visit to Soca, I knew automatically this place is pretty sweet! All ‘Dad puns’ aside, after sitting down and picking Chef’s brain, it’s amazing to see how all of these different influences gel together to create a menu.
When we sat down and chatted, we talked about the evolution of a menu and the trial and error process that happens when not only opening up a new restaurant, but showcasing a new style of cuisine that people aren’t accustomed to yet. There’s progressive Canadian right next door, fine dining seafood a 5 minute walk away, and many other choices around the Wellington area, but no real Spanish Cuisine. And that goes for the city in general. Even now, there isn’t many other places that are doing what Chef Daniela and Gustavo are doing.
Menu evolution is key to a restaurant’s success. Coming from a completely different style of feeding guests in Miami, to feeding guests in Ottawa, means that there are always going to be adjustments and learning curves. Starting with the ideas that you think are going to work right off the bat is an unrealistic expectation for Chefs. You have to listen to feedback and progress. It’s also about learning and adapting to the environments you’re in, what’s available and how you evolve as a Chef to using those new and different ingredients. It also comes down to the type of guest. Ottawa offers a completely new (and maybe more conservative) type of diner than you would have in Miami. Because of this, the challenge as a Chef is how to create exciting food that slowly entices the guest to take more culinary risks each time they dine. One week they may be coming in for a beet salad, but after a couple of visits (and knowing the flavours they can expect from Chef), may be willing to take that leap of faith into the unknown and try the chicken heart dish! That’s why you have to take advantage of when a Chef like Daniela runs a special; it could be a dish that’s telling a completely different story than what’s on the menu, but one that’s still very important to be told.
The focus this past summer for Chef has been Gold Medal Plates. In her second year competing, mapping out a dish comes months and months in advance. It is a very exciting but very stressful opportunity that these Chefs don’t take lightly. After months of conceptualising, and numerous trials (and some errors) along the way, all the selected Chefs gather at the Shaw Centre for their “competition” where they get to show off their completed Gold Medal Plate. It’s one of the more fun nights a Chef can participate in. I say “competing” because this city has a high calibre group of chefs who not only focus on what they're creating with love, but continually show that love with one another through their camaraderie. Everyone wants to compete to win, but want each other to succeed as well. We can’t wait to see what Chef Daniela has in store for the night.
To compete in Gold Medal Plates, a Chef needs a strong team behind them. If you’re a young cook, Chef Daniela looks for two things. Focus and attitude. In Chef’s kitchen, anything can be taught. The quality of person goes a very long way when you have the willingness to learn and be humble. Too often you see young cooks walk into a kitchen with a thousand dollar knife set and no clue how to use it. Then you see young cooks with little experience but the drive to learn each and everyday. You either find that balance and be prepared on both ends or success will be hard to find. It’s these two fundamental traits that allows a young cook to be a part of such and amazing team.
The ritual of going out to eat is also about consuming a story. From Montreal to Miami, and now in Ottawa, Chef Daniela’s food tells a story that separates her from many others. It looks like Gustavo and Daniela have made Ottawa their home for now and we should do everything we can to make sure they stay for a very long time, because we’re going to be the ones to reap the edible rewards.