Chef Daniel Sáez finally found his “happy place” when he opened Noctua Bakery in Toronto’s Junction District in 2020. Despite the challenges that COVID-19 brought to the industry, the small-batch bakery quickly became a popular community hub of activity, thanks to avid fans on Instagram and plenty of local support.
When asked how it has been going over the past two years, he often says, “The same as everyone — overworked and understaffed.”
But that has not dampened his enthusiasm for a project that took years to come to fruition. “I set my mind to opening a bakery seven years ago. My initial plans crumbled. I got into a terrible lease at first, lost a business partner, went through a breakup, and a younger cousin died in a motorcycle accident. I needed more time.”
He opened a pop-up bakery to test the waters in late 2020. When neighbourhood icon Vesuvio’s closed its doors, Sáez describes that opportunity as “a sink-or-swim moment.” He decided to open a permanent location there in the summer of 2021.
Throughout the pandemic, the bakery has been delighting customers with Venezuelan-inspired pastries, pizza, and breads — all made from the best quality local ingredients. Consistent sell-out items include his Venezuelan sticky buns (golfeados) with a molasses glaze, feta and anise; an egg-and-cheese brioche bun; and a guava and haloumi croissant.
Achieving his dream took many unexpected twists and turns along the way. Sáez went to law school and then worked for a large accounting firm in Venezuela before pursuing his culinary dreams. “I came from a single-mom household,” he explains. “She always said I should go to school, no matter what.”
He quickly realized law was not his calling, so he started taking culinary classes as a hobby and quickly caught the notice of an instructor. “It was the day we were making hollandaise and I was the only one who didn’t break it,” he says. “I didn’t take the idea [of cooking as a career] seriously until that moment.”
Both his grandmothers were accomplished bakers. One ran an empanada kiosk in rural Venezuela, the other cooked at the governor’s house. “They worked very hard all their lives and knew the grind of the job. My family didn’t want that for me, so there was a lot of resistance when I decided to leave my job to pursue a culinary career.”
He worked at local restaurants before coming to Canada in 2005. Four years later, he applied to Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa. He plied his skills managing and baking at established restaurants, including Terroni, Sud Forno, the Beet and Honest Weight.
Despite the hours and non-stop schedule, Sáez says he’s still enjoying the experience, although he’s delighted to have found a part-time night baker. “I feel that I am putting out better karma.”
Now he’s looking forward to welcoming family members in the summer after a lengthy separation. “Mom is dying to come in and help. One of her projects is to cook a meal for all the staff. I can finally start eating well again.”
By Denise Deveau