In the Kitchen With: Ivana Raca, Ufficio, Resto Boemo Toronto

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From peeling potatoes and washing spinach to running a $6-million gourmet grocery store — Ivana Raca has come a long way in a short time. The restaurateur started her career at North 44 under legendary Toronto chef Mark McEwan. Now she is a partner in Ufficio restaurant in Toronto’s Little-Portugal neighbourhood.

Originally from the former Yugoslavia, Raca started cooking with her grandfather, who was a baker. Today, the 20-something chef prides herself on being a laid-back spirit — friendly and personable but, when her chef jacket is on and her knives are sharp, she’s all business.

Inspired by her parents and high-school mentors, Raca interned at McEwan’s North 44 in Toronto at the age of 16. After only three years in the kitchen, McEwan recognized her talent and made Raca his company’s first female saucier.

“I was the only female working there at the time,” she says. “It was a French-run kitchen, very hardcore. I didn’t know anything about the restaurant industry and how difficult it was, so I started [out] doing what everyone else does — washing spinach and peeling potatoes.”

From there, Raca went on to become the sous chef who helped launched Toronto’s One restaurant and, at age 24, the first female executive chef at McEwan.

“When I was at North 44, [Mark] McEwan passed by me after I baked some cookies. He’s not a sweets guy and I said ‘chef, I baked these cookies, would you like to try one?’ He said, ‘no, no, no’ at first but he came by and grabbed one and went to the office. Two seconds later, he came back and said, ‘that’s the best cookie I’ve ever had.’”

She says McEwan patted her on the back and said ‘you’re going to run my grocery store.’ “To have somebody who has such high standards in the kitchen and is a perfectionist come up to you and say something like that — one who believes in you more than you believe in yourself, especially after only four years in the industry — was [encouraging] to say the least.”

Shortly after, Raca travelled to Australia, where she worked for Michelin two-star chef, Paul Froggatt, at Palazzo Versace.

She also became a Buddhist and travelled to Bali and neighbouring countries to learn about different foods and cultures.

Upon returning to Canada, Raca entered one of the first Underground Chef Battles in Toronto and made it to the final round. She’s also competed on Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay and, more recently, was named a champion on season three of Chopped Canada.

Last summer, Raca teamed up with Chopped Canada’s Brad Smith to open Resto Boemo, a go-to spot for Canadian comfort food, at the Assembly Chef’s Hall in Toronto. In November, the duo opened their second Toronto project, Chef’s Table by Resto Boemo, which offers a lighter, healthier menu.

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