Chef David Lee has been busy.
In the past year, the Toronto-based chef, who splits his time between the Great North and South Beach, opened two new restaurants (Planta Cocina in Toronto and Planta Queen in Miami) and had to figure out how to keep his four other restaurants afloat in Toronto (Planta, Planta Burger, Planta Queen) and Miami (Planta South Beach). Lee also launched a nationwide delivery service in both the U.S. and Canada, and this year, he’s planning to open three new restaurants in the U.S. It was only five years ago that Lee opened the first of his Planta restaurants in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood, which have garnered acclaim for their plant-based fare.
Lee recently shared his thoughts on the past year and the year ahead, as well as a few of the personal inspirations that shaped his menus at Planta Queen in Miami and Planta Cocina in Toronto.
Resy: How has the past year been for you and your team?
David Lee: For the kitchen and our whole company, it’s made us rethink in terms of what we do as a company, and in two different countries. We had to restructure and rethink how we do business and how we operate and you know, we were a great team before, but we’re even stronger now. Even when we’re under so much — in terms of the amount of pressure we’re under to be able to perform — it was really great to see them come together.
During the pandemic, when it first started, I was in Toronto, and everything was new to us at that time. It’s a year later and now it’s the new norm, but it was very challenging back in March of last year.
I hate to use this word, because it’s probably the most used word, but we pivoted so much in 2020 — the whole experience was mind blowing.
Was it stressful? Yes, absolutely. Have we become stronger as individuals? Yes, absolutely. Will we surpass this and become even stronger? Absolutely. We’ve learned so much from this. It’s been an incredible journey.
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You actually opened two new restaurants during the pandemic: a Planta Cocina in Toronto (September) and Planta Queen (November) in Miami. And there are plans to open more restaurants in West Palm Beach, Fla. (March), New York City (June), and Bethesda, Md. (July/August). How did you manage to do that?
We’re asking ourselves, too, to be honest. But we have a really great team.
During this period, we also launched nationwide shipping and now we also have this line of pizzas that we freeze and ship nationwide. I don’t know if a lot of people know this, but when you freeze a pizza and reheat it, it’s an amazing product. It’s really good. The Frenchie is my favorite, the reason being because I absolutely love truffles, especially Périgord truffles from France.
I do have butterflies about the expansion. But I release those butterflies when we open the restaurants. That’s what keep us going as chefs.
It’s been five years after you opened the very first Planta in Toronto. In that time, did you ever think that plant-based cuisine would be as popular as it is today?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t think plant-based eating is a trend — it’s too important to be a trend. You can’t hide away from it. For me, personally, it’s essential in terms of restaurants and I think for us, Planta, to be opening up fully plant-based restaurants, I think that’s a great thing. And our concepts, whether more Asian, Mexican, or American and Italian, are just so versatile.
I think that, even 10 years ago, you might just see one pasta with tomato sauce on a menu and that was the only vegetarian offering on the menu. Now, if you go to any restaurant or any fast-food chain, there’s a choice of a plant-based dish for you there. So, I think it’s going to continue to grow and going to continue to make an impact. There’s such an awareness of the sustainability for the world we live in, too.
How would you describe your personal approach to plant-based cuisine?
I want you to fully understand the ingredients. I want you to know what you are eating. You know what your true ingredients are, and we try to source locally as much as we can in terms of the farmer’s market and there’s great work being done by super small independent local farms in terms of what they are growing, and we pay special attention to that.
Your own diet isn’t completely plant-based, but has it become more plant based over time?
I think it’s getting more and more and more plant based to be honest with you. During COVID, when I wasn’t eating plant-based food, I didn’t feel 100 percent. When I was going plant-based and when I was eating 100-percent plant based, I felt the difference. This is for me, personally. I know, for me, in terms of the more plant based I go, the better I feel.
During the first stage of quarantine, we just had to use what we had at home. It was a lot of soups and a lot of barbecued vegetables. We also did a lot of recipe testing at the time, and that’s how we actually developed a few of the recipes for Planta Cocina in Toronto. We were cooking a lot of Mexican dishes at home and playing with spices and flavors, and I wanted to see how much we could evolve ourselves, especially for my family.
What was it like to also open Planta Queen this fall, and to take your cuisine into more of an Asian direction?
Some of the recipes there are from my childhood, in terms of where I grew up and growing up in an Asian family in Mauritius.
I’d say my favorite dishes on the menu at Planta Queen are the noodles. We have these mushroom udon noodles and these kimchi noodles — I think they’re two of our greatest dishes there.
My family would always make noodles and I can remember, even when I was just six, how we always had that on the table. We had a huge family: My mom has 13 siblings and on my father’s side, he had nine siblings. My grandfathers were both from China, and one grandmother was from the Reunion Islands and the other was half Indian and Creole. It was quite a mix. There were so many aunts and uncles, and growing up, they’d all argue about who would make the best dish and it was just fascinating. Each one always has their version of the best dish and they always do their version a little bit differently so you get all these key takeaways, and you realize how useful it becomes, even 30 years later.
I would eat everything — and I probably ate too much then — but I was always fascinated with these noodles they would make. It would take them five minutes to roll out and then, all of a sudden, they cooked it. It’d be the simplest dish in terms of what they put on there — some soy sauce, garlic oil, cilantro, scallions, and sometimes a fried egg — but it brought back so many childhood memories. So, I thought, how do I play with this and put this on the menu at Planta Queen, and make it plant-based and tasty?
What are you most excited for as you look ahead?
I am looking forward to summer. The vaccine. To meeting and to be able to walk into a restaurant and be able to talk to guests. I can’t express enough how satisfying that is and how that feels, you know.
It’s that hospitality that we want to share and what we strive for. And I think this is what we do best: to be able to serve and to cook good food for our guests and to share this plant-based experience in different cities all over the world and we are super excited, and very fortunate, that we have three openings this year.