The Most Important Meal of the Day
By Matt Basile, Fidel Gastro’s
Breakfast is a meal, but brunch is a culture.
It’s talked about, craved, and lined up around the block for. People will lay in bed and scroll through Instagram until a brunch picture pops up that is over-the-top egg-oozy, sugar-rush-inducing, and completely over-baconed with enough suggestive smell and taste to get them out of bed. Have you ever heard someone talk about their favourite brunch spot? It’s almost a political debate — passion and conviction for all things covered in cheese, baked, then fried, and finally topped with an egg, sunny-side up. Brunch is habitual, comforting, and has the power to let you be you in the most liberating kind of way. Want to crush a bacon doughnut with two mimosas and wear track pants? Sure, why not! It’s brunch.
About seven years ago, before Ky and I started the Fidel Gastro’s food truck or opened Lisa Marie, I used to have this thing called a weekend. It was glorious. I rarely made plans, but one thing was always set in stone: Sunday brunch. I would wake up and walk over to my local brunch spot, The Stockyards. Often going alone, I would sit at the bar and order a cup of coffee, a basil lemonade, a bacon doughnut, and fried chicken and waffles. It was a two-hour window in my week reserved for me. I didn’t have to say much. I could just shut out the world while I sat and ate. It didn’t matter how long I waited or how long it took me to finish. It was about being immersed in my brunch life. Monday to Friday, I sat in a cubicle watching the sands of time fall very, very slowly. But, no matter what I had to deal with, I knew that I had brunch to look forward to.
When we opened Lisa Marie, we made sure to have a brunch that captured my enthusiasm for this favourite meal. We wanted a menu that would make people say, “What the fudge?” Looking back, we had a lineup every weekend, and I got a rush from working in the kitchen. Of course, the power of brunch is partly a result of its recurring, habitual nature. It involves traditions and go-to spots. I have a pair of official brunch socks. But no matter what your ritual is, it’s the food that creates that initial attachment…like getting bacon and eggs after hockey practice or a stack of pancakes on the first day of summer.
In my humble opinion, there is no single dish that screams brunch more than Eggs Benedict: the velvety hollandaise sauce, the bright and ready-to-burst perfectly poached egg sitting on top of grilled ham or peameal, and a lightly toasted English muffin. Four individual components that when executed perfectly can be incredible. I didn’t always feel this way about Eggs Benny, but I kept trying until finally my palate caught up to my age. Now, I can’t get enough. Some of the most iconic brunch spots I’ve eaten at have a version of this dish. So, how many variations of Benny could you possibly create? Therein lies the challenge! Get out and explore and you’ll soon discover flavours inspired by Singaporean, Argentinean, and Italian cuisine.
Chicken + Waffles
While Benny is the classic, there’s no dish I’m more enamoured of than fried chicken and waffles. The first time I heard of it my jaw dropped — what a combination! The crisp fried batter holds in all the tender chicken, piping hot, perched on a fluffy waffle. The waffle not only absorbs all the hot grease from the fried chicken but also catches the maple syrup or hot sauce (or both) that you pour over top. When I started seeing more places doing chicken and waffles in Toronto, I knew that brunch was becoming a real thing. It signaled the end of omelettes with your choice of sausage, bacon, or ham. When preparing at home, there really is an art to frying chicken, especially if you want the crispiest, juiciest piece of meat possible. I swear by a deep-fryer, and there are some great countertop deep-fryers available.
Pancakes & French Toast
I consider myself a nostalgic person. I’m drawn to watching old movies or reliving experiences from my youth, like playing with water guns and eating freezies. Pancakes also have this effect on me: the smell of the batter instantly cooking as it hits the hot buttered griddle; a tall stack with real Canadian maple syrup; the way the syrup pours down the side of the stack; the combination of sweet mixed with fluffy, buttery dough…and then that first bite. If you’re growing tired of your same old pancake and French toast recipes, push the boundaries when mixing sweet and savoury. I do this with my Elvis French Toast where I stuff classic French toast with peanut butter and top it with candied bacon.
Fun for the whole family
The act of eating together is really what brunch is about. Sure, I love digging into my own plate of chicken and waffles, but sometimes family style is the way to go. When cooking for a crowd, I layer textures and flavours that come together in one pot or cast-iron skillet, like my Shakshuka, where everyone eating needs to rip some rustic bread and just start dipping. The best family-style brunches are built around warm, comforting dishes that make you feel good when you eat them. Sharing with others allows you to connect with your friends and family, and to become fully immersed in the ritual of brunch.
While a cup of coffee or a glass of juice is a great way to start the day, so is an Aperol Spritz Mimosa or Caesar — or even both! I love how fresh and light brunch cocktails are. They don’t need to be incredibly boozy or super strong, but rather the kind of cocktail that complements a meal. For me, sipping on one is a favourite part of brunch. It was at one of my favourite taco spots that I first tried a Michelada, which is a Caesar made with beer instead of hard liquor. I find that it’s easier to drink, stays colder longer, and the bubbles from the beer add a nice effervescence. It also pairs well with spicy food.
Remember, brunch isn’t just a blanket word for eating breakfast in the afternoon. It’s a culture that’s embraced differently everywhere you go. It’s about being okay with waiting in line and finding hidden gems in your city. It’s about snapping and filters and tagging and all the things kids do nowadays. Most important, it’s about being happy…whether solo or sharing the moment with others.
Matt Basile is the creator of the Toronto-based street-food brand, Fidel Gastro’s. Matt and his partner, Kyla Zanardi are the co-authors of Brunch Life, shortlisted for a 2019 Taste Canada Award. www.fidelgastros.com