In the Toronto food scene, Kate Chomyshyn and Julio Guajardo are pretty much royalty. They’ve been behind some of the best Mexican restaurants the city has seen, including Quetzal, Rosalinda, pop-up Birria Balam and their new permanent location, Fonda Balam, in partnership with Matty Matheson. We spoke to the pair about how they met and the joys and challenges of working together so closely.
How they met
We met at cooking school in Ottawa, Le Cordon Bleu, in 2004. He was talking to one of my friends, so I went over to chat and introduce myself because I thought he was handsome. As I walked away they started speaking Spanish, and I realized Julio was Mexican. I remember that moment very clearly. I had no idea that this handsome man would change my life or how much Mexican culture would enrich my life.
The first date
One night we were at a party at a small club and we danced together all night. Julio is a very good dancer (I am not). As we were leaving, he asked me to go home with him in Spanish (sorry, not very romantic!) and we have never really left each other’s side since then. We were really young, 19 and 21 years old, and we moved in together really quickly! When cooking school was over, we moved to Montreal and cooked there for 12 years before coming to Toronto to open restaurants.
Julio has actually proposed twice and we aren’t officially married! I said yes both times, obviously, and one day we’ll throw a big party to celebrate our love! The first was a video he made for me at La Laguna de Bacalar in Mexico. He gave me a beautiful Mexican fire opal ring. The second was at Ek Balam, an ancient Mayan archeological site. This time we were both there, and it was a beautiful place and moment. That is part of the reason we decided to call our brand Balam.
No kids, just two cats named Tepeztate and Tobala (after wild agaves used to produce Mezcal).
Balancing career and marriage
It’s a loaded thing to think about three weeks into opening a new restaurant. Balance is a hard thing for all chefs, but when you share all your projects, it’s definitely hard to take any time off. I would say it’s not easy, and the fact that we have just opened our fifth restaurant in Toronto together and are still best friends is a testament to how much we like each other. There are definitely tough moments, but in the end we just try to focus on our shared goals.
I think a big part of our success in our industry is that we are both competitive perfectionists and we have always pushed each other to be better. We started our first company, a small paleta (Mexican popsicle) company called LA CaTRINA out of our apartment while both working 60-hour-a-week cook jobs out of our need to express our creativity. That need brought us all the way to Toronto and now to opening Fonda Balam. I don’t think either of us would have made it here without the support of the other. We really balance each other in the kitchen. Julio is very organized, clean and meticulous, while I’m a little more hectic and love building flavour and technique into food and sourcing great products. Together we come up with all of our menus and are each other’s harshest critics. Since that paleta company, our shared goal of representing Mexican culture in Canada has been at the core of everything we do.
The secret to success
I’m not sure that we have any secrets. After 17 years we have certainly had great and not so great moments. I think, even through the rough moments, we always love each other, and I guess that’s the not so secret secret. Love.