When you travel to Toronto, this multicultural metropolis, you’ll have a chance to sample delicacies from all over the world, but one of the national cuisines is not well represented: Austrian cuisine. Canada experienced a big wave of Austrian immigrants right after World War II and into the 1970s, but since then the number of newcomers from this small European nation has dwindled considerably, resulting in a shortage of Austrian eateries.
As an Austrian immigrant myself, one place caught my eye a while ago: an authentic Austrian café / pastry shop called “Konditor”, German for “sugar baker”. Over the last few months I have tried several times to drop by and try some Austrian dishes that I had grown up with, but every time I swung by I inadvertently picked a Monday or Tuesday when the establishment is closed.
Well finally, today after doing my interview with Sheila Blinoff and Carole Stimmell from the Beach Metro Community News, I decided to pay another visit to Konditor, and given that it was a Thursday today, I had finally picked the right day of the week. I came in right around noon into a small yet tidy establishment in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood, on Queen Street just west of Woodbine Avenue. This compact café has nine tables and three of them were occupied with enthusiastic patrons. The mood in the place was amazingly cheerful, with patrons chatting back and forth from table to table, and I overheard a conversation between two different groups of customers who both agreed that Konditor has the best apple Strudel and the best coffee.
A group of three local business people sat down at the next table: Ernesto Monte is the owner of Meat on the Beach, known for its high quality meats; Arthur (Arturo) Bossio runs a local pest control company while his brother Tony is a general contractor who does a lot of work in the Beach.
Soon jokes were flying back and forth and Arturo started to inquire about the reason for my visit. He indicated that he is originally from Italy, from the southern region of Calabria, but came to Canada when he was a small child. Then Arturo joked with one of the owners, Benedetta Stellino, who also hails from Italy.
People sometimes say that Toronto residents are rather reserved, and strangers are hesitant to talk to each other. Well, at Konditor, witty comments were flying back and forth, and complete strangers (including myself) were ribbing one another, having a good time.
The real reason I had come here for was to finally sample some Austrian cuisine, some munchies that reminded me of my time growing up in the Austrian Alps. So I ordered my favourite Austrian soup: Fritattensuppe (pancake strip soup) and a gourmet pork roast sandwich. Tasting the food of my birth country again, right here in Toronto, was great and the filling meal definitely hit the spot. The gentlemen beside me were already wondering how I was going to polish away a sizeable bowl of soup plus a nice size sandwich, but no problem here, this girl can eat….
Guests kept streaming in, and Benedetta kept them entertained with her charm and an enviable gift of the gab. She definitely has a great knack for making anyone feel welcome, as if they had been friends for many years. She explained that on weekends this place really starts to hop. Finally, I had a chance to meet her business partner, and the pastry chef herself. Burgi Riegler grew up on a farm in Mürzzuschlag, a town in the beautiful province of Styria, only about 30 km away from my own home town in Austria. We sat down and chatted for a bit in our native German dialects, and then switched to English when the formal interview started.
Growing up on a farm, Burgi was introduced to cooking early on, having to prepare meals for her large family. At nine years of age she had already figured out her ideal job: she wanted to become a chef. She figured she might as well get paid for her favourite activity. After her local apprenticeship she spent some time during the winter tourist season in the Austrian province of Tyrol, working as a chef and skiing to her heart’s content. Although she would sometimes work 20 hours a day in the winter she would have the summers off.
But the big city kept calling her: Vienna. She spent several years in the Austrian capital, working in such esteemed establishments as the Hotel Bristol, the Hilton Hotel and Restaurant Corso, one of Vienna’s most renowned restaurants. She worked with some of the most well-known European culinary experts. While working in Vienna, she fell in love with pastries (who wouldn’t?), and took an evening apprenticeship as a pastry chef. Part of the reason was also to prove one of her previous supervisors wrong who had told her she was a “total loser with cakes”. Now Burgi had official credentials as an executive chef as well as a fully qualified pastry chef.
After a few years in Vienna, that Austrian city became too small. The big wide world was calling – Burgi wanted to go to America. But she was unable to obtain a green card and a friend suggested she should go to Canada. Burgi was actually recruited by the Royal York Hotel in Toronto as they were attempting to increase their profile with high end desserts. Burgi was game, and in 1987 she arrived on Canadian soil. I myself had arrived here in 1986, so we realized that both of us have about 20 years of Canadian living under our belt.
Burgi’s first impressions were that the country was so big, the city was huge (in comparison to Greater Toronto’s 5.3 million people, Vienna, by far Austria’s largest city, only has about 1.5 million residents). Just like me, this Austrian transplant fell in love with Toronto. She felt that the people were friendly, and within half a year she had found a Canadian who was so friendly that she decided to marry him. Over the next few years Burgi and her husband started a family in Toronto.
After the Royal York Burgi also spent several years as pastry chef at the prestigious Badminton & Racquet Club until Benedetta came up to her and said she was wasting her talent and should pursue her life-long dream: to open her own coffee-house. Burgi liked the idea, quit her job, and Burgi and Benedetta ended up becoming business partners. The big breakthrough came when Ben was listening to a radio show where Kerry Stratton, conductor at the Toronto Philharmonia Orchestra, commented that he was unable to locate a decent Sacher Torte (a real Viennese specialty) in Toronto.
Benedetta said to Burgi “your Sacher Torte is awesome” and they sent a sample to the conductor. The sweet delicacy went over really well, and Burgi was invited to provide the sweet table for the prestigious Viennese Ball organized by the Toronto Philharmonia. Other highlights in Burgi’s career include an appearance on the popular “Christine Cushing Live” cooking television show, work for the Italian consulate, as well as the annual Salute to Vienna Concert at Roy Thompson Hall. People were definitely taking note of this gifted Austrian pastry chef.
Today Konditor and the partnership between Burgi and Benedetta is well established. While Burgi prepares sinful treats in the kitchen, Benedetta handles the customers in the front. Ben is definitely a character; she has a great natural sense of humour, and doesn’t shy away from ribbing customers in a good-natured way. While I was there, a regular customer came in and Ben told him off for hanging out too much at Starbucks, her competition. The patron came right back with a quick-witted answer and a little humorous banter was flying back and forth.
Not surprisingly, Benedetta’s background is in sales, she spent many years in the headhunting business, saying that she “sold heads for cash”, prior to starting a business with Burgi. Although the last three years have been a ton of work, both entrepreneurs agree that their foray into business ownership has been very rewarding.
Their recipe for success consists of providing an authentic Austrian coffee house atmosphere, with high quality meals and desserts. In addition to delicious merchandise, they strive to create an environment that makes people feel comfortable, just as if they were at home. Benedetta has a knack for engaging people in conversation, and patrons chat freely with one another. Ben, an avid poet, said she is keeping track of all the goings on at her establishment, and one day she’ll write a book about it where she is going to dish out the goods and share the juicy tidbits that she has witnessed in her café. I joked that I better behave myself so as to prevent any compromising news from leaking out.
Ben adds that Burgi’s desserts are second to none, and they taste even better than they look. And people who have traveled to Austria confirm that this place looks like an authentic Austrian pastry shop. As an Austrian myself I can attest to that. For Mozart’s 250th birthday celebrations last winter Burgi made a special three tier cake which was enjoyed by a crowd of 200 patrons. The attendees were fortunate that it was one of the warmest days in January with temperatures around +10 degrees Celsius. Patrons were able to hang out on the patio outside.
I inquired as to whether there were any special events at the restaurant. A recent initiative at Konditor consists of regular poetry readings called “Poetic Justice”, held every first Thursday of the month. One or two poets present their writings, and audience members have a chance to read their own work at the open mike.
A mouth-watering strawberry Cremeschnitte represented an enjoyable highlight to the end of our conversation; I figured I couldn’t leave this place without at least trying one of the sweet treats. Finally I had made it to Konditor, this little Austrian nook that reminded me so much of where I grew up, and you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be back (using Arnold’s famous words), not just for the food, but for the company.