Not all, or even many, of us take up the interests that our parents planned for us. For Hill Kourkoutis, her knack for music and divergence from dance and athletics led her to become involved with one of the most popular shows on TV today, CTV’s The Launch. From begging her parents for her first guitar to playing her first gig at Holy Joe’s in Toronto (now closed), to being a producer and a songwriter with her own recording studio called “The Lair”, Kourkoutis’ pursuit of music and her focus on enabling aspiring artists have always been crystal clear. So when Orin Isaac, The Launch’s musical director, reached out to her about being a part of the house band, Kourkoutis knew it was something she had to get involved in.
“What I really loved about the show was that it focused on artists who are essentially ready to be launched. They’re ready for their careers to have that extra push, so it felt like it was coming from a place of artistic integrity, which I was really attracted to. And what a great way to think about music from where it all starts, which is ultimately the song. And I mean, we speak about it amongst ourselves in the music community. It’s like it really is about having the right song paired with the right person to create that magical moment. I really love that angle. I thought it was super unique even though it’s like a central focus in what we do as musicians.”
Even with a busy schedule, though, Kourkoutis’ interest in cooking and passion for eating well--and a weekly organic grocery subscription from a local farm--puts her in the kitchen about five times a week, allowing her to flex her creative muscles in other ways. We chatted with Kourkoutis on her favourite foods, the influence that her Greek background has on her cooking and her efforts to eat well when she’s on the road.
Where did you learn how to cook?
My family is really huge into food. We’re Greek, so we really love to eat. I was always being chased by my grandmother being like, “You have to eat!”
All my memories around joy and being together with people I love are really surrounded around food. I think that’s the beauty of what food does; it brings us together. So I think I definitely had a deep appreciation for good food because I had amazing cooks in my family. My mom’s an amazing cook, my grandmother obviously would bring all the traditional Greek peasant food to the table, but it just was made with so much love and it tastes so good. And I guess just growing up in Toronto too, being a multicultural city, my mom exposed me to all different types of cultures and foods from a very young age, so I’ve always been intrigued by a lot of food.
What is peasant food?
Actually people ask me, “Where do I go to get the village-style foods?” It’s really hard to find. They have a lot of grilled foods, they’ll have a lot of the fresh fish, which is what you’ll see in tavernas by the beach in Greece, and the dips which we make at home too; but I think the kind of village-style foods are very simple in nature and take a while to cook. Things like cabbage and rice, which is essentially just cabbage that is welted down and you add rice and tomato sauce, it’s just really warming, grounding food. There was one place in Toronto that I used to love going to and unfortunately they closed so I’ve yet to find a place like that, except for Mamakas, which is a place on Ossington just south of here. It’s a newly opened restaurant, inspired by the home-style cooking of Greece but they put a gourmet spin on it.
What do you like to make when you’re at home?
Well I have a deep appreciation for Asian food. That's actually one of my favourite foods on the planet. There's obviously such a wide array, depending on the region. The flavours are so different from what I grew up with and I immediately fell in love with them because they're so complex, yet warming at the same time. A lot of these dishes aren't instant, they take a while for the flavours to infuse and a lot of love has to go into it too. I found that the difference of even how you’re preparing the spices, from say Indian food to Korean food, is drastically different. And also, because I like to eat as clean as possible, I’ve found ways to make a lot of things that you would have to buy in stores, like chili oils and stuff, and I’ve started making those at home as well.
What are your go-to dishes?
I’ll usually have two vegetables that I’ll roast or sauté up, and then I’ll have a fish or something like that, but some days, I like to be a little more elaborate so I love to make traditional stews, like French-style stuff. Again, the Korean stews are one of my go-tos. It’s something that I know I’ll always have: yam noodles in my cupboard and the spices. I like them a lot. Japchae is one of my favourite things on the planet. I really like to cook Mexican food too, so I’ll make chicken tinga and stuff like that.
Where do you like to food shop?
One of my favourite grocery stores near my house is Fiesta Farms just because I feel like they have such a vast collection of produce, which I love to cook with. There’s a place called Nortown, which is a butcher. They have really great meat there, so I usually go there if I want to get fresh meat. I love T&T, the Asian grocery store. I love Pat Central, which is a Korean grocery store down the street, because I make a lot of Korean stews, especially in the winter.
How do you adhere to healthy eating when you’re on the road?
It was really difficult. I stopped touring a couple of years ago because I wanted to focus more on the creative side of things but at the time, I really had to plan ahead in order to ensure that I was being as healthy as possible so you’re not eating fast food all of the time. I downloaded a couple of apps. I think it was called the Healthy Cow, which has vegan and vegetarian spots on the road and it’s easy to find. When we were on tour busses, we would be able to stop at a health food store and I would at least be able to get healthy snacks to keep on the bus, which would be better than just eating random shit along the way. It just takes a bit of planning. I think it is possible, but you also can’t be too hard on yourself.
Here are Hill Kourkoutis' favourite places to eat and drink in Toronto.
I think Sunday brunch is really fun. I really love this spot called Union, which is also on the Ossington strip. Union kind of has this French spin to things. They have a bunch of specials and they have oysters, which I adore. And then for kind of diner vibe, I really like the Senator, which is downtown in Yonge-Dundas but just for that traditional English breakfast, like your baked beans and your roasted tomato and some eggs. It is one of my favourite breakfasts.
I like the Playa Cabana restaurants. I just really like Mexican food and I think that’s a great lunch. It’s kind of light and still homey. One of their restaurants, Barrio Coreano, which is just in Koreatown down here, they do a Korean fusion with their tacos, which I really like.
If I’m going for an experience, there’s a restaurant called Actinolite that’s kind of this tasting menu restaurant. So, Justin, the chef there, he pretty much sources all the ingredients within a certain radius of the city and just makes art. I know when I go there, I need to at least give myself three hours to truly enjoy it because it is an experience and I just love how interactive it is and how much pride he takes in his craft. When he comes to the table, he breaks it down and tells you where everything came from and where the ideas came from. He really kind of made me appreciate seasonal eating a lot more and ever since I went there I make an effort to be a little more creative with winter seasonal eating.
He had this one dish where he brought out this charred piece of moss with just a little sliver of venison on top and he made this cream, and I just remember being like, “OK, this is a piece of moss. How enjoyable can it be?” But then, when you ate it, it was so simple but complex and it was enjoyable even though it was just this little thing. And I find with most tasting menu places, it’s like you go in and I always have this urge to go eat a burger after because I’m starving, but every time I leave from his place, I feel nourished, I feel happy, I’m full. So yeah, it’s a cool spot.
And then in my neighbourhood there’s a place called Sake Bar Kushi, which is this Japanese tapas spot. It’s at Edmonton and Avenue road and I saw it one day when I first moved to this neighbourhood. I loved it from the minute I walked in. Everyone’s yelling at you and greeting you from the minute you walk in and it’s super affordable, yet amazing. There is a bit of a gourmet spin on certain dishes, like when they serve you the sashimi, they’ll cover the salmon in gold flakes or something. But again, always fresh fish, and they have a mix of stuff. They have some barbequed stuff, they have the raw stuff as well, so I really love that spot. They have a bit of everything.
Civil Liberties. I tend to stick to straight alcohol because I just feel ill when I drink certain alcohols and I don’t want to add too much sugar to the combination for fear of a terrible hangover. But I do have a deep appreciation for cocktails because actually another one of my hobbies was making bitters a few years ago. I have a thing about mixology but I don’t necessarily like a lot of the mixology bar environments because it can be quite pretentious. What I love about Civil Liberties is that you get that caliber of amazing cocktail, you get that experience but it doesn’t feel as highfalutin when you walk in there, you know? It’s a really chill environment.
They have this cool penny counter, they’re usually projecting a silent film on the wall, and they don’t really have a menu. You just walk in and you tell them what you feel like and they make up a cocktail for you on the spot. So, say I want something bitter that has a bourbon base in it, they’ll just bring it to you and it’s always amazing.