She is a giving and considerate person with years of knowledge working in the hospitality industry. Putting the well-being of her staff before anything else, Veronica Carmen Laudes, owner and general manager of Carmen is determined and hardworking. Her latest restaurant tastefully showcases her Spanish routes and cultural influences, from the interior decor to the menu. Warm lighting throughout the restaurant invites guests to eat, drink and stay awhile. Like in Spain, Veronica wants you to slow down and enjoy the company you are with, and enjoy the food that you are eating with a nice glass of wine (or two).
We visited Carmen the night before, walking into a bustling and inviting restaurant. Artfully designed intimate lighting, deliciously famous paella, tapas, and drinks were flowing, as guests enjoyed leisurely conversations. The next day, which was just as grey as the previous night, actually added to the coziness of the place. Little did we know how much thought, passion, and knowledge went into everything Veronica did.
How did you first get involved in the food and hospitality industry?
I wanted to be an artist, but my first job was in a restaurant. While I was in school, I used to be a bus girl in a very high-end restaurant working on weekends. Slowly I started to appreciate the service, and the wine. I would watch the chef, in how they cooked, and how all stations were prepared. The restaurant had a big kitchen, a famous chef and sous chef, and French service. That was my first experience, and since then I’ve never left.
Did you always know what you wanted to do?
When I finished school, I just pursued jobs working in many different places of the restaurant and even in a hotel. I learned how to be a hostess, cashier and bartender, working in the piano room, which was such an honour; the dinning room bar, banquet hall, and lounge. I was like Tom Cruise, but with a guidebook book, trying to figure out so many wines. I started working a lot, and getting better positions.
My next jobs were at Red Lobster, a bar with French service, Wayne Gretsky’s restaurant, and Bymark. While I worked for Wayne Gretsky’s restaurant, I also worked in fashion for a bit. I met a woman who came to the restaurant frequently. She really liked me, and offered me a job. While at Bymark, as much as it was stressful, it also opened the door for me.
After quitting, I went to work with a Korean women who had a sandwich place. At that time, I was planning to travel to Peru and South America in the next year. Working with her I learned the greatest lesson…
It’s not about the money, it’s about feeling good to work for somebody who appreciates you, that you are happy to come in at six or seven in the morning to open for breakfast…to do any job. When people treat you with respect it’s the most satisfying.
I would never go back to that route of working pretty, I was very happy to work for her, and was very sad when I had to leave. One day she asked me why I wanted to work for her, when I was so overqualified, and I said, “I just want to work with nice people, where I could do a good job in a relaxed environment.” So, I really had a good time and we’re still friends.
After that I opened Latitude, and went to Spain to see my family and decided that I’m going to open a tapas bar because that’s who I am, I’m Spanish, and that was how Torito was born. I started working with Chef Luis Valenzuela and became such a fan of him as a human being, he’s such an amazing person. After having so many chefs work for me, Luis was the one I thought, “omg he’s my partner!” So, after we became business partners, I said to Luis “let’s open another [restaurant],”and Luis said “yes of course, yes.” We opened Carmen and became partners with a great relationship. He has grown so much, is always trying to learn, and is a very good person…a very good human being.
How did you get introduced to Toronto’s restaurant and food scene?
Working in different restaurants a lot, in lobby food, and working with my grandmother who was a Spanish chef from Catalan.
Owning Latitude, I had my first exposure to Toronto’s food scene. The Globe and Mail gave us a huge review, where I was on the first page. Then, you realize, “wow, ok this is happening,” and then comes Toronto Life with a big review. When there are so many reviews, you get addicted to it. You get invited to events, and start to get to know people.
If you are passionate and interested in these things, everything comes naturally. If you have good restaurants, you become allies with restaurants and charities. There are a couple of charities we do every year, like Food Share or recipe4success. Essentially, you want to be involved, you want to help, and have that engagement with the community.
Do you have any mentors or people that have inspired you?
I’m really inspired by Adrià Ferran, a chef from Spain. I’ve never actually met him, but Luis did, and went to see his show in Barcelona, Spain. Adria Ferran is so different than most chefs. He hasn’t lost his sense of humour, and hasn’t forgotten that he started as a cook at his restaurant, which took 8 years of trying, and 8 years of having it empty, to finally become one of the most famous restaurants in the world. I see his passion in documentaries about him, and the way he works with his team. He takes other people’s opinions and respects them, and that’s why people stay with him. He says, his successes aren’t just his, it’s all the people with him, hanging around with him all this time.
My inspiration is him, and Chef Luis. Those are the two chefs that I truly respect – Adrià Ferran for his experience, knowledge, and the art; and my partner, in how hard he works, and the honesty. Also, my grandmother has been an inspiration since I was small. She would always cook fancy food for me, everyday was different, so from this, I developed that good taste for food.
Last year Spanish restaurants boomed in the city, and this one seems to be the most authentic. What are your thoughts on Toronto’s Spanish food craze, authentic vs. traditional?
It’s hard not to fall in love with Spain. I think a lot of people get fascinated by it. These trendy new Spanish restaurants kind of get it, they get the trend, but deep in the heart, it’s not the same. It’s not bad, it’s good because it’s globalization. I do Spanish food because it’s in my blood, and I wanted people to try the real thing. We went through a lot of obstacles because we focused a bit more on a mature crowd, who are kind of sceptical when trying new things. Younger people are more adventurous, which I think is great because the younger generation is so much more open to trying new things. We tried new things here and there, we tried to keep a balance, since we have both a younger and mature crowd. Some come for a more serious dinner, but in the end we give everyone the same service, people who sit at the bar have the same service as those seated at one of the tables. We treat them with the same respect.
How could Toronto’s dining culture improve by learning from Catalonian / Spanish culture?
“Eat more, don’t drink.” I think that this is happening…like at one of my favourite restaurants, Archive on Dundas, where they do little tapas. They inquire, they push people to eat and drink, so you can drink more. I think bars can improve that concept about being more conscious about what they are giving out as food. It doesn’t have to be something fried, like chicken wings, which are not healthy. We can serve something that can be very Canadian and very good for you- that is what we can learn from the Catalonian/Spanish culture. Good bars in Spain have good food, the food is cooked by families, the mother, and the son.
How did you come up with Carmen’s concept?
We didn’t know what to call it. So, my partner and my boyfriend thought Carmen would be a great name, and I thought, “really, don’t you think it’s a little egocentric?” And my partner goes, “no no it’s perfect.” We then started doing studies about Carmen, and we found out that every Spanish woman is named Carmen, it’s like a stamp. Then, we associated Carmen to the opera, and that’s why we put the women there and the little details. I wanted the place to have a woman’s touch, something clean, new, and neat, with Spanish details.
How does management style compare from Carmen to Toritios?
The staff move back and forth. Torito we have one manager, Danny, who knows the dynamic of that place. I spend more time here because my manager in Torito, pretty much runs everything, but I usually move between the two restaurants. I try to give people responsibilities, while I spend most of my time, worrying about the payments, the wine, working with Luis, and the food, but you always have to be aware of the floor, and the service.
Tell us about the place’s design, what’s special about some of the pieces that make up Carmen?
The tiles over the bar are from Valencia, San Antonio. Now, I’m not religious, but wherever you go, in Spain you’ll find a Saint. The San Antonio is suppose to be the saint to help you find a husband, and is also there to help you to find something you’ve lost. It was my grandmother’s favourite. (Did you notice the Saint on the top shelf of the bar in a previous picture?)
Those tiles at the entrance were flown in from Saville, they’re originals from Spain. During the economic boom, they were tearing down a lot of buildings in historical areas, and we saw those tiles and collected them. They are hydraulic tiles and they so special.
For the sign, we picked the colour from Spain. The yellow, and the red which is from Catalan, and the blue from Valencia, which is the city of the Paella. I fell in love with it and that’s why we wanted to do Paella.
I think that we really do the Paella with love, because when you see Luis cooking in there, he’s cooking the Paella from scratch. We don’t pre-make the rice, nothing is pre-made, and you can’t get anymore Spanish than that.
When you get an old building, you really have to work with what you have, and it’s harder because options are limited. There are a lot thing we would like to do, but we can’t because the building doesn’t allow it. So you gotta do the best with what you have, but so far I think we did a good job.
What do you think surprises most guests that come here for the first-time?
That the chef is cooking, and that they can see the chef cooking, so they know who is preparing the food. Some chefs don’t really cook anymore, they might make a special once a week and sit at the bar. People are also surprised when I cleaned their tables, since I’m the owner, but I don’t care about that, I want you to be happy and feel good coming here. When people come to your restaurant you should feel grateful, super grateful because there are so many other restaurants that can make you happy. Sometimes people are surprised with what we do, like how we serve them the same way they do in Spain, or like how everyone actually speaks Spanish in the restaurant.
Describe a typical night at Carmen.
Well, a crazy night is when we’re overbooked. The dilemma is that some people say that we shouldn’t take reservations, but what if a group of six comes into the restaurant, and they’re waiting while everyone else gets to eat? Then they won’t get a table. So, the scenario is we are overbooked, and a table has had everything – they have already ate, and drank, and have had dessert, but they are still at the table. That’s the awkward part, we don’t want to push you, but that table was reserved. It’s a small restaurant and you can be here for hours, and we appreciate it, but if you’re not eating or drinking anymore, and there’s a line up, people want to eat.
Then, there nights where things break down, or we run out of napkins or something because there wasn’t a delivery for them that day. Many things can happen, and it can be really theatrical, but we have to keep going, and we have to make it look like nothing happened, because we have to serve, entertain, and to keep the food going.
How do you prepare for the night, and how do you relax after service?
With a glass of wine. Usually, as soon as things start calming down, we talk about what happened that night so that it wouldn’t happen again. You always have to put things into context, whether it’s good or bad, or more bad than good, and I say, “it’s always going to be like that. You have to see what is the best for you, which one can you take, which one you can live with, and which one can you not live with it.” I work but I have fun. I’m friends with my staff. I often tell my staff:
Take a job, and do the best that you can do with where you are right now. Don’t compare, the good thing is that you’re working…Every job you do, do it well regardless.
What are your favourite mobile apps?
My camera. I really just like to take pictures, because I don’t like to miss stuff in life, I don’t like to be attached to this thing all the time. I do like pictures because pictures help me capture many things, like food, moments, and my dog. Capturing moments like when the Alain Ducasse mentioned Carmen, saying that you’re one of the top restaurants…you feel on top of the world.
Describe your perfect meal.
A nice balance between vegetables, and not too much meat. No cream, and no sauce, because it covers the real thing. I love steamed fish, maybe with some seasonal vegetables. Give me roasted beets, or Jerusalem artichokes or asparagus. I love that, with a glass of wine. Once in while, a nice pasta that Luis makes, it’s not creamy, it was juicy?.. with some broth. It had that mushroom oaky flavour. It was so cozy.
What is the best part of your job?
When somebody told me that it was the best food ever. It happens a lot…or it was the best Paella, or that it was the best, amazing, and great; because at the end of the day you feel that it has been a good day. We’re doing what we’re suppose to be doing.
What’s the next venture you hope to tackle with Carmen or for yourself?
We’re looking for another location, we would like to do more, maybe double the size of this place, where we can have a bigger kitchen do our own bread, and takeout…maybe beside this restaurant. Something connected to the Carmen, like what Sud Forno with Terroni, but a Spanish version of that. It happens a lot in California and I think it would be good in this neighbourhood. I would like to have my own place where people can take away a nice piece of ham and bread, or maybe a pastry, or paella to go…yah that will be the dream, the next baby.