Words and pictures by Kelly Jones
I have never met a chef like Agave y Aguacate’s Francisco Alejandri. In fact, I have never met a man like Francisco Alejandri. He is at once endearing and impervious, polite and passionate. His hands move with the slow precision of a surgeon, and—when assembling a plate—there seems nothing that could distract him. Behold his body hunched over the prep area, cocooning each dish as he brings it to life.
“Authentic Mexican soul food” is what Francisco calls the fare he prepares here, in his section of a long room shared with four other Latin American stalls. This is Kensington Market—Augusta Avenue, to be exact—so the mixed-culture environment fits.
“Come,” he says, bowing slightly and gesturing to the door with his hand. “I need avocados.”
I follow him outside into the street, his pristine pink chef jacket, crisp black apron, pinstripe pants, and black fedora a sight to behold amidst the idiosyncrasies of the market. We walk north and around the corner to the storage facilities for Augusta Fruit Market (not the storefront), which is on Nassau Street. We duck inside and go down, down the steps into the warren of cold rooms and storage areas below. Had I been by myself, I would surely have lost my way.
Francisco touches and smells each avocado before he lays it carefully in his box. Purchasing produce this way gives him an advantage over other restaurateurs, who instead place their orders over the phone and wait for the shipment—picked by someone else—to be delivered.
This kind of attention to detail seems to infiltrate each element of Francisco’s business, from the bright red wall mural he painted behind his stall, which reads “Hecho en Mexico,” to the way he presents his ingredients on the plate, aligning them to be visually appealing against red-checkered paper liners.
“I want a place that satisfies all your senses. You know, this is why I did the mural. The aromas of the food, and the way it looks, the way I dress—everything, everything has a repercussion to the dishes that I make.”
This politely perfectionist attitude has been with him always. He remembers, as a boy of 5 of 6, how he would wake before his family in the morning, and go to the kitchen. He would prepare enfrijoladas, like an enchilada made with frijoles bayos and queso fresco, as he always did. And each morning he would taste, adjust, taste, adjust, taste. And only when he was happy with its texture and flavour complexities would he go and wake his parents and siblings. “Desayuno esta listo.”
“I knew that I would be a chef before I was born,” he tells me. “I had that discerning palate, and it’s something that I feel inside, that I cannot express.”
Francisco grew up in Guanajuato, Mexico—by far the most charming and enchanting city I have ever lived in. Truth be told, it is much like the warren of Augusta Fruit Market’s cold storage rooms. Guanajauto’s “streets” wind and twist and rise and fall with the mountainous landscape—most are too thin for cars. His family and friends back home don’t really understand his career pursuit. Cooking is not an art form in Mexico the way it is here, he explains. Rather, it’s a job that many Mexicans choose because they can’t succeed in other professions, often because of a lack of education.
Francisco is far from uneducated and inexperienced. He first honed his culinary skills in Mexico, and went on to study at Stratford Chefs School. Although he’s worked at Toronto landmarks Jamie Kennedy, Scaramouche, and Torito, he has only met two other people that he feels share the same passion. Cesar Fregoso, a friend and chef in Mexico, was the first, and said, “I’ll teach you everything I know about cooking if you teach me to write and read.” Neil Baxter, who was the master chef at the Stratford Chefs School and the executive chef at Rundles, where he also teaches weekend cooking classes, helped Francisco further focus and nurture his skills and attitude toward careful and caring cooking.
Working this way at Agave y Aguacate—alone in his kitchen, attending to all the details himself, opening and closing every day—makes for long hours (and a sore back). Francisco is on the lookout for someone to help, but finding another chef who is trained in the nuances of Mexican cooking and also embraces the same uncompromising approach has proven challenging.
You can come and meet Francisco and sample his fare, but be prepared to wait—even if you’re the only person in line. Each plate is made to order—as in, nothing is sliced, diced, minced, or scooped ahead of time.
Salpicón brings together shredded flank steak, jalapeños, tomatoes, red onion, coriander, and lime juice in a salad with freshly made tortilla chips ($5.50), and Pinto Bean Soup stirs queso fresca from Monforte Dairy (!), ancho chilies, crèma fresca, and tortilla strips ($3.50). Francisco zests lime and drizzles buttery arbequina olive oil onto each square of his lime Charlotte, a dessert of maria biscuits, avocado, and lime custard—a treat that has sweet tooths the city over all in a tizzy ($2.75).
Agave y Aguacate is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Cash only. 214 Augusta Avenue. (647) 208-3091.