Until Diona Joyce came along, Filipino food hardly registered a blip in Toronto’s urban food culture.
Known to Torontonian foodies as Tita Flips (the name of her catering company), Joyce has popularized such Filipino specialties as palabok, lechon kawali, halo halo and turon, and has introduced the uninitiated (and brave) to the wonders of balut (boiled duck embryo). She has even given the beloved Canadian poutine a Filipino twist, and the dish is one of her bestsellers.
Thanks to the success of Kanto, her little-stall-that-could at Dundas and Bathurst, in downtown Toronto, Joyce has not only introduced but also popularized Filipino food. Kanto, like about a dozen other vendors, operates out of refurbished shipping containers at a section of Scadding Court Community Centre known as “Market 707.” It is a strip that has become “a hot piece of culinary real estate,” according to the local food blog, Blog T.O.
Joyce has been, for a while now, a toast of the local food scene. She has been written about extensively, has appeared on TV shows and is a familiar presence at food festivals and events, including the recent one at the Royal Ontario Museum.
It’s a no-brainer, really. Kanto’s food is affordable and scrumptious. It also helps that Joyce is charming, affable, tech-savvy and hardworking. On Nov. 21, a producer for CBC’s Metro Morning radio show tweeted a photo of a very pregnant Joyce serving breakfast for the show’s staff; that same day, Joyce tweeted that she had delivered all 7 pounds and 14 ounces of her baby, Tianna.
The Origami spoke to Diona Joyce about the journey that led to Tita Flips and Kanto.
I worked as an insurance broker; I’m still licensed. But cooking is my passion. My mother, Catalina Libunao, used to make peanut brittles and other peanut products in Oroquieta (a city in the province of Misamis Oriental, Philippines), and I started helping her when I was six years old. [My mother’s creations] were called Diona’s Peanut Products and people who visited the city would buy them as pasalubong [gifts].
My aunt had a banquet hall, which my mother managed. They had a cook, Nanay [“Mother”] Suping, who was really good. Instead of playing, I would watch her in the kitchen. So I grew up surrounded by women who cooked.
I later became a medical representative and I would give Diona’s Peanut Products as gifts to doctors. They loved the skinless garlic peanuts—Sumikat ako doon. I became famous for those. It became my signature. Others would order them and so it was like a niche market. I used to say, “Mahal ang mani ng nanay ko.” [“My mother’s peanuts are expensive.”] We had to remove the peanuts’ skin, one by one.
Coming to Canada
I came to Canada by accident. I had a friend who applied here and I had driven her to pick up her visa and she encouraged me to apply. I was told that I qualified. I had a good job and it was fun. At the same time, there was still something missing. I kept thinking, “How far would I go?” After eight months, I got my visa; that was in 2001. I was shocked. I was 26 years old and I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I had no family here.
My friend was already here, but by the time I arrived, she had cancer. She was living in a basement apartment and she had no job; she was relying on the assistance of her family. I got an apartment and I took care of her. I thought then, “Oh, my God, why am I here?”
I was also the breadwinner in our family. I had to send money back home, but I just had enough for first and last month’s rent. I had to find a job right away. I worked at McDonald’s for three months and then became an insurance agent. I had to have a car, so I rented a wrecked car. Ang baho baho, umiiyak ako. [“It smelled so bad that I cried.”] My car wasn’t like this in the Philippines. But I had to wipe away the tears and remind myself, “It’s just a car. It can still get me from point A to point B.
I was only in Canada for three months and I had to familiarize myself with the financial stuff. Thankfully, I had a commerce and marketing background. I also had good mentors. I had to do 10 appointments in one day. I was doing well, but I had to really work hard, even if the weather was bad.
After a few months my friend’s sister took her in and that’s where she died.
The birth of Tita Flips
In 2008, my mom and dad came here. I had sponsored them, but it was a long process and my dad got impatient. So I invited them as visitors first. A lawyer suggested getting a work permit. He suggested finding a company or restaurant that would hire my mother. I asked, “What if I create a catering company and she’ll work for me?” So I registered the company and created a website, and people started ordering from us.
Why Tita Flips? We call everybody Tita [“Aunt”] and Flip is North American slang for Filipino. Tita Flips is a Tita, but she’s young. We wanted to present somebody who was authentic and who would have a modern take and twist on Pinoy [Filipino] food.
Decoding sisig fries
I was at the night market at the T & T Asian festival. In its first year I was the only Filipino. When I got there the next year, there were others and we had the same menu. I needed to do something different. Poutine is not a Filipino dish, but I know a lot of people like it. Sisig is a popular Filipino appetizer [made from sizzling pork snout, ear and shoulder cooked with bird’s eye chili, lemon and onions]. Others will buy without asking what’s in there, so when I tell them, they say, “Really? There’s snout and ears there?”
Palabok [rice noodle dish] is also a bestseller. It’s more festive and it has different components. I try to leave the integrity of the dish but make it appealing to the North American palate. I don’t put in mussels, so it [has no] stench.
Most of my dishes are traditional, but I try to meet the two palates halfway.
We do a lot of catering for 50th and 65th birthdays and debuts. We’ve done not just Filipino but also Dominican and Italian weddings. Lately, there’s been a lot of mixed race weddings, which is nice. I incorporate dishes from both cultures. For example, I would make the desserts Filipino or the appetizers Filipino. One time I had a halo halo bar, which was a hit. [Halo halo is a popular Filipino dessert of shaved ice, evaporated milk, sweet red beans, candied bananas, flan, ice cream, sugar palm fruit, coconut, jackfruit, tapioca, purple yam, sweet potato, and pounded young rice.]
The birth of Kanto
In 2011, we were passing by Dundas West when we saw these 8 by 10 food stalls. I Googled the information for Scadding Court right away and read that it was the city’s first street food court. The stalls were made from shipping containers. At that time the only street food in Toronto were hot dogs.
I had no concept at that time what I would serve. On December 2012, they contacted me that there was going to be a space available. I asked for a week to decide. It was winter and so there was no street traffic. But I knew that if I didn’t take it, it might be my only chance. It was a leap of faith. I took over the stall by January, but I couldn’t open right away. There were lots of regulations—I had to have hot water, a heater, pumps, etcetera. The previous business sold cupcakes and so they had different requirements. It took us a month to set up.
We formally opened that spring. We chose the name Kanto, which means “corner” in Tagalog. We’re at the corner of Bathurst and Dundas. It’s also a play on the words “kain” [to eat] and “T.O.” [Toronto, Ontario]. Even white people can pronounce Kanto [laughs].
My husband, Trevor, owns a marketing company and he helped me with branding the business. We’re both business people and we believe that if you do something, you have to do it right or don’t do it at all. He’s also my house taster. He eats a lot of Filipino food.
It’s fun in the summer. We have tables and chairs, and some folks come all the way from Aurora and Mississauga, Ont. It’s like an outing for them.
My husband, Trevor, owns a marketing company and he helped me with the branding part. We’re both business people and we believe that if you do something, you have to do it right or don’t do it at all. He’s also my house taster. He eats a lot of Filipino food.
It’s fun at Kanto in the summer. We have tables and chairs and some folks come all the way from Aurora and Mississauga, Ont. It’s like an outing for them.
I’d love to go to a culinary school, but it’s a question of time. But I continue to explore different cuisines. I’m largely self-taught, and so I continue to learn and I read a lot of books.
My mom is my partner; she’s the original Tita Flips. She loves being here; Kanto is her baby, too.
When I came here, I realized there’s nothing impossible. As long as you work hard, you can attain what you want. You have to set your mind to it, focus and work at it. Just do it. A lot of people told me, “You can’t sell dinuguan [pork stew with pork blood]— white people won’t eat that.” I said, “Watch me.”
Food is a matter of presentation and of course, taste. Even though we’re selling street food at Kanto, we don’t want to just slap it in a container.
I really want Filipino food to be in the mainstream here in Toronto. There are so many Filipinos here and we have a lot of awesome food.