If there’s anything The Steady Cafe & Bar‘s co-owner Vanessa Robak has mastered, it’s how to have fun with the unexpected. The 26-year-old Toronto native competed on the Food Network’s Donut Showdown and took home the $10,000 cash prize with a creation that surprised everyone: a donut-bagel hybrid (poppy seeds on top, sweetened vegan cream cheese in the middle, and a dried mango slice as the lox).
It seems like an odd combination, but Robak managed to make it a success — much like her career path. Growing up, she wanted to be a welder, an accountant, and an anatomical illustrator, but landed a job as a cook out of sheer necessity while she was living in Montreal as a teen. She soon discovered she had a knack for it, so she continued to take cooking jobs after moving back to Toronto. When she’s not displaying her donut skills on cable TV, she goes by the title of “Kitchen Witch” at The Steady, which she co-owns with barkeep Keaton Taylor. There, she serves up drinks at the bar, picks out fresh ingredients at the market, and cooks brunch — among many other duties.
The Steady is not a dedicated donut shop or even a bakery, so how did you end up as a contestant on the Food Network’s Donut Showdown?
We started serving brunch in the autumn of 2013, and had a vegan and gluten-free sugar cinnamon donut on that menu. An acquaintance of Keaton suggested we apply to the show, as they were looking to fill out season two. We thought why not, and truthfully never actually thought we’d make it on the show. We had a hilarious and weird audition tape that I think sealed our fate, but unfortunately will never see the light of YouTube because it belongs to Donut Showdown.
How did you come up with the idea of a donut-bagel hybrid on the show? Were you nervous about what the judges would think?
When they announced the theme would be “masquerade,” my brain immediately started churning through ways we could turn the concept on its head. It seemed so obvious to go the route of Carnival and Mardi Gras, and I knew they were expecting some sort of donuts to that extent, so I really wanted to surprise them with something a little more conceptual. It didn’t make the airing, but in round one of the show, Zane Caplansky noticed our sesame-seed-crusted wasabi tempura donut and mentioned that it looked like a bagel, which made him want a bagel. As soon as my mind landed on “disguised, under false pretense,” I knew it had to be a bagel. That said, until it gets explained to people, nobody seems to “get” that the concept was the donut “masquerading” as a bagel. I comfort myself by saying many great artists were misunderstood in their own time.
After winning Donut Showdown, you had to keep it a secret for eight months until the show aired. What was that like? Did you almost let it slip?
It was the worst. The. Worst. I have a few friends who kept encouraging me to audition for the show, or who would offer to try to get me on through connections to the Food Network, and I’d have to hum and haw and pretend I would think about it. I couldn’t even tell my own mother!
Will the contest-winning donuts be on the menu now?
We haven’t decided to add any of the Donut Showdown donuts to our permanent menu at this time. We have a weekly donut flavor that we serve during the evening and weekend brunches. After the show aired, we made sure to have a dozen or so of one of the Donut Showdown flavors on hand, usually the bagel, during brunches only… but because we aren’t a donut shop, we don’t really have the setup to be doing lots of flavors every day.
What are some secret, not-on-the-menu items I can get at The Steady?
With our dinner menu currently on hiatus as we tweak it and other aspects of the bar, the majority of our “secret” menu items are on the weekend brunch menu. You can order anything “like it was cool in 2012,” which gets bacon shoved inside it.
When not at work, where are your favorite places in Toronto to go out with friends?
I might seem like a party animal, but my preferred hangout is usually low-key and casual. Toronto has a ton of great bars and restaurants, and it’s hard for me to narrow down the list! For daytime, Littlefish or The Federal for brunch, Bloomer’s for some vegan bakery snacks, The Good Neighbour for coffee. At night, most of my bar destinations are determined by how cute the bartender is (Mondays and Tuesdays are The 3 Speed nights), or if they have karaoke. Sunday nights, you can find my trivia team at The Ossington, coming in a solid fifth place.
What advice would you give someone visiting Toronto for the first time?
Our microbrews are amazing; try as many as you can. Don’t forget to point when you use a crosswalk.
Why do you love living in Toronto? What is special about this city?
I grew up here and it has a special place in my heart. Also, Toronto’s burning desire to be New York City is pretty funny to watch.