“They have their secret. Now I have a secret too”: The story behind SumiLicious, the only Scarborough restaurant to receive a Michelin award
As the international spotlight (finally) shone down on Toronto’s food scene during a glitzy Michelin Guide reveal last Tuesday night at Evergreen Brick Works, one award recipient stood out from the rest. SumiLicious, a deli housed in a Scarborough strip mall, was the only one of the 30 acknowledged restaurants located outside of the city’s core. It picked up a Bib Gourmand—an award given to restaurants where a two-course meal and dessert or a glass of wine costs less than $60 per person—for its Montreal-style smoked meat and poutine.
Chef and owner Sumith Fernando (who puts the Sumi in SumiLicious) wasn’t in attendance to hear his name called or receive a well-deserved round of applause. Too busy with the restaurant and his two-and-a-half-month-old baby, Shevenka, he missed the invitation. But, when Fernando came to work the next morning, he heard the good news. “Some customers, they didn’t even come to eat—just to say congrats to me,” he says.
A Catholic born in Sri Lanka, Fernando isn’t exactly the stereotype of a deli owner—something typically associated with Montreal and New York Ashkenazi Jews. When he moved to Montreal in 2002, a friend hooked him up with a job at the iconic Schwartz’s, which has been dishing out telephone book–size piles of spiced brisket crammed between slices of rye for nearly a century. “When I worked at Schwartz’s, I saw so many customers shaking their heads at how good it was as soon as they had the first bite,” says Fernando. That was when he realized what he wanted to do with his life.
Over his 16 years at Schwartz’s, Fernando did a bit of everything: he marinated the meat, smoked it, and hung it up to dry in the window facing Saint-Laurent Boulevard. He also worked in the kitchen and behind the counter serving customers. In his down time, dreaming of opening his own deli counter, Fernando mixed different spice combinations, trying to come up with his own signature blend. Finally, he was ready to make the move, but his wife, Shalika de Fonseka, wasn’t so sure. “I was actually holding him up,” she says. “We were scared. It was a big risk. I had to quit my job and he had to quit his job, and he wasn’t sure if it was going to work or not. At last we decided that it was a risk worth taking.”
Fernando didn’t want to open a deli in downtown or midtown Toronto because there were so many in those areas already. So, in 2018, he opened a shop on the border of Markham and Scarborough, an area close enough to the city’s Jewish communities to give an initial base of support. “The first year and the second year, he was there all day and working so hard,” says de Fonseka. “But it started to pay off.”
At Schwartz’s, Fernando says, they marinate the meat for 10 days and then smoke it for up to eight hours. At SumiLicious, he likes to marinate and smoke the brisket even longer to bump up the flavour. “I see the difference when I marinate it for more days,” he says. He has also fiddled with his spice mix to get it just right. But, of course, like Schwartz’s, he won’t reveal what’s in it. “They have their secret,” he says. “Now I have a secret too.”
At first, the challenge was convincing those who had never tried smoked meat to give it a go, but before long, more and more business was coming through word of mouth. It also helped that SumiLicious serves Halal-certified meat and dishes out Fernando’s version of one of the world’s best comfort foods. “I didn’t expect the poutine to be so popular,” he says.
Four years after opening, SumiLicious is as busy as ever and only stands to grow after being added to Toronto’s Michelin Guide. “We are happy and thrilled today, especially with this recognition and customer support,” de Fonseka says. But Fernando doesn’t plan to stop experimenting with his recipes. “One day, I want to try something different, something spicy,” he says, adding that he plans to add butterfly chicken to the menu.
As for whether the family prefers Montreal or Toronto, let’s put it this way: they’ll be cheering for the Leafs this season. “We still love Montreal, but this city is welcoming and there’s lots of opportunity,” de Fonseka says. “We love Toronto.”
SumiLicious, #5-5631 Steeles Ave. E., Scarborough, 647-347-8899, sumilicious.ca