No Boundaries on Unique and Creative Experiences in Toronto

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No Boundaries on Unique and Creative Experiences in Toronto

By Rich Luna | Feb 22, 2019

There is no shortage of accolades when it comes to the food scene in Toronto.

A quick tour of that great food reviewer in the sky, the internet, reveals headlines such as “6 Reasons Toronto is a Great City of Foodies,” “Why Toronto is a Paradise for Foodies” and “Why Toronto is Becoming the World’s Next Culinary Destination.”

That’s not hype. The food and beverage scene in Toronto gets high praise because, well, it’s just darn good. The plethora of restaurants featuring diverse menus makes it possible to satisfy the needs of the most discriminating palates.

Here’s what food entrepreneur and meeting industry professional Trevor Lui (MPI Toronto Chapter), who has built his life and career around event experiences, says about his hometown food scene.

“I think when [anyone] travels there are certain things that we love to do,” he says. “Eating is one of them and food has always been a vessel of discussion. Particularly in the world today, it’s the one time we can sit at tables and have differences, but still enjoy a meal together. Food has always been a story and our events are experiences, so food is part of the experience. To be able to take that and give it back to the community where I grew up really is a blessing, and so when people come back to Toronto, not only do they want to eat our food, but we want them to try everything else that this city has to offer.”

Lui comes from a long line of restaurateurs and has spent more than 20 years producing F&B experiences. He recently took a big step in 2017 by starting a new creative venture, Highbell Group, a thought-provoking agency that develops immersive event experiences and content creation through food and beverage.

“There are no boundaries for pushing the envelope on unique and creative experiences while pushing for disruption against the norms,” Lui says. “This new career direction really allows me to fulfil that passion and dream to ‘create’ on so many levels.”

His agency focuses on three core services—restaurant concept development, innovative “intentional” food experiences and custom video content production, all around pushing the F&B envelope.

Lui is focused on how events feed attendees and when considering F&B budgets are generally in the top three line items, he says not enough thought is put into engineering them optimally. 

“We help customers create what we call ‘intentional events’ where we focus on re-engineering F&B and hone in on making it a total immersive experience,” he says.

This includes integrating hands-on learning, chef-driven integration and change management topics such as driving health/wellness, reducing food waste and philanthropic planned giving. 

On the content side, his team is working with destinations and brands to create focused video content exposing a new side of culinary and pop culture that can be used to market to a new demographic of potential clients. 

“We find clients are hungry for tools to distribute into the marketplace on different social and marketing platforms,” Lui says. “Much like restaurants and events, people love all things food so there is a fast emergence of culinary tourism.”

Through his video series, Soulful Food Stories (artlee.agency/soulful-food-stories), he strives to expose parts of Toronto and other destinations that people might not be familiar with.

“I think that when we travel to other cities, there’s always those earmark tourist spots that we go to, which I encourage everyone to do, but what I love to do when I travel is get deep down to do what the locals get to do,” Lui says.

“As my career developed, I never forgot the foundation of what helped propel me forward in the industry. Having grown up in a restaurant environment and eventually starting on the catering side, F&B was always a part of me wherever my next role was. And I’m excited at the opportunities to utilize my creative passion to help clients find new memorable experiences with each bite and sip.”

The passion for F&B is a lifelong one for Lui. His father was a restaurateur and his grandfather was a chef. The name Highbell is taken from his family’s first restaurant they opened in Toronto in the mid 1970s.

“It’s a tribute to my father and grandfather,” he says. “I wanted the name to be the base of my work’s inspiration deep into the foundation of who I am today. And I call it my ‘umbrella of disruptive creativity.’ Whether it’s a restaurant concept, experiential event or video project, the goal is to push the envelope and to create something unique, conversational and memorable. Food and beverage should always push the boundaries and ignite all our senses.”

Lui started in the catering business in the meeting industry, coming up through hotels and then moving over to operations on the convention side.

“Being in the event industry, I’ve always loved the food side and so from a creative perspective, it was a leap of faith to sort of jump back to the side that I started in and bring back food in a different aspect to people, particularly in the event side,” he says.

Lui has helped develop several new, cutting-edge restaurant brands, including Kanpai Snack Bar (you must absolutely try the fried chicken), and his career has exploded. He’s working on a cookbook, an extension of his video storytelling Soulful Food Stories, which is a look into not just Toronto, but different communities, cities and sides of communities within a city that people might not typically see.

“We take that series into parts of the city where we talk about pop culture, we talk about sneakers and music, with a platform of food in the background,” he says.

In addition to food, Lui is a passionate sports fan and has a special love for basketball, especially his hometown team Toronto Raptors.

“My first memories were watching old Lakers-Celtics games in the 80s with my grandpa,” he says. “On Sundays when he would have a day off from cheffing in our family restaurant, we would watch the game of the week. It’s a great memory that I cherish.

“The fact that my grandfather was an immigrant who spoke little English and had no prior knowledge of the game, it became a shared moment for us weekly. I started playing the game in middle school and even now, as I near the ripe age of 50, I still play pick up weekly.”

His Kanpai Snack Bar project is a microcosm of his F&B philosophy.

“If you’ve ever been to Taiwan, it is a play on the street food that you may find in the night market,” Lui says. “But what we’ve done is we’ve taken that authentic Asian feel and mixed it with a little bit of North American Toronto. So we play classic hip-hop, we pour cocktails out of the tap, we pour local craft beer and we have a really cool vibe. So, we want people just to come, chill out, enjoy a meal, have some drinks and, once again, [enjoy] the total experience.”

Through it all, Lui is cognizant of the impact that MPI has had on his career. He has been actively engaged as an MPI member since joining in 2005, and has served on the MPI Foundation Global Board of Trustees since 2015. He previously served on the MPI Foundation Canada Council for five years.

“This industry made me who I am today, and I’m completely indebted to every person and event that has helped to shape who I am today,” he says. “My continued work with MPI as a volunteer the last few years has really opened my eyes to a whole new world. It’s been so rewarding to serve our industry and at the same time connect me to an entire community I never imagined.”

Lui is especially proud that MPI’s 2019 World Education Congress (WEC) will be in Toronto, June 15-18, and remembers when WEC was last in Toronto in 2002.

“I was pretty early on in my career and I was a young fledgling catering manager ushering people through the convention center,” he says. “The city has grown up a lot. We’re the fourth-largest metropolitan area in North America now so we’re really excited to welcome the MPI community back to one of the most exciting, most diverse cities in the world.”

Lui recently married his love Aneeta Parmar, who he calls the “perfect partner.”

“She’s been such an essential support for everything I do, including the sacrifices that come with being in this industry,” he says. “I’m truly lucky to have her by my side as I continue to carve out a new niche in the marketplace and I couldn’t imagine having anyone else by my side.”

So, for someone who has built a life around the kitchen, what is his favorite meal?

“Honest, simple and soulful meals are the best for me,” Lui says. “Whether it’s a bowl of noodles from my favourite Chinese spot, a local dish on a side street stand in the country I’m visiting or hand-making dumplings with my daughter for a nice home-cooked meal. These moments ignite memories and senses because there is a special story behind every one of these dishes.”

Must-Have Food in Toronto

Trevor Lui’s dining recommendations for those attending MPI’s World Education Congress (WEC), June 15-18 in Toronto.

Kanpai Snack Bar (of course!)

We provide a curated mix of Taiwanese Street Food, unique cocktails and classic hip hop in a relaxed vibe. Enjoy our famous Taiwanese Fried Chicken (TFC) and see why it’s been voted one of the city’s best fried chicken options—plus it’s gluten free.

Goa Indian Farm Kitchen

Situated in prestigious Bayview Village, this is one of the city’s newest spots offering an array of authentic Portuguese-influenced Indian cuisine, which is rarely found. Chef/owner Hemant Bhagwani does it once again with a beautiful balance of mood and flavor.

Pai Northern Kitchen

My go-to for Thai food and specifically Northern Thai cuisine. Great, authentic food in such a fun atmosphere by the great husband and wife duo of Chef Nuit and Jeff Regular, who have assembled the city’s best Thai eateries.

At WEC19

Trevor Lui will be speaking at the following WEC session this year:

  • Tuesday, June 18th: #MeetingsToo

Click here to see more sessions.

 

Author

Rich
Rich Luna

Rich Luna is Director of Publishing for MPI and Editor-in-chief of The Meeting Professional.