Coco de Leo posed in front of the kitchen of DreamLand. This is her second location she co-owns with her sister. Photo credit: Emily Britton

Coco de Leo never expected to open up a café of her own. At least not at such a young age.

Although the 22-year-old had dreams of opening one with her sister when she was little, she didn’t think the opportunity would present itself — especially at this stage in her life. While still being young but also professional, de Leo incorporates that into her attire at work: pairing ripped blue jeans and a floured apron.

“I mean this is definitely my greatest accomplishment, by far,” de Leo said in a soft voice. “I’m very proud of where I came from. If two years ago, someone told me this is what I’d be doing, I wouldn’t believe it.”

Only two years ago, at the age of 20, de Leo opened up her own café with her sister, Marlo. They named it DreamLand Café as homage to their parents and their business. Their parents, Carmine and Leah, own a home improvement business called Dreamland Builders. De Leo had always wanted to open up a café with her sister, so when her dad came to her in 2017 with an open space for them on Laurier Avenue, she said, “Why not, I’ve got nothing to lose.”

De Leo started her culinary career when she was 4-years-old. That was when she learnt how to make her first dish, a simple scrambled egg. She then moved onto bigger things when she was 8-years-old. That was when she learnt how to bake her grandma’s banana bread, which didn’t go smoothly the first time.

“Instead of putting a quarter teaspoon of salt, I put a quarter cup of salt. I will never forget this, it was the most disgusting banana bread, but my family ate it all,” she said while grinning.

Her family had always supported de Leo’s culinary dreams, especially her parents. De Leo’s parents are the inspiration of where she is today. They started from nothing, and have had highs and lows with family situations, including financial problems, but no matter what they stuck by each other. Now, with a new business for them, they are stronger and happier than ever.

“It’s so inspiring to see them go through all of that and still come out on top,” she said about her parents.

Her mother, Leah de Leo, says she stands in awe from what her daughter has done throughout her life and she loves the determination she had to realize her dreams.

“I support all her dreams – then, now, and always,” her mother said.

Throughout her whole life, de Leo never enjoyed school. Her creative mind didn’t sit well with the studious part. She learnt more by being hands-on in the kitchen and immersing herself with food. That’s why in high school, de Leo took co-op at a restaurant and enjoyed it there.

“I didn’t like school all that much and that’s when I went for co-op and worked at Fratelli’s and that’s where I learnt a huge chunk of skills set that taught me what I needed,” de Leo said.

When de Leo graduated high school, she moved out to Charlottetown, P.E.I. and attended the Culinary Institute of Canada. It was a two-year program, but de Leo only stayed for the first year. For her, it was a very strict and prestigious school. If you had even your neck-tie crooked, there would be repercussions.

She realized that even doing what she loves, she still doesn’t like being stuck in a place and told what to do. She wanted to be free. Throughout the next couple years, de Leo learnt by travelling. It was the way she could understand things at her own pace. She immersed herself in the food with different cultures and learnt more about culinary and herself.

“I love the whole experience of new restaurants, new menus, cocktails, food. I love everything about the restaurant scene,” de Leo said while smiling. “Like when I travel and stuff, that’s why I travel to seek out new restaurants. I find it very inspiring.”

De Leo’s grandma, who she calls Nonna, is someone she also finds inspiring and has led her to where she is today. Her Nonna has been in the food industry for over 30 years. She says her Nonna has a way of connecting with the family and getting them together in the midst of a feud.

De Leo has inherited that ability herself, said her sister, Marlo de Leo. She says her sister also has an ability to connect with people and get along so easy with them.

If de Leo had to describe herself in one word, it would be passionate. When she was 14-years-old, she went to the Carlingwood Tim Hortons every day and filled out an application until they hired her. Not only being passionate, de Leo was also very adamant about having her first job in the food industry. Later on, de Leo realized she wanted to work more seriously with food, so she moved onto working at a catering company, which taught her how the food industry operates.

Mexico is part of the big picture in DreamLand’s future. De Leo hopes there will be a third restaurant opening in Tulum within the next 10 years. The city has a trendy and light-heartedness to it that goes well with the vibe that de Leo has created for DreamLand but for now she has a few baby steps for her Little Italy location.

Last summer they had the back patio set up like a tiki porch, so this summer they want to utilize that again and have a dutch door in the back, so that they can serve the customers pizza through there and have a pizza patio. De Leo has just hit her six-month mark of owning and operating her second location on Preston, so now she can start playing with new ideas.

For de Leo, being a young female entrepreneur, there’s a lot of pressure she endures. Not only does she experience degrading and inappropriate acts from men, but the other businesses don’t take her seriously due to her age. De Leo says she feels empowered when she stands up to these men who degrade women. She has even had to ban a few of them from the café.

“Having the ability to shut them down is a very empowering feeling even though it’s terrifying doing it,” de Leo said.

The Nicki Minaj album Queen has songs that help get de Leo in the right mind set to empower her. The banter that happens in the kitchen is completely different from the kitchen talk she has experienced at other jobs in the past. De Leo has worked to create a safe environment for her staff and customers.

“Being a woman in this industry is challenging but also very empowering that fact that we’re doing it and doing it kinda well,” de Leo said.