The Last Post
Father’s Day was busy, moving house. Neither bantling materialized, though both sent a telephone message of encouragement. The loins were weary after striding about the Distillery District from noon to nine the day before, bearing witness to One City, One Table—Luminato’s first venture into the art of gastronomy. It was a bold idea, closing Mill Street and putting up a slender, 650-foot-long dinner table dramatically draped in black, backed by a line of chefs and sous-chefs at prep stations, well over 50 by the time the day was done. The public were invited to purchase $5 tickets, each one of which would buy whatever example of imaginative street food any of the chefs had prepared. But would anyone come? We knew which chefs would be there—some personally invited, others volunteering after heeding the call to arms in this very blog. But what about the punters? I lay awake on Friday night, listening to the thunderstorm and the splashing rain. Saturday morning was pretty grey and the radio promised more downpours. But in the end the sun broke through, the afternoon was properly hot (though not quite sweltering) and the turnout was amazing. Half an hour before the event began there was a lineup for tickets and all afternoon the crowds were clamouring for nourishment. The numbers aren’t quite in, but there must have been thousands and thousands of people strolling by, admiring, buying, sitting and eating.
Everyone involved gave a bravura performance and the chefs only left because they had sold out of food. To all the chefs and cooks and caterers and crepe flippers and ice cream dippers and smoothie shakers and cupcake bakers and corn dog makers, let me offer a huge thank you! You made the event and next year, I promise, the umbrellas will be more stable. And we’ll have wine and beer for sale. And it’ll be bigger and brasher—but we’ll always remember this first one because nobody knew what to expect. And thanks to Nicole Sweeney of the Distillery who turned the idea into actuality—and to Luminato for seeing that gastronomy, the first of all the arts, should also be represented in a festival of the arts held in a city justly renowned for its cooking.
It would be invidious for me to name names or pick favourites from the gallant chefs who took part, but at the same time I want to give some idea of the range and creativity the event inspired. I sent minions scampering through the throng to note where the longest, feistiest lineups were to be found and here are their reports, delivered in the inimitable “note form” that minions love.
Starfish’s owner Patrick McMurray scrawled his offerings on an old window frame (that will soon hang in his own window as some kind of surreal-ironicalist statement). Five oysters for a $5 ticket (that has to be a bargain—Rodney’s was offering four for a buck, though theirs were slightly bigger) or a smoked blue crab (Patrick was popping the lid but you had to suck the goodness out of the critter) or an extraordinarily successful freak of an idea he called “Mr. Frosty’s lobster sno kone.” This was a paper cone filled with ice soaked in cocktail sauce-flavoured water and topped with chilled lobster. You could eat everything except the cone. It was delicious, but I imagine some children must have burst into tears finding what looked like a strawberry slushie tasting of Nova Scotia lobster and cocktail sauce. I began with the oysters (three Malpeques and two from B.C.’s Fanny Bay)—first thing in my mouth since coffee and toothpaste at 6 a.m.—and they were stupendous, like swimming in the sea.
Trevor Kitchen and Bar owner Trevor Wilkinson took the burger idea and ran with it, squeezing sweet, very tender barbecued suckling pig inside a parmesan-crusted biscuit. It was righteous and heavy and Wilkinson threw in a cup of his sweet, full-bodied, homemade lemonade.
Lino Collevecchio of Via Allegro also burgered, crowding a patty of ground bison with pancetta and melted taleggio cheese and garnishing it with truffle-scented onion mayo and porcini dust. Did it taste good? Read the description more slowly and see if your mouth waters. Typically including something above and beyond, he also offered a pistachio and chocolate florentine ice cream sandwich with amarone-and-strawberry marmalade.
Santaguida Fine Foods pulled in the people with a giant grilled chicken panini. Lucia Ruggiera-Martella of Grano did her chicken a different way, folding house-made flatbread around tender chicken breast with a choice of toppings (the minion chose arugula pesto).
Sassafraz prepared a generous lobster taco and also handed out house-made chocolates that brought the number two minion to her knees. At about three o’clock, the longest crowd of all may have been at Sunshine Shakes, where the busy ’tenders were making chilled smoothies out of fresh tropical fruits. At five, it was definitely for Edo’s kobe beef hot dog (a brazen, counter-reformation manifesto in favour of the dog, the very item this event was created to destroy!).
And the beat went on. Here was Dish dishing up a sweet, rich pulled pork sandwich on a cheddar-chive biscuit with avocado purée and slow-roasted tomatoes. There was Jamie Kennedy and his son, toiling under the pale of Kennedy’s latest venture, the Gilead Café, griddling a scrumptious version of a croque monsieur using the chef’s own ham seared on a barbecue built around a limestone slab from his own vineyard. I mean, how JK can you get?
Jayne’s Gourmet Catering drew in the science nerds with a liquid nitrogen–frozen “cryogemic” [sic] dulce de leche ice cream served in a sugared éclair with strawberry-maple sauce. One Up chef Jason Toner went the minimalist-perfectionist route with a bite-sized flavour explosion of yellow fin tuna tartare with yuzu-scented crème fraîche, flying fish roe and yellow pepper brunoise all poised in a tiny cup of prosciutto. The burger crowd moved on without buying; the gourmets pounced.
And then there was the offering from J P + Co, the new catering company from Jean-Pierre Challet and his business partners, Peter Tsang and Jennifer Decorte. They placed tiny goat cheese tarts topped with caramelized shallots in a paper boat and capped them with subtly dressed frisée. Challet et al. will be based in the Distillery, catering, doing events and giving cooking classes, working especially with product brought in from Quebec. We do not know as yet who will be filling J.P.’s considerable clogs at The Fifth.
As for me, by about tea time, I decided to take a breather, crouching under the temperamental umbrella held aloft by Anne Yarymowich, executive chef of the Art Gallery of Ontario. She had brought in her friend Carlos Fuenmayor to help with a scrumptious dainty: a tortilla of potato and salt cod topped with romesco sauce and a juicy grilled gulf shrimp. I must have eaten my weight in it. Yarymowich’s new restaurant at the AGO opens on November 14, with full street access from Dundas Street West and breathtaking decor (according to Anne), its name not quite finalized.
And there were so many more delicacies! Chris Brown from Perigee did the full slow-local thing with a venison thuringer sausage on English muffin with pickled ramps. Jason Rosso, who governs all the other Distillery restaurants, did a braised oxtail risotto with porcini (street food? If only!). Andrea Nicholson of Thirty Five Elm fried up an amazing lobster and crab pogo dog. I used my last two tickets on the last two going. It was so good—juicy, lobstery, crabby, crispy, simultaneously junky and haute, just what you can buyon the street corners in foodie heaven.
Then it was off to the Mill Street pub for a restorative pint of Tank and a glimpse of the European Cup soccer masters showing us all how it’s done. At which point Quartetto Gelato started to play a free concert on Trinity Street and the world hit reset.
In the final analysis, this was a lively, democratic and interesting event that brought the city together around a
single table, celebrated our cultural diversity but also our commonality as citizens of Toronto. It was great to see North 44º (doing a delectable crab falafel, incidentally) side by side with a caterer whose work I had never tasted. The table, already accoutred with multicultural, perhaps universal connotations of harmony, hospitality, amnesty and conviviality, was a mere prop but also the means to an end. I watched total strangers sitting there, striking up a conversation, commenting first on the food, then the event, then our city. The audience was a lively cross-section of Toronto. To be sure, the educated, baby-encumbered, 30-something powerhouse was there in force, but so were their parents, and their 20-something, free-as-birds younger sibs, and the gypsies and the children. Watching the kids listen to the chef as she/he went into their spiel was revealing. The vocabulary may have been arcane but the kid got the gist of it—the passion that clouds around flavour and texture and the provenance of ingredients. Eat a corncob, kid, instead of a tube of Pringles. Eat a free-range bison burger instead of a Mickey D’s. The world is yours. And it’s your hand that will be spoon-feeding me when I’m 108 in an old folks’ home, so I need your values to be peachy-keen.
In other news, Afrim Pristine has been busy down at Cheese Boutique taking whole forms of Drumloch cheddar from the Isle of Gigha in Scotland and washing them daily in Lagavulin 16-year-old whisky. The cheese should be delightfully aromatic by the time it is served at a Scotch dinner on July 23 at Trevor Kitchen and Bar. Meanwhile Afrim goes home every night reeking of the water of life.
I’m sad to say the plug has been pulled and this is the last Chatto’s Digest you will see on Toronto Life’s Web site. I still quite like the idea of being a blogeen, however, and will be resuming after a brief hiatus at www.jameschatto.com, larding astonishing gastronomical gossip and opinionated worldwide restaurant news with whatever else seems important or amusing, assuming I can figure out how to get the site set up. Meanwhile, toodle-pip.