1330 Queen Street West
Deserved or not, Parkdale has a reputation for being a bit dirty and gritty, less known as a fine wine kind of place than Fine Old Canadian Sherry. Wine guy Jeremy Day has set out to change that and for the past year or so has been running a warm and welcoming little wine bar that has not just made Parkdale a destination for good wine, but has embraced the community in the process.
I spoke with Day via email, and while I don’t normally like running straight up Q&A articles, his answers were so well thought-out and eloquent that it seemed only fair to run his replies in full.
TasteT.O.:How did you get started? What is your background in food and wine? Are you self taught or did you train somewhere specific?
Jeremy Day: I got started working part-time at restaurants and bars when I was in school. Though I was going to school for theatre, I found my calling in hospitality – the richness of its history and lore drew me in. Seventeen years later I opened café Taste.
My background begins at age 5 when my parents moved me to a farm in a rural area two hours Northwest of Toronto. Being on a farm, we were self-sufficient – we grew our vegetables, raised our chickens, pigs, ducks and cows, and with everything on a small scale (no more than a dozen of any type of livestock at a time) we worked organically before a time when that meant something.
Everything was ‘free-ranged’ and we worked naturally with the land, raising crops to feed ourselves and our livestock. When I came to Toronto and began work in the hospitality industry, I at first embraced the ‘big city’ and its convenience – it was years before I simply felt ‘ill’ from being bereft of my ‘natural’ upbringing and went back to eating healthy and working towards sustainable local practices. This is what I bring to opening cafe Taste.
From working in the industry, I’ve brought my farm-roots work ethic, and learned all I could to better myself for my employer. Many of the larger companies I worked with trained me with the Ontario Wine Council, seminars with hospitality consultants, and so forth, however it was by actually doing that I learned most. Coupled with trips to Europe, I fell in love with the history and roots of wine, spirits and food. Eventually, after progressing to the point where I was teaching those I worked with, I looked around and saw I disagreed with many of the practices of my corporate employers. It was at this point I chose to go on my own.
This is why cafe Taste is modelled after my trips to Europe – local produce featured around the EXPERIENCE of treating oneself – In Europe, each cafe features local wines and cheeses. It is part of the daily ritual Europeans have to treat themselves – to live – by enjoying a glass of wine, a chunk of cheese and some bread each day. In North America, we do NOT treat ourselves each day, instead we seem to “Live to Work” as opposed to “Working to live”. cafe Taste is meant to promote the latter – come by to Live.
TasteT.O: Why Parkdale as opposed to somewhere that might be more receptive to the concept of a wine bar? How does the neighbourhood respond? Is your clientele mostly local or people from out of the hood who make cafe Taste a destination?
Jeremy Day: Ah! Why NOT Parkdale??? See, my point, my vision for this place IS that wine & cheese is for everyone – they are two of the oldest portions of culinary history – growing with culture and civilization over several thousand years. WHY does North America make wine service pretentious and unapproachable? Wine should not be put on a pedestal, it should be enjoyed by the people! My concept is “opulence for the common man”, great product at a discounted price. I made cafe Taste so that people do not shy away from the higher end products because of their mark-up. Generally, the more I spend on a product the less percentage is charged so that people CAN try a shot of Johnnie Walker Blue Label for $18 (all of our prices include the taxes – what you see is what you pay). If you wish to treat yourself to an evening out with friends for higher-end products, you can do so here without the pretense, and without breaking the bank.
The neigbourhood responds well, albeit slowly. At first people didn’t know what to think, with wine bars being somewhat trendy and opening across Toronto, it was clear from the start this one was different – no high-end decor, no servers with ties, and an extensive cheese selection (up to 30 cheeses to match the 30 wines by the glass). Over the last 19 months word has spread, and even seem to have inspired other restaurants to offer more cheeses with their wines. I am proud to say however that what has been created here is a unique spot in Toronto.
cafe Taste seems to straddle being a neighbourhood hang-out and a destination spot. Since wine & cheese is not part of the daily routine for North Americans, we get lots of private bookings as an experience for groups – wine tastings, birthday parties, etc. A few weeks ago we had a group from Cambridge in for the evening. It is unfortunate that on those nights when we’re closed for a private gig that I have to turn-away my neighbourhood regulars.
TasteT.O.:Tell me a bit about your wine selections and how you came to compile your wine list? Do you update it frequently?
Jeremy Day: I update it quite often – about every 6-8 weeks. I compile based upon what I’ve tasted, and what Ontario has to offer. My mandate is to source locally, primarily to reduce our environmental footprint, but we have such an incredible resource with the Ontario wine regions, it would be criminal to not make use of them! I do incude wines from outside Ontario, but they have to have either exceptional taste or flavour profile that the wine list requires, or have some manner of historical note that appeals to me – preferably both!
TasteT.O.:The food menu is pretty simple – is this out of choice or necessity? Are there kitchen facilities to expand the menu at some point in the future, or do you prefer to focus on the wine at this point?
Jeremy Day: Actually, it is both. Though I wished to have a more extensive menu available, it was always intended to be a cheese-based. As we were limited in kitchen facilities, it worked out to our vision of cheese trays, fondue, and cheese salads. As far as cooking philosophy, “Simple. Fresh.Tasty” is our mantra. Good, preferrably locally-sourced ingredients and uncomplicated recipes to allow natural flavour profiles to carry through and match with our wines. We’ve over 30 wines by the glass, so we need a wide range of cheeses to compliment! What I’m doing is simplicity itself: enjoy a glass of wine with a chunk of cheese and some bread, nuts & olives. There isn’t too much call right now to go outside our vision.
TasteT.O.: You host a lot of events at the cafe including movie nights – is this a useful tool in selling wine, or are these events more to be part of the local community?
Jeremy Day: Most of the events are meant to be something interesting for the community, however once they’re here they can learn about what we’re trying to do. Even our main movie night – our “Incite & Engage the Left” movie series – features films such as Who Killed the Electric Car, The Corporation, Farenheit 9/11, etc.. As I joke with my brother, cafe Taste is a venue for my Socialist leanings. I wish for my events to incite discussion, to allow people to talk, learn, interact. It all revolves around my belief that wine is FOR the people – that the disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” can be reduced by some common experience: wine & cheese.
TasteT.O.: And finally – will that darn patio be open before the snow flies? 🙂
Jeremy Day: Funny you should ask! It was just licensed, AND, making the most of the fact it is now November, I am opening it and modelling it after the European Ice Hotels – It is going to be used over the winter as the “ICEWINE Patio” – featuring Icewine, Ice cocktails, Ice shots, Ice beer – all served out of actual ice vessels! So as you do not freeze your hand, each guest receives a mitt with the cafe Taste logo. Food will be cold tapas on slabs of ice. “Are you COOL enough to drink here?” It will be available by bookings only, so just in time for specialty holiday parties for your company or group!