Bowled Over

Last Wednesday evening, the line-up outside the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art stretched as far north as Bloor Street. People had come prepared; many had snacks, drinks and umbrellas to shield them from the warm May sunshine, because to be first in line meant having the dedication to wait for hours to get in. But being first in line also meant having first choice when selecting a bowl, as well as getting to the variety of soups from the participating local chefs before they all ran out. And they would run out.

Bread and pomodoro at Ace Bakery.

The Empty Bowls event flies under the radar of most Toronto foodies, not because it’s not fabulous in every way, but because tickets tend to sell out so far in advance (2 months on 

average) that there’s no need to promote it to the general public. Members of the Gardiner Museum get first crack at the $45 tickets, and I met some people at the event who have attended annually since it first started 17 years ago.

With proceeds going to Anishnawbe Health Toronto, a charitable organization that provides food to homeless people, the $45 ticket price would be a steal anyway, but guests not only get to sample soup from more than a dozen local chefs and restaurants, they also get to keep the bowls, which are donated by local pottery and ceramics artisans.

Once admitted, guests head to the Gardiner’s lecture hall where bowls of all sizes, colours, and designs are spread out on tables. Chosen bowl in hand, it’s up to the 3rd floor and the Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner restaurant where the perimeter of the room is lined with chefs from local restaurants ladling up soup, while a long table down the centre is full of baskets of bread donated by Ace Bakery.


Picking the best bowl.

Experienced attendees have a system for working the room; pick a bowl not just for its aesthetic beauty but for ease of soup eating; save the bread for the last few mouthfuls so you can sop up the dregs and have a (sort of) clean bowl when you hit the next station; and bring paper towels and a plastic bag to wipe out and carry home the dirty bowl at the end of the evening.

The participating restaurants have also donated their time, energy and ingredients for the event, and to be included in the line-up (curated by Chef Jamie Kennedy) is an acknowledgement of that restaurant’s quality. “Given that Empty Bowls tends to feature some of the best establishments in the city, we were obviously very honoured to be invited,” says Greg Bolton, owner of fine food shop Pantry, whose chef Eric Walker created a potato based spring onion and chive soup with a slice of poached chicken and mushroom sausage.

Walker’s soup was one of three or four that was served cold, a nice change on a day that was unseasonably warm, especially after all 400 guests had filled the sunny restaurant space. “It was a perfect day for the chilled version,” confides Bolton, “and we got a lot of props for that decision. Especially after you’ve had bowl after bowl of hot soup, a cold one is refreshing.”

Other soups at the event included:

  • Wild leek soubise with beet pickled wild leeks – Jamie Kennedy and Scott Vivian – Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner
  • Venison broth with seasonal garnishes – Jonathan Abrahams –The Healthy Butcher
  • Cashew and sweet potato soup with a lime crème fraiche – Martin Kouprie – Pangaea
  • Lobster, lime and coconut bisque with spicy citrus relish – Keith Frogget – Scaramouche
  • Rhubarb soup with organic strawberry sorbet – Yasser Qahawish – Artisanale Café and Restaurant
  • Chilled fava bean puree with mushroom oil and cured duck – Suzanne Baby – Hart House, Gallery Grill
  • Pappa al pomodoro -Linda Haynes – Ace Bakery
  • Ontario Texel lamb with wild leek dumplings – David Chrystian – Chez Victor at the Hôtel le Germain
  • Fave e cicoria – Giovanna Alonzi – Terroni
  • Tamworth pork and brown butter consomme with spring vegetables – Ted Corrado, Luigi Encarnacion – C5 ROM
  • Potato and wild leek soup – Anne Yarymowich – FRANK Restaurant AGO
  • Spot prawn chowder – Jason Inniss and Bertrand Alepee – Amuse Bouche
  • Fish, leek and potato with wild leek pesto, Pickerel botarga and smoked whitefish – Mark Cutrara – Cowbell
  • Chilled alphonso mango and fresh ginger root soup garnished with cucumber tomato and coriander coulis – Simon Kattar – À la Carte
Garnish for the soup from C5.


Empty Bowls was also remarkable for being one of the most convivial events I’ve attended in recent memory. With few seats available, the space was standing room only and whether waiting in line for soup, sharing some of the bottles of water donated by Blue Glass Water Company or reaching for another roll, guests had no choice but to interact. Often we were simply admiring (sometimes enviously) each other’s bowls, but recommendations on the various soups were also prevalent. And when she noticed me trying to wipe out my bowl at the end of the evening with a sad bit of tissue, one lovely woman shared her paper towels and gave me an extra plastic bag to get my bowl home safely.

Chef Eric Walker and owner Greg Bolton from Pantry.


The chefs too, found the event to be enjoyable. “The vibe was lovely,” Bolton enthuses. “I think everyone involved knows that this is a big event, but nobody showed up with a big head. At the end of the night, when things slowed down a bit, most of the chefs bounced around to the other stations to try their soups and talk shop. That’s always fun. There’s a bit of friendly competition, but heavier on the friendly than the competition.”

By the end of the evening, the bowls had been picked over, the soup pots were empty and with the help of dedicated chefs, artisans and volunteers, a sizeable donation had been made to help people who have a very different perspective on the wonders of a good bowl of soup.

Squash soup from Pangaea.


Bolton sums up the event concisely, “Considering you get a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind handmade bowl that’s yours to keep, plus unlimited quantities of soup from some of the best chefs in the city – not to mention the fact that it’s all in support of a great cause – I find it mind-boggling that tickets are only $45.”

“Honestly, if I were running it, I’d double or triple the ticket price. It would still sell out, and there would be that much more cash going to a great cause. Only downside there is that if it was $150, Gina Mallet might rant that it’s elitist.”

Chef Jamie Kennedy and his wild leek soubise.


Keeping the rhubarb soup chilled at Artisanale Cafe and Restaurant.


Chef Mark Cutrara of Cowbell explains his garnish to an assistant.


Pork cracklings, fiddleheads and asparagus to top the soup from The Healthy Butcher.


Chef Martin Kouprie of Pangaea, having a great time.


Wild leek dumplings at Chez Victor at the Hotel le Germain.


Chef Jason Inniss of Amuse Bouche smiles for the annoying lady with the camera.


Chef Keith Frogget of Scaramouche dishes up dinner.


Lilacs and warm biscuits – another reason to love FRANK at the AGO.


A bowl by artist Patrick Mok, complete with leaves and a teeny ceramic snail, calls my name.