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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.”