Mambo Vegan Italiano!

When I interviewed Len Senater of The Depanneur (1033 College Street) a few months ago, he was adamant that the space wouldn’t just be a cafe serving coffee and toast. That was to be its daytime persona, but he also wanted the space to be home to the Rusholme Park Supper Club, a pop-up type restaurant that hosted byob events. It took some doing, but now that The Depanneur is open and running smoothly, Senater has progressed to the point where they’ve started doing dinners.

One of the first in the October series took place last Friday, when Emily Zimmerman took over the kitchen to prepare a vegan Italian dinner meant to evoke the casual Beatnik gatherings of the 1950s when even the most basic of Italian cuisine was considered avant garde.

Guests paid $40 for a 1-day “membership” to the supper club, and brought their own beverages to the 3-course meal, which is how the Depanneur gets around licensing issues.

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Beau’s Beer Dinner at the Queen and Beaver

Sometimes it’s hard being a princess. As a food writer, when it’s my job to eat what’s put in front of me, I try not to be (a princess, that is), but sometimes, it just can’t be helped. Sometimes, when it comes to eating lamb, other people get all princessy on my behalf, as was the case with the Beau’s beer dinner at Queen & Beaver on September 19th. Before I arrived at the Toronto Beer Week event, Greg had already mentioned to Chef Andrew Carter that I don’t eat lamb, which was to be the main dish of the evening.

Instead, I got the very tasty duck leg (above) with Spanish cherries. What I also got was an unmercilessness teasing from Chef Carter for well, being a princess.

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Dinner With the Top Chefs

There is no reasonable excuse I could give for not getting around to posting these photos earlier, because the dinner at Great Cooks on Eight with Top chef Canada competitors Andrea Nicholson, Todd Perrin Steve Gonzales, Mike Stauffer and Patrick Wiese took place on June 30. I know, I am a deadbeat.

And despite knowing a couple of the chefs involved from eating at their restaurants or interviewing them for TasteTO, I have to admit that I’m not a huge Top Chef fan. I lost interest in the middle of the 2nd US season, so while I kept track of who was doing well in the Canadian competition, I was not a weekly viewer. I joked on Google + recently that I’d happily watch “Top Chef Historical” where modern chefs had to cook Careme-style banquets without gas or electricity, but my reality-TV watching does lean towards the historical stuff anyway. (And I suspect potential competitors would have my head if such a show actually came to fruition.)

In any case, 5 of the Canadian competitors got together to do a dinner – here’s what they cooked.

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Wouldn’t You Like to Be a Taster Too?

As the food charity season winds down, we finish off with the biggest of the lot. Last night, Second Harvest’s Toronto Taste took over the lobby of the Royal Ontario Museum, as well as much of the street along Queen’s Park as 2000 guests descended upon 60 chefs and restaurants, and over 30 beverage purveyors for a night of eating in support of one of Toronto’s most beloved food charities.

There is no possible way the average person can sample every item, and even though Greg and I tried to share things, we still couldn’t get to even half of the things on offer. But here’s an idea of what we came across.

Above: steamed pork buns from All The Best Fine Foods and 100km Foods

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Recipe For Change Recap

Foodshare‘s fabulous Recipe For Change event migrated to the North St. Lawrence Market this year, allowing for more space, which in turn allowed for more chefs and more guests. I love that organizers make a point of not overselling the event, so it’s never packed; line-ups at food stations are short or non-existent and there is no sense of frenzy involved.

Recipe For Change is FoodShare’s annual fundraiser in which they raise monies directed toward their Field to Table Schools program which teaches school children about where their food comes from. Everyone I talked to on Thursday night considered the event a great success; hats off to Adrienne De Francesco and everyone at FoodShare for a fantastic time.

Below, check out some of the offerings from participating chefs. We didn’t try everything (and I somehow missed most of the desserts, which has got to be a first), but everything we did have was wonderful.

Above: Chickpea polenta topped with ratatouille and fresh mozzarella from Chef Marc Breton of the Gladstone Hotel.

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Are You a Taster?

Second Harvest’s Toronto Taste is one of the biggest and most important food events of the year. In its 21-year history Toronto Taste has raised over $4 million, enough for 8 million meals. Yes, we know the $250 ticket price is out of reach for many people, even if half of it is tax deductible; and yes, we know that articles about swank expensive events like this can make some people feel bad because they can’t afford to attend. But Toronto Taste deserves to be written about because it does really fantastic work in helping to feed underprivileged people in our city. And from a food perspective, it deserves to be written about because, really, where the heck else are you going to get to eat food by 60 of Toronto’s top chefs?

Having attended a couple of Toronto Tastes now, I’m offering up a survival guide. How to get the most for that $250 ticket and have the best time possible. This takes some planning if you’re serious about it, which is why I’m offering my tips now, even though the event doesn’t take place until June 12th. You need to be planning, people!

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Getting All Medieval on Your ‘Licious

Visitors to Casa Loma don’t normally get to wander around with drinks and food. As a museum and historic site, food is generally restricted to the basement cafe area. Yes, there have always been weddings and special events in a few of the larger rooms where it’s safe to have food in a seated environment, but food stations and samples throughout the castle? Unheard of.

Which is why it was so cool on Friday night when the Pegasus Hospitality Group took over the castle to offer a Medieval taste and tour as part of Winterlicious.

You might have heard the name Pegasus Group before. They run a number of restaurants in the GTA, but their hospitality division, under Executive Chef Steffan Howard, also runs the food service at the Palais Royale and Casa Loma. This normally encompasses things like weddings and special events, but as part of Winterlicious, they turned the castle into a Medieval market place.

Staff wore Medieval costumes as they greeted guests at the door. From there we were handed maps and encouraged to explore.

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The Dining Room

As a rule, Greg and I generally avoid the seasonal ‘Licious campaigns. We’d rather support our local restaurants when they’re not so busy, and ‘Licious is always crazy for most participating establishments. This year, however, we’ve been attending a few things in the Winterlicious Culinary Events Series, one of which was The Dining Room event at Campbell House.

Designed as a sort of two-step dinner theatre, guests first eat dinner in the basement dining room (two lovely rooms with fireplaces and period furniture) and then move up to the ballroom on the 2nd floor of the museum to watch Down n’ Out Productions perform the 1982 hit play The Dining Room. The play features 6 actors portraying 57 characters in 17 vignettes, all set around a formal dining room table. Playwright A. R. Gurney is said to have created an anthropological study of the WASP, and indeed, the scenes mostly feature well-to-do upper and middle class families throughout the 20th century, exploring the role that the dining room and the dining room table play in that culture. My only complaint about the play was that, for anyone not familiar with it, they’ll spend most of the first act trying to piece together the different vignettes to make sense of who is supposed to be who, and that’s quite distracting until they realize that this is indeed, vignettes, and not a linear play with recurring characters.

But of course, the food is why we were really there.

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There’s (Tasty) Magic in the Fair

Okay, it’s sort of the same thing every year – but there’s something about the Royal Winter Fair that just makes us so excited. Sure, there are parts we don’t get, like why many of the food competition winners are hidden away in the Upper Annex where most people never see them, and how McDonald’s has weaseled their way into the Journey to Your Good Heath section (sure, they pay lots of money to be there, probably, but come on!).

On the other hand, for ten days every November, the Royal is where city and country come together in a celebration of Ontario’s harvest – from giant pumpkins to many varieties of apples to jams, corn, produce and some of the most beautiful animals you’ve ever seen. Those cows bathed and fluffed up like giant teddy bears will one day be someone’s dinner, but not before they’re bedecked with ribbons to show just what good quality beef they really are.

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Gathering to Taste the Pacific Rim

Chef Chris Mills stands in front of the assembled crowd, looking only slightly nervous. We’re here to taste the final run-through of his Gatherings From the Pacific Rim menu, the multi-course dinner he will be presenting at the James Beard House in New York on November 20th.

The James Beard House is the home base of the James Beard Foundation, which was founded to further the work of the late chef and food writer, and to promote culinary heritage and knowledge. The Foundation works to promote culinary education, emerging chefs and honour the best in the food industry. An invitation to cook at the James Beard House is the equivalent of a culinary Oscar, and dinners are capped at 74 guests to ensure the best service.

Mills is no stranger to the James Beard House; he presented a dinner there back in 2006. His other turns in the spotlight include an appearance on the original Japanese version of Iron Chef, a fifth place spot in the 2006 Bocuse d’Or, and an array of awards including the Canadian Federation of Chefs and Cooks, the International Wine & Food Society’s Apprentice of the Year and the Pierre Dubrulle Rising Star award.

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Germans Love David Hasselhoff

Greg and I once had this idea to do an anonymous blog about events and restaurant openings. We were going to call it Hors D’oeuvres For Dinner and it was going to chronicle the weird and bizarre things we find ourselves at while writing for TasteTO. Like the event at the hotel where the PR lady was in the lobby having a nervous breakdown because the hotel didn’t shut down regular restaurant service for the media event and she couldn’t tell the paying customers from her media guests. Or the things where you show up, expecting dinner based on the wording of the invitation only to end up eating a couple of canapés and too much wine (hence the title). We never followed through with it because we figured everyone in the food community would eventually figure out it was us, and because we already get in enough trouble for calling people on their crap as it is. But sometimes, there are events so bizarre or “fail” that they need recounting. This is one of those.

Greg attended the German Beer Festival last year and admitted it was a bit of a dud (mostly because there was only 1 beer) but insisted that it was going to be much better this year. So I agreed to go. Normally I don’t bother to attend events that we’re not going to write about, but for some reason I believed him when he said it was going to be good.

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Hanging in the Garden at the Drake

I’m back! We broke down and bought an air purifier and it’s reduced my crazy mold allergy symptoms by about 90%. Definitely working better than any of the meds I was taking. Well, until this morning when it was cool and 14C and we opened the windows to let the cool, “fresh” air in, which of course was full of mold spores. In any case, I haven’t been venturing outside much but one of the things I did do a couple of weeks ago when the mold count was low was to head over to the Drake Hotel (1150 Queen Street West) for their annual garden party.

The garden is actually behind a storefront a few doors down where the Drake has their General Store and ice cream shops. So we got there by heading down a back alleyway. It had rained earlier (rather a torrential downpour) so things started a bit late, but once the rain subsided, it was a decent night.

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Thursdays Are So Tasty

There’s probably nowhere else that you can buy food from Susur Lee and Vesta Lunch in the same place. All for $5 a pop.

Tasty Thursdays returned to Nathan Phillips Square last week and runs every Thursday (11am – 2pm, although some vendors are not ready right at 11am) until August 26th. The premise is a simple one – bring in an array of Toronto restaurants selling food items for $5 or less. Bring in bands to entertain the crowds who have come looking for a cheap and interesting lunch. Presto, instant cool event.

The musical guests change weekly but the restaurants are booked for a month, with some sticking around for the full promotion. Each restaurant serves up samples of their most popular dishes, and at $5 or less, it’s easy to try a bunch.

Above – the guys from Vesta Lunch serving up Greek food.

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Why Cyndi Lauper Looks an Awful Lot Like Macy Gray

As a teenager, I was a huge Cyndi Lauper fan. I loved her music, wanted to look like her, and for a year or so in high school, modelled my wardrobe after the outfits from the videos for her album She’s so Unusual.

By the late 80s though, I had moved on to other types of music and didn’t keep up on everything Cyndi. One night in the summer of ’88, when I was living in Kensington Market, we came home fairly late to find that the streets were blocked off for a film set. This was the summer of that bad vampire detective show Forever Night, which seemed to be filming everywhere in Toronto at the time, so we assumed that’s what it was, and went a few blocks out of our way to get home.

In the middle of the night we woke up to the same Cyndi Lauper song playing over and over again. It was a song I didn’t recognize but as it was a hot night my roommate Amanda and I left the door to our little attic balcony open to catch a breeze. Restlessly we fell asleep to the sound of Cyndi singing. The next morning, the whole market was abuzz about the Cyndi Lauper video shoot that had taken place the night before. Yep, Cyndi Lauper has been right there, on my street, and I had missed her.

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There’s Good Eating at Afrofest

When people ask me what my favourite food event of the year is, I always answer without hesitation. It’s not the big trade shows with free samples, or the swank events with lots of “celebrity” chefs. No, my favourite food event of the year isn’t actually a food event at all; it’s a music and culture festival that just happens to have awesome food.

Afrofest has been an annual event since 1990. Taking over Queen’s Park for a weekend every July, the festival features bands and performances from musical groups and dance troupes from Africa and the Caribbean. There’s also a large marketplace area selling crafts, books and art.

And then there’s the food section.

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Yes… The New York Dolls… In Burlington!

The reaction was the same every time; “Burlington? The New York Dolls are playing in Burlington?? In the afternoon??” And then I’d go on to explain how, yes, they were playing a music festival in Burlington, along with The Diodes. No one was interested enough to come, though. They were saving their concert-going energy for Iggy Pop the same night, which was a great performance but was a too-crowded, too-hot mess in terms of actually trying to see the show.

But I’ve always been a bigger Dolls fan than a Stooges fan, so while, in retrospect, I’d have been happy to miss Iggy and the Stooges (not that I actually *saw* any of the stage during the show at all, so I sort of did miss it anyway), I was so not missing the Dolls. Even if it meant getting the GO train to Burlington and back.

And it was worth the effort. David Johansen was in fine form, as was Sylvain Sylvain. New(er) members Sami Yaffa (bass) and Steve Conte (guitar) were also sounding great.

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Tastefully Tasty

Greg said it best on Twitter: “sweet merciful crap, there’s more food inside!”

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Second Harvest’s Toronto Taste fund raiser upped its game substantially this year, doubling the number of chefs involved (from 30 to 60) and taking over part of the Royal Ontario Museum and Queen’s Park (the street, not the park itself). With tickets going for $250 (half of which garnered a receipt for tax purposes), it wasn’t an event for everybody – a fact that won Toronto Taste the teeniest bit of flack over on Torontoist, where they pointed out the irony of having a fancy food event in order to help raise funds to feed the hungry. Especially one where some people would take a bite of something and then pitch it. Yikes! (Next year I’m going with a doggy bag to bring people’s half-eaten leftovers home to my dogs! Can I get away with that at the swankest food event of the year?)

But the fact is that every $250 ticket will buy 250 meals, and Second Harvest delivers over 15,000 meals every day (that’s 6 million pounds of food each year!), mostly from donated perishable food that would otherwise go to waste from restaurants and cafeterias.

And while the following photos are most definitely food porn, we’d like to encourage you to consider the bigger picture. Second Harvest will happily accept your donations – in any amount – even though the big event is over. The Toronto Taste online auction, which runs until June 23rd, includes cool items at every price point. As well, please consider supporting the participating restaurants if you possibly can – they all worked incredibly hard and donated their time and food to the cause.

We’d also like to offer hearty congratulations for a job well done to everyone at Second Harvest – and that amazing army of volunteers. You guys rock.

Shown above: Ontario perch with chorizo, pickled heirloom tomatoes and fava bean puree from Chef Andrea Nicholson of Great Cooks on 8.

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Viva Italia! Celebrating Italy at George Brown Chef’s School

Of the many courses offered at the Chef’s School at George Brown College, the Italian cuisine programme is one of the most popular. Heck, part of it is taught in Italy – what’s not to love about that?

For the second year, the school has opened its doors to the public in a week-long festival of Italian food and culture. Events included tastings, dinners, demonstrations and a gala tasting event that was held this past Thursday evening that featured chefs from both Italy and Ontario serving up food and wine that high-lighted the best flavours of Italy.

These events are wonderful learning experiences for the students as they work with some of the top Italian chefs in preparation for the dinners and tastings. We were lucky enough to be able to attend the gala and sample some of the food and drink.

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Souped Up

This past Wednesday was sunny and warm – not a day you’d typically consider eating soup. But 400 people lined up at the doors of the Gardiner Museum to take part in Empty Bowls, an annual event featuring local chefs, local pottery artists and of course, great soup.

For $45, attendees not only got to sample soups from 20 different restaurants at the Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner restaurant, they also got a beautiful, hand-made bowl to take home.

This fantastic event is based entirely on donations – from the chefs donating their time and food, to local potters donating bowls, many made especially for this event. With bread donated from Ace Bakery and crackers from Evelyn’s Crackers, plus water from Gaia and cups from Green Shift, all proceeds from the event go towards Anishnawbe Health Toronto, a charitable organization that provides food to homeless people. Volunteers and Gardiner Museum staff also donated their time, and props, kudos and huge piles of thanks and appreciation must go to organizer Siobhan Boyd who pulls this thing together every year with aplomb.

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Sobering Up at the CRFA Show

It’s no secret – well, maybe it is – that those of us in the SOLE (sustainable/seasonal, organic, local, ethical) food scene live in a bit of a bubble. We tend to think of all food as “real” food, made from fresh ingredients, and we tend to frequent restaurants with the same philosophy. But the majority of food service businesses still don’t operate this way. And when I say “food service” I don’t just mean high end restaurants serving artisanal food; food service includes everything from hospitals, hotels, catering companies, school and office cafeterias, sandwich trucks and yes, restaurants, but of all sizes and styles, from little neighbourhood coffee houses to family-style chains and everything in between.

While the philosophy of these establishments may be as different as night and day, they all share some common ground – there are some things they all need to run a successful business: pots and pans, salt and pepper, plates, napkins, dishwashers…

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