Finding Toronto

IN

A travelogue about the making of the short film featuring Nick Liu,  for our Wild – A State of Mind series. From content manager Jane. 

On Sunday morning, Nick Liu, chef and restaur-entrepreneur took us to his parents’ house in Markham outside Toronto. Torontoneighbourhoods.net lists it as one of the most multicultural communities in the largest of Canada’s cities; the strong Chinese presence makes a dumpling shop in one of its retail parks a highly desirable lunch destination for those in the know.

Before we could sample the oriental chilli beef sinew and soup dumplings, we had to get our hands dirty at the grassroots, literally.

Nick was looking for purslane for a foraged menu, muttering ‘sometimes my dad trims the edges’, as he tracked for it along the join of the front lawns & the asphalt around the estate.

We did well for chickweed, that early adopter of disturbed ground, and wood sorrel, plus other edibles from out of the suburban garden – begonia flowers, spotted dead nettle flowers, green tomatoes.

Over tea, Nick’s parents tell us something about how they got here, pregnant with him, from upbringings respectively in an India of unrest and in South Africa, via London and its 1960s photography scene – long journeys, racial pressures. Nick is fond of saying their family, and how they eat, are the product of four continents. The dim sum served in his downtown restaurant are actually made with dough supplied by his mum, to his grandmother’s recipe. A deconstruction of his dad’s winter melon soup features on October’s menu. A popular choice on the bar menu is a handcrafted steamed dumpling designed to replicate the taste of a Big Mac. It’s taken him a while to get this comfortable with all his influences; he describes a rebellious adolescence. Being at school with the ‘hockey jocks’, he hated having foreign leftovers rather than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in his packed lunch.

Nicole Dow

A passion for flavour and urge to innovate seem a part of their identity.

The next day, the pavements of a different, slightly leafier suburb, yielded among other things a fully-laden crab apple tree, wild bergamot, chicory flowers, wild grape. We were being led by forager and former barkeep Nicole Dowzansky. She had run a bar where bringing your pets was encouraged, called Not My Dog (cats also welcome). It had got squeezed out of Parktown because of rising rents. She was armed with all sorts of amazing facts, a thermos of honeyed horsetail tea, a spade, several books, and some waders. This madcap excursion finished in High Park, where we found abundant sumac growing just off the beaten track, big furry burgundy cones. By the carpark & cafe was a Gingko tree also in full fruit. Nick collected some of these extraordinary cheesey fruits to crumb & deepfry back at the restaurant – which improved them, though perhaps not enough to see them bump ‘j-chokes’ off his regular menu.

Nick and Nicole, and their associates who came out foraging with us, are part of the city’s healthy creative bars to bakeries scene that normally belongs with the tattoo parlours and street art in Kensington market, Park town, Little Italy. A passion for flavour and urge to innovate seem a part of their identity, which they share. It’s the pursuit of wild foods, weeds, which brings them back out to the suburbs and has them turning them upside down, inside out. Knowing what grows freely in these grids of private property and municipal landscaping feels like a victory for the younger generation – a little subversive and totally natural.

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