My name is Monica, and I’m the new Community Chef at the Stop. While I’m new to this position, I’m not new to the Stop. I started as a placement student in 2011, and I fell in love with the Stop: the staff, the volunteers and the work that we were doing. Since then, I’ve worked in a number of different positions, and have most recently been the Assistant Chef for the past 4 years.
While I went to school for dance (Ryerson Theatre School) and teaching (OISE), I’ve somehow found myself neither dancing or teaching, but in a position that I love, where I get to educate, work with my hands, be creative, and work with a team and a community to inspire change. It’s everything I could have dreamed for in a job, even if it’s not what I thought I would be doing when I started university. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
My food history.
I didn’t go to culinary school. Many people ask me how I learned to cook, and I can’t really give a straight answer. I’m a voracious reader, and I love to read cookbooks, front to back like a chapter book. Some of my favourite cookbook authors and food writers are Marion Cunningham, Liana Krissoff, Deb Pearlman, Mollie Katzen, Madhur Jaffrey, Tamar Adler, M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David.
From the age of nine onward, I lived with my Mum in various Toronto neighborhoods. She worked hard to see that I never went hungry, but I can’t say that we were a food secure household. I learned how to be self-sufficient and grocery shop early on; how to make a $20 bill go as far as possible at No Frills, how to carry all my groceries home in a box, how to price match the weekly sale flyers, learning to love the reduced produce rack. If anything, I’m grateful for these experiences. They taught me frugality and innovation, and gave me a small look into the challenges many people in our city face every day.
I became a vegetarian when I was twelve. My alternative middle school assigned us a media studies project and I chose the fast food industry. After a few hours of googling factory farms, I was done with the industrial meat industry. My Mum was incredibly frustrated about my new eating habits (‘but what will I cook for you?’), so I started to teach myself how to cook through books. Lots of soggy stir fries, banana breads and failed recipes later, I was on my way to being a half-decent cook. In high school, I also became interested in gardening and learning about local food systems, which helped expand my culinary knowledge.
While I’m no longer a vegetarian, I still eat veg most of the time, and I’m very grateful for the experiences it gave me. I learned more about nutrition, food allergies and preferences, creative cooking, and cuisines around the world than I ever would have as a meat eater.
My favourite city.
More than anything, Toronto has shaped my cooking and eating. I was born here, and I will always live here; Toronto is my home. For every year of school, new apartment, or new job, I can feel and taste memories by thinking of meals I’ve eaten in different Toronto communities. Picking out mystery Portuguese pastries by pointing and the one that looked the tastiest. Midnight Christmas dinners at Caribbean friends’ homes, surrounded by extended families and sharing fried plantain. Eating Cantonese ginger-green onion lobster for the first time with my friend’s dad, who was a Russian Jew and knew all the best Chinese restaurants. Deciding which sushi restaurant had the best and cheapest combo lunch for a date (2000-era Sushi on Bloor, for the record). Feasting at Markham Chinese restaurants with my boyfriend’s family, where I was the only white person in the room. He’s now my husband, and I remind myself every day how lucky I am to live in Toronto.
My food, not my food.
It’s important to me to remember that I am a white woman cooking food from other people’s cultures. If I were to cook food from my own culture, I’m not really sure what it would look like: pop tarts and frozen veg from my childhood? Depression era cooking of the Prairies, from my mom’s side of the family? Oats and turnips from my Scottish roots? I’m not too concerned about my family’s loss of connections to our food history: I’m making up for it by learning as much as I can about the immigrant food of Toronto. I strive to cook in a respectful way: being deliberate and thoughtful about sourcing recipes. I try to learn from my friends, volunteers and community members, who have first-hand knowledge of these cuisines. I look for cookbooks written by people of colour, and use books that are well researched and come from an understanding of history and place of respect, not of appropriation. I try to be open to new flavours, techniques, and knowledge. I am influenced by the ingredients and flavours that surround me, and the seasonal food of Ontario farms.
The work I do.
There are so many things I love about my job. Feeding people. Creating comfort in a difficult day. Giving someone energy to conquer hardships. Contributing to a place of community and friendship. Working with farmers and food producers around Ontario. Working with high quality seasonal produce. Learning about new foods and cuisines. Working with dedicated, skilled and diverse volunteers. One of my favourite food writers, M.F.K. Fisher, can sum up my feelings much more eloquently than I ever could: “I think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”