Rodney Graham takes a sip of tea and laughs at the notion he might be a home-baking fanatic on the quiet. “Not at all,” the renowned Vancouver artist says, shaking his head.
We’re sitting around the kitchen table of artist Shannon Oksanen (Graham’s long-time muse) and her partner, photographer and musician Scott Livingstone. But we’re not here to talk about art. The trio have bought Liberty Bakery, a neighbourhood coffee shop.
“Rodney and I have had a stupid, vague fantasy of running some kind of restaurant or tea house since the nineties,” Oksanen admits. “But for the last 10 years it’s been focused on Liberty, because we just loved it so much.”
A Main Street fixture for two decades, the bakery was the retirement project of Swedish baker Gunnar Gustafson and his Guatemalan wife, Liberty. One menu constant was the black-bean soup with its accompanying chili-lime relish. Eleven-year-old Ivy, the older of Oksanen and Livingstone’s two daughters, was first fed it as a one-year-old, and has eaten it every week since. “We had to buy the bakery to get the recipe,” Oksanen laughs.
They took ownership Jan. 4, and three pairs of acute eyes for design have peeled away the original interior to create their own space, with tables designed by Livingstone, distressed Alvar Aalto lamps, and backlit signage designed by Graham, in preparation for an Aug. 5 opening.
They had hoped to be open sooner, but Oksanen’s father passed away in March; when we meet she is recovering from a double mastectomy. “Planning the bakery has been the only cheery thing for me recently,” she says.
The menu will keep a Nordic touch in homage to both Gustafson and her late Finnish father. There will be an open-faced sandwich, pulla (a Finnish sweet roll), a hard-boiled egg in cornbread.
“I don’t know about that cornbread,” Graham shouts from a cupboard, where he’s rooting around looking for his new – and first ever – cookbook purchase.
Oksanen rolls her eyes. “Oh God.”
“A beef-brisket sandwich,” Graham retorts, slapping down a copy of Saveur Comfort Foods. “I like comfort food,” he proclaims. “Look: huevos rancheros, kale soup …”
They’ve hired a pastry chef from one of Vancouver’s top restaurants, plan condiments made from scratch, and will serve local Matchstick coffee. “I don’t want it to become a hipster hangout,” Oksanen sighs. “But you’ve got to have good coffee.”
“I want to have Father Ted mugs,” Graham smiles. “For an extra five cents, would you like your coffee in a Father Ted mug?”