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Pay-what-you-can buffets draw a wide range of diners from the neighbourhood: from high-schoolers to devout Muslims to artists from the Daniels Spectrum. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Pay-what-you-can buffets draw a wide range of diners from the neighbourhood: from high-schoolers to devout Muslims to artists from the Daniels Spectrum. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

In Regent Park, a restaurant strives to sustain a community’s hopes Add to ...

There’s a lavish amount of fantasy in the restaurant business, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.

But Paintbox Bistro in Regent Park has much more on its plate.

Three days after 15-year-old Tyson Bailey was killed in the stairwell of an old Regent Park highrise, Chris Klugman welcomed 31 of his classmates in Central Tech’s culinary program to lunch at Paintbox Bistro, the veteran Toronto chef’s new enterprise and social experiment. Planned as a destination restaurant in the heart of Regent Park, Paintbox is a key element in the massive revitalization program designed to open up a once-troubled area to a city that has often preferred to avoid it.

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Mr. Klugman and his visitors talked about food, and getting into the restaurant business, but they also talked about the conflicted identity of Regent Park, because how could they not?

The murder of Tyson last week has provided a stark reminder of the persistence of old realities in the face of Regent Park’s fresh idealism.

“Of course it’s very upsetting when something like this happens,” said Mr. Klugman, “and you feel like it’s a setback when you’re trying to welcome the world to Regent Park. There’s a sense that that we’ve lost one of our own. But at the same time, it’s an opportunity to celebrate a community that’s been created over years of isolation and still has this positive spirit.”

Paintbox has a highly ambitious mandate: It aims to attract outsiders to a stigmatized community, train inexperienced local youth, espouse the values of a certified socially responsible enterprise – and then make a profit.

Few upscale restos bear such responsibilities. But this is what it means to set up shop in a once-isolated public-housing enclave filled with bold ideals .

So how’s it working? Mr. Klugman, while radiating Regent Park positivity, is disappointed that Paintbox seems off the foodie radar. Outsiders aren’t flocking to the neighbourhood. Bar food seems to be what the local clientele is more interested in – a jazz night brought in an impressive amount of money in tips. But it’s catering that’s driving the business: Paintbox’s feel-good story appeals strongly to clients with corporate social-responsibility policies.

“It gives us a selling point, it gets our foot in the door,” Mr. Klugman admitted. “But in the restaurant business, it’s almost a detriment to be a social enterprise. People aren’t really interested in whether you’re training marginalized individuals – in fact, it gives them the feeling that this business is less good than a straight-out restaurant.”

To some wary Torontonians, the killing of a teenager is proof that the neighbourhood’s problems can’t be altered by mixed-income integration or a restaurant that expresses community solidarity through the joyful power of food.

But Mitchell Cohen, president of The Daniels Corporation, remains optimistic. Daniels has partnered with Toronto Community Housing in the creation of a new community anchored by visible symbols of regeneration like Paintbox. “This is one of the building blocks of social cohesion we’re aiming for: Food breaks down barriers in a community. It brings people together.”

Paintbox is located in a Daniels condominium, which adds another key role. “Having a successful restaurant in Regent Park will absolutely be good for sales down the road, no question,” Mr. Cohen said.

While a restaurant can’t eradicate violence, it can at least challenge its inevitability. But crafting the appropriate form of food-driven revitalization hasn’t been easy. “My first idea was that this as going to be a charity,” Mr. Klugman said. “But then I realized I’d lose the flexibility that was crucial to a start-up. So I decided to go the route of a for-profit social enterprise.”

That has allowed him to create a thriving business as a values-driven company accredited through the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing – catering trainees will turn out 450 box lunches and dinners for the Ontario Liberal convention on Saturday. The original aim for Paintbox was to be a high-end restaurant, revamping Regent Park’s image at the menu level by serving roast Ontario lamb with celeriac and red-wine lentils, octopus on a parsnip puree and tempura cheese curds with house-made ketchup. But it’s also developing as a jazz and comedy club, a lounge for condo residents, an incubator for food entrepreneurs and an on-the-job training program.

The employees Mr. Klugman hired represent many of the restaurant’s ambitions in their own lives. Trang Tran, a 23-year-old Regent Park resident, had “absolutely zero background” when she began work at Paintbox just a few months ago.

She never went to restaurants because her family was too budget-conscious, so Paintbox was a completely new experience: “I took notes every single day and still find them under my pillows and my bed. I didn’t know what parsley was. I never ate seafood.”

She now devours celeriac chips, can pronounce cipollini and has growing confidence in her cocktail-making.

Paintbox’s sous-chef Shane Carruthers was hired in part because of his easy rapport with the Regent Park trainees. He comes by his understanding honestly: At 16, he left his home in nearby St. James Town and lived on the streets and in shelters. For years, he says, he couldn’t find a job because of the protective walls he’d built up to defend himself. But at 25, he was hired at Sport Chek and learned how to bend himself to customer service. When he decided to retrain as a chef, he quickly worked his way into kitchens like North 44. Now he’s determined to pass on the skills he’s learned, both technical and human.

“I’m decisive in what I want but flexible enough to let people grow at their own pace. I keep remembering what I would have liked when I was a teenager going through my hardships – compassion, patience, a supportive system.”

The spirit of engagement that Paintbox and its staff are aiming for can be best seen at the pay-what-you-can buffet meals held every Friday afternoon. Walk through the door and you’ll encounter high-schoolers making the most of their spares, Muslim worshippers in their prayer caps, artists from the neighbouring cultural centre and perhaps a beret-clad Mr. Cohen chatting in a corner seat.

“It’s a great feeling,” said 16-year-old Mubarak Mohamud as he polished off a tray of curry. “The waiters are from the neighbourhood and they greet you with a smile. I know people say this area is bad, but those stereotypes just bring people down. Look at what we’ve got here – a happy atmosphere, people from all kinds of cultures and food cooked by actual chefs.”

It’s exactly this neighbourly coming-together that Mr. Klugman praised to Tyson Bailey’s classmates. Paintbox manager Nilusha Thiagaraja, who’s just 21, echoed his sentiments.

“I’m always proud to say that I’m from Regent Park, but people are terrified to hear it,” she said. “Yes, we have a reputation for violence and negativity, but at the same time there’s so much love and growth and passion in what we do as a community.”

The killing, sadly, didn’t come as a shock. “I have this mindset, it’s bound to happen because we’re in Regent Park. But that’s why we’re here at the restaurant – we’re doing this for the betterment of Regent Park.”

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