Who stops to eat lunch any more? Most people I know eat at their desks while working, replying to e-mail between sips of sad soups and forkfuls of solitary salads.
Toronto has plenty of co-working spaces. Some – iQ, Project Spaces, Northspace – fold in the idea that eating is part of the workday via kitchen prep areas, free coffee and tea with membership snacks available for purchase.
Gabe Li says he believes that food in the workplace should mean more than that. Taking a real pause from work and computer screens to eat a meal together is important, he says. The genius of Mr. Li’s Lunchroom is that he has formalized a casual phenomenon.
Freelancers, particularly people in creative fields, are making “co-working” plans with acquaintances that are really grown-up play dates. Having a new friend over, working and taking a lunch break together is the best way of getting to know someone.
“I’m not trying to be a restaurant. I’m just trying to make a simple, wholesome meal for everybody to share. We are a generation of freelance hustling individuals. I have a chosen family. The spirit of the lunch is no different from what our parents made for us."
It’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday in Toronto. And I’m in the Lunchroom, a shared workspace that Mr. Li runs out of his apartment.
His cat, Russell, rises to prowl the oak table where four of us are working. Illustrator Justine Wong and photographer Celine Kim, regulars here, barely register the disruption as Russell steps over each of our laptops before taking up a new perch on the windowsill.
“Gabe, have you ever been to Scarborough Bluffs at sunrise?” Ms. Kim asks. Their conversation about photography logistics lasts 90 seconds.
Accustomed to working alone, I find everything here – the collection of cookbooks, enough serving plates for a small restaurant, the 32 plants within my field of vision – a distraction.
But after the initial sensory overload of new people and things, quiet falls over the room and I settle into it.
With little interruption, soon it’s 12:30. Mr. Li emerges from his kitchen with plates of food. In unison, everyone closes their laptops and stops working. It’s not just out of respect for the vibrant, balanced meal Mr. Li has made, but the group’s commitment to the lost joy of communal dining.
Most home cooks throw away the green tops of carrots. Mr. Li has puréed them into a pesto with toasted sunflower seeds, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil. It’s folded into a quinoa salad studded with carrots slices and roasted poblano relish. Next to the salad sits an inch-thick slice of toasted sourdough, drizzled with lemony ricotta, topped with peas, radishes, plus chives and scallions.
“Sometimes, we ask Gabe what he’s making,” Ms. Kim says. “And he always responds with, ‘Do you want to know, or do you want to be surprised?’ We usually choose to be surprised.”
For the next hour, no one works. Another freelancer joins us. Mr. Li fixes her a plate. She and Ms. Kim talk about a shared rate for health care. Ms. Wong goes out to the balcony to sketch the cat. Ms. Kim has two children. I’ve got one on the way. So naturally we gravitate toward the challenge of balancing a freelancer’s workload with parenthood.
The idea of an hour for lunch had seemed indulgent. But spending my lunchtime getting to know people is far more rewarding than compulsively checking social media, or movie box-office scores. And knowing that the break was coming, I worked diligently through the morning, rather than taking the usual half-dozen small pauses.
“I can’t work at coffee shops. I can’t work at libraries,” Mr. Li says. “I’ve never been able to. I always people watch. I’m not productive.”
Organizing around food is not new to Mr. Li. He has held supper clubs and volunteered in the Toronto food policy world. The cabinets in his tiny kitchen are wallpapered with prep lists from luxurious meals past and present: a three-course winter brunch; a 10-course seafood feast. Pantry items are stacked to the ceiling. A collection of serving plates and bowls, enough for a small restaurant, spills out into the dining-workroom. Although he is a photographer by trade, his obsession is food.
Finding it hard to stay motivated while working from home, he started inviting friends a few years ago. It felt natural to prepare a family-style meal for everyone, which for a while he did without great intention. “And one day it dawned on me that the idea of a family meal was kind of lost,” Mr. Li recalls. “We used to eat with our family for dinner every day. I can show that love, too.”
So he started collecting $5 for each meal, with a $20 monthly fee for regulars. The money covers food costs. It doesn’t begin to pay Mr. Li for his time spent menu-planning, cooking or scheduling (booking availability among a couple dozen members). But he has no desire for profit.
Ms. Kim says she looks forward to Lunchroom every week, knowing she will get to work alongside talented people, share stories and bounce ideas off of other professionals. “Often, there is a rotation of friendly, familiar faces. And other times I get to meet someone new.”
The key factor is the size of the group. In a 2018 study, “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration” (Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban), researchers found that in large, open workspaces, face-to-face interaction decreased 70 per cent because there’s so much going on that people need to tune one another out. However, the study observes, “finitely bounded, and often small, group size maximizes decision accuracy in complex, realistic environments.”
Mr. Li could squeeze a few more people at the table. But he limits it to six. “The reason this works is the intimacy,” he explains.
What he has fostered with the Lunchroom’s size, to use a word that’s been devalued by brand-speak, is community.
The group, in the time they take to pause and eat together, shares the struggles of writing a difficult e-mail to a client, finding a dentist or props for a shoot. Setting a schedule for work and play prevents the natural freelancer’s gravity toward late starts, unstructured days and working through dinner every night. Everyone at the table says that the Lunchroom helps to reinforce a nine-to-five day, and the personal boundaries that come with it.
“Being able to put our work away and sit together to share a wholesome, well-rounded meal together provides a balance in my workday I am really grateful for,” Ms. Kim says.
When our lunch hour is up, Ms. Wong rises, clearing plates. It’s her turn to do the dishes. Soon we’re all back to work. Quiet descends again, Russell curling up like a shrimp against the warmth of my laptop.
When Mr. Li worked at an agency, he formed an informal lunch crew by making a meal for a few people and then suggesting that it was someone else’s turn. “At first, people were intimidated. But it caught on quickly. It just takes someone to lead the charge. They still do it at that office. They have a spreadsheet. It didn’t need me to handhold.”
And while the cooking need not be as ambitious as his – eggplant green curry, polenta with kale and pickled beets, breakfast tacos – he believes the formula can be replicated by any collection of friends or co-workers. Mr. Li’s apartment and kitchen are not large. But it works because he wants it to work. And he encourages anyone, whether in an office or among freelancers, to try the same.
“I tell people, take this idea and do it.”