- Name: Ubuntu Canteen
- Location: 4194 Fraser St., Vancouver
- Phone: 604-336-9097
- Website: ubuntucanteen.ca
- Cuisine: Farm to table
- Additional information: Open Tuesday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations available. Menu changes frequently.
- Rating system: Cheap eats
Michael Talbot-Kelly, a holistic psychotherapist, is explaining why acceptance is the most difficult step in courageous relationships.
“It means we have to let go of expectations and accept whatever the outcome is,” the plaid-shirted spiritual counsellor says, as a gaggle of children chatter in the play area behind him and chef-owner David Gunawan leans over the kitchen pass, listening intently.
Clutching my cup of bone broth, I wonder if this dynamic could include our relationships with conventional restaurants – which Ubuntu Canteen is proudly, most definitely, not.
There is no use complaining about the limited menu options. I arrived knowing full well that only snacks are available on talk nights.
Mr. Gunawan is one of Vancouver’s most celebrated chefs. He used to own Farmer’s Apprentice, which enRoute magazine chose as second-best new restaurant in Canada when it opened in 2013. The awards kept piling up and Mr. Gunawan kept opening new restaurants.
“I was cooking for the wrong reasons,” he now says in retrospect. “I needed the validation. I wanted to impress people. That’s what you do when your needs are unmet as a child.” (Born in Indonesia, he was sent away to boarding school in Singapore when very young.)
He says he healed those wounds through a lot of personal therapy with psychedelics and has developed a deeper spiritual connection with food. As a new father, he says he now cooks with consciousness and the genuine intention to nourish people.
Ubuntu Canteen is not a restaurant, he notes. It’s a community hub staffed by a revolving door of “misfits and renegades.” In addition to talk nights, there are Sunday Night Suppers, where the cooks make whatever they want, customers order from the counter (as per usual) and everyone sits down at one long communal table – unless the whole restaurant packs up, as happened all summer long, and moves dinner to a farm.
Since opening last winter, Ubuntu has held semi-regular family movie nights, costume parties, storytelling sessions, artisan markets in the alleyway outside, backyard barbecues and a monthly farm-to-bottle wine-and-sake dinner.
And so it is that with an open mind and lack of expectations, I surrender to the experience when I return for weekend brunch.
It’s a very attractive, welcoming restaurant in the bright light of day. The exterior, a corner lot at Fraser and 26th, is painted marigold yellow. The blonde-wood interior, mostly modular and moveable, is set up with wide spaces between tables to fit strollers. There is a cluster of Bocci blown-glass globes suspended above the play area (which transforms into lounge seating at night) and a row of raised booths along the pumpkin-lined windows that makes almost everyone feel like a child because they don’t have foot rests and your feet dangle in mid-air.
Thinking back to Mr. Talbot-Kelly’s talk, I try to avoid developing any attachments to buttered polenta. This is exceedingly difficult. The nutty flavoured grits – an heirloom variety of field-dried yellow hominy corn from South Carolina – is so finely ground and naturally creamy, it has a pudding-like texture. Dusted with parmesan and zesty gremolata, the polenta is served with a fried egg (the fragile yolk as bright as a Florida orange) and a slice of smoked ham thickly edged with softly melting, grassy-flavoured fat.
But there is no use thinking about what-ifs. The menu changes so often, the polenta might not be here next time I visit.
“It takes a lot of humility to cook this way,” Mr. Gunawan says. “It’s not about you, it’s about the ingredients.”
I begin mourning a divine vanilla cream puff with crispy, crackly choux before I even finish eating it. Pastry chef Chams Sbouai (a.k.a. Sweet Boy Cream Puffs, who used to sell his specialty from a bicycle cart) will soon be peddling off to a foreign country.
“I tell my apprentices I have probably ruined them,” Mr. Gunawan says. “How do you go back to a conventional restaurant model after this?”
And yet the commune-like kitchen, Mr. Gunawan says, is almost always overstaffed. This is unheard of in Vancouver, where most restaurant owners either can’t find enough skilled labour or can’t afford to pay them.
Ubuntu isn’t financially viable yet, but Mr. Gunawan says he “trusts that the universe will provide.”
By the time Sunday Supper comes around, I don’t even look up the menu in advance. What will be will be. As it turns out, Alvaro Montes de Oca – who is a regular sous chef, or something like that – has prepared a Day of the Dead feast, inspired by his grandmother’s recipes.
The long communal table is filled to capacity. A large family has taken over one end, with booster seats, colouring books and diaper bags spilling all over the floor.
The service is a tad chaotic with dishes delivered out of order and long pauses between some.
A pozole enthusiast across from me thinks this vegetable version lacks spice. We agree that it has more depth with tomatillo salsa stirred in.
No one quite knows what to do with a shared bowl of “consome” which is actually a chickpea stew. Do we pour it over the chicken barbacoa? The chicken is so tender it’s silky. But is barbacoa usually smoked? And could we please get a second spoon or are we supposed to share that too?
The night is a little crazy, but I don’t mind. I have let go of expectations. I have no attachment to the outcome. This is a community hub, not a conventional restaurant. We can’t criticize it by the same standards.
That said, if I eat here too often, I might as well give up my job.
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