Fresh off a gig bringing homemade, local food to patients of Scarborough Hospital, suburban-born Joshna Maharaj has curated the President's Choice1000 Tastes Of Toronto at the Luminato festival, where the city's best chefs will prepare street food inspired by their childhood memories. As part of the event, the 36-year-old "chef activist" will also do on-stage Q&As with a variety of the city's most fascinating foodies. The event runs June 9 to 10 at the Distillery District, 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. Free to attend. All food items $5 each.
You grew up in Brampton and Thornhill. Not exactly culinary centres.
Definitely not. The culinary stuff came much later. But I was the oldest daughter in an Indian family so as soon as I could hold stuff, I was helping in the kitchen. My house was where we hosted all the parties; we had very clear ideas about hospitality from a very young age. We got used to taking care of people.
And now you're hosting the President's Choice 1000 Tastes of Toronto event at Luminato.
I'm thrilled that food has the presence it does at the festival this year. A decision was made to close down Mill Street in the Distillery and put out tables and chairs alongside the food stations, so people don't have to just stand over a garbage can, dripping. And then on stage, I'm going to be chatting with different chefs about family food traditions and childhood memories.
Are there any chefs you're talking to that you're excited about?
A couple. I have two vegan chefs, Doug McNish and Lesia Kohut, who runs a vegan bakery in Leslieville. They're both very serious, dedicated vegans and chefs and they're making some of the most beautiful food going. Plus Lesia is making ice-cream sandwiches that are going to be vegan and I'm curious as to how she's going to do that.
What about the kids' panel?
They're all kids whose parents are key players in the city's food scene and I want to know what their lives are like. I have a nine-year-old, Jillian, whose mom is Arlene Stein, the director of programming at Evergreen Brickworks. There's the 13-year-old son of this U of T prof who bakes her own bread. He has to make the family dinner once a week. I want to know what it's like for them when their friends pull out their sandwiches at school and they have Monforte artisanal goat cheese.
You came on a lot of people's radars through your work changing the food at Scarborough Hospital. What did you do, exactly?
We got a grant from the Greenbelt fund to put local food on institutional plates. I had a history working in non-profit and food advocacy at Stop [Community Food Centre]. The Scarborough Hospital wanted to make a change and cast a net out looking for advice. I was on the steering committee of Slow Food Toronto and I jumped on it instantly. So we moved from a processed model to a fresh-from-scratch model using as many locally sourced ingredients as we can. It was completely insane but so worthwhile.
Did you have to learn a lot about budgets?
It was actually that I had to learn about bureaucracy. One hospital could support one farm, but it's not about farms. All the suppliers are about deep, deep corporate relationships. I think that's why hospital food has been as slow to change as it has, the last frontier really. Real change requires government to be on board.
The bureaucracy surrounding street food in Toronto seems to revolve around fear of food poisoning.
It's really too bad because the mass produced, processed food suppliers are the ones that have had all the food-borne illnesses. There's no accountability there. When I was at the hospital I would try and find out where the food had come from and all the big names, they can't tell me. They wouldn't even return my calls. It's a complete myth that this is in the pursuit of public health and safety. And there are cities all across the world that are selling beautiful street food that is not in the form of a hot dog.
On your blog, you say the first thing you do when you travel is go out to eat. Where do you take people when they visit you here?
Depending on time of day and what's happening, I would probably take them someplace in Chinatown for a quick easy dumpling or pho. But of late, when people want to come and have a fancier meal, I'm taking everyone to Keriwa. The food is wonderful and it's long overdue that we had a restaurant like that in the city. It's a very distinctive Toronto flavour. Beast is another fun place. My friend Scott is half-Indian and half-Italian and he spent a lot of time cutting his teeth as a chef in Atlanta. So there's grits and fried chicken, but he makes this amazing lentil dish and interesting pasta dishes with stinging nettles. That's the amazing thing about our city: we're people with very different roots cooking all this food. That's the story we need to tell.
What don't you like about scene?
There's a bridge that needs to be built between our ethnic communities and our fine dining community. We have a thriving community of chefs who are committed to sustainability, but their clientele is willing to pay for that. But there's another tier, the people who are making $2.50 banh mi sandwiches or the little kebab house. Notions of sustainability don't hit there because the margins are too tight. I think a real signal of success would be when we have an LFP sign in a window in Chinatown. It's a food certification system that's about the entire sustainability of the operation of the kitchen.
What's surprised you the most about Toronto diners?
If there's one thing Torontonians have shown at food events, it's their willingness to wait in line. People will wait two hours in line for a lobster slider.
I'm not so good at waiting that long to eat.
Me neither. Hopefully we get to a point where it becomes a regular part of our culture and the novelty wears off.