Newcomer Kitchen expands with a new Syrian pop-up brunch, prepared by refugees


“Instead of just selling your last sandwich, why not go down in a Thelma and Louise blaze of glory?”

That was the pitch to Atique Azad, the proprietor of the Butler’s Pantry, a 25-year old Mirvish Village institution set to close at the end of 2016 to make way for the development replacing Honest Ed’s. 

He thought, “what have I got to lose?” And just like that, Canada’s first Syrian Brunch Pop-Up was born. And it’s a hot ticket. December 4 is already sold out.

It’s the first official spin-off from Toronto’s Newcomer Kitchen, a project co-founded by Cara Benjamin-Pace and Len Senater at College Street’s The Depanneur that specializes in unique food experiences. Since April, more than 55 Syrian newcomer women have cooked a wide range of traditional dishes, and in the process, put over $25,000 directly into Toronto’s newcomer community. 

Because each weekly dinner consistently sold out, the next challenge was to tackle Toronto’s most iconic meal: Sunday Brunch. After months of testing, tinkering and tasting, what may be the first Syrian Brunch Pop-Up in the world is ready to be experienced by a handful of lucky Torontonians.

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Facundo Campos from the documentary Groundbreaking Bread ©UnstoppableUrgesProductions2016

Now, the brunch project is ramping up to take on 48 reservations each Sunday, aiming to grow it into a sustainable operation that can move to a permanent home at Butler’s Pantry Roncesvalles location in 2017. 

The all-female kitchen crew built on family recipes and impressive home cooking skills to quickly adapt to the challenges of Canadian restaurant cooking. With the help of Toronto Public Health, they earned Food Handler’s Certifications in Arabic, and are now set to become profit-sharing stakeholders in a new food project that earns them more than minimum wage and a visible place in Toronto’s dining scene. 

In part as a result of the brunch’s early success (it’s already been called the “best brunch in Toronto” on social media), Westbank Development Corporation, which is overseeing the redevelopment of the Mirvish Village neighbourhood, stepped in to sponsor the project through its most challenging first few weeks and get it on the road to becoming a permanent part of Toronto’s brunch culture.

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Facundo Campos from the documentary Groundbreaking Bread ©UnstoppableUrgesProductions2016

At $30 per person, the brunch is a sumptuous, multi-course feast featuring bottomless tea, delicate Saj bread along with half a dozen mezze for sharing. Choose between four main courses, including vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. Jazmaz is the Syrian take on shakshouka – sunny eggs in a rich tomato sauce. Bied bel toum (eggs with garlic) is a delicious scrambled egg hash with potatoes and whole cloves of garlic made mild and sweet by slow cooking in olive oil, and fattet maqdoos is a traditional Syrian favourite, with crispy pita chips and tender roasted eggplant slathered in a yogurt and tahini sauce. Both can be topped with arwarma, a delicious confit of finely chopped halal beef. Salatet sabaneh, a warm spinach salad with mushrooms, chickpeas and onions can be topped with a soft egg, or served up vegan. And be sure to save room for the selection of amazing homemade cookies and sweets that come at the end. 

In just a few short months, Newcomer Kitchen has grown from a small gesture of hospitality to a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating economic and social opportunity for Syrian refugee women in Toronto. It has transformed a simple idea — inviting Syrian refugee women to cook in local kitchens — into an exciting new pop-up food experience that turns remarkable talent into delicious meals, economic opportunity, work experience and a bridge between cultures.

Even more exciting is the potential of a new model that could work with any newcomer community, in any kitchen, in any city in the world. The organization is busy, but need continued support. To do so, buy tickets for a Thursday or Sunday dining opportunity, or make a donation here.

Kelli Kieley is a producer and director, Huffington Post Blogger and author of the upcoming book Living the (Singlepreneur) Dream! Her feature film Groundbreaking Bread, about Newcomer Kitchen, will be released in 2017. Connect with @KelliKieley on TwitterInstagram, or @kellimkieley on Facebook. | @nowtoronto



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