The chef explores her relationship with her mom – and with Caribbean food – through a pop-up at the Gladstone
For her pop-up stint at the Gladstone Hotel, Suzanne Barr has written a menu that will make you weep. Not because of her menu items – though they do sound scrumptious – but what appears between them: a tender, heartfelt letter written by the chef to her mother, who passed away 15 years ago.
The chef recounts moments from her youth – making beef patties with her dad and eagerly awaiting the special Sunday meal – and punctuates them with the grown-up Suzanne’s modern-Jamaican recipes: ackee terrines, banana leaf-steamed fish, pigs’ feet with Highland blue cheese and pattypan squash.
Barr introduces the reader – and her mom – to two-year-old son Myles, and reflects on her mother’s influence: “The sacrifices that you had to make in your life impacted the woman I came to be.”
“I started thinking about my roles as a chef, as a parent, as a person in this city, and I started exploring what I could bring to the table. I thought it was really important to put that in the forefront: where I come from, who I am,” says Barr, who until recently ran beloved diner Saturday Dinette. “I think that’s why I made it such a personal love story.”
Jerk chicken ramen is a detour into global fusion.
Barr’s menu is the first product of the new chef-in-residence program at the Gladstone. Tasked with reinventing the food program, hotel president and “chief alchemist” Christina Zeidler had a brainwave. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did a residency program, and treated chefs the same way we work with artists?”
Zeidler says she was inspired by food ventures like Pittsburgh’s Conflict Kitchen, which served foods from countries the U.S. was in conflict with – projects that were “political, interesting, and sort of artist-led.” To kick off the program, she set her sights on Barr, who had done an event at the hotel the year before. Barr was also about to wind down Saturday Dinette her next project, a Miami-inspired lunch spot and bar called Kid Chocolate, opens on Gerrard this fall.
Since she began cooking professionally, Barr had largely passed over Caribbean food in favour of vegan cuisine and the kind of novel, Southern-accented American diner fare that earned her a loyal clientele at the Dinette.
“Before I even wanted to become a chef, my mother had already passed,” she explains. “I hadn’t been living at home for years, and I hadn’t yet had the exposure to Jamaican food the way I now have had working in the industry. And then, I was working with African chefs, Filipino chefs, Sri Lankan chefs, seeing their food and where they pulled from.
“Finally, I was like, I’m ready. I’m ready to create my own food from my own people that speaks to my voice, and creating food that’s really true to who I am. I’m really proud to expose people to that and share it with friends, family, customers.
I think they’re seeing many sides of me.”
Barr’s Junkanoo coleslaw packs plenty of colour.
The result is flavourful, punchy takes on dishes that grace Jamaican family tables. Colourful and citrusy coleslaw, dubbed “Junkanoo” in honour of the bold hues of the Bahamian New Year’s parade, comes on a bed of minty yogurt and offset with a savoury crumble. Humble fried plantains are a flamboyant showstopper, stuffed with red lentils and cashew “lion cheese” (much of the menu is or can be made vegan) and studded with plumes of fried cassava chip.
As for those slow-cooked pigs’ feet and pattypans, they come mounded in two piles, separated by a dividing line of activated coconut charcoal – Barr’s tribute to the soil that gave way to the natural bounty of Jamaica. Even a humble garnish, with a flourish, tells a story.
Blue cheese gives pigs’ feet and patty pan squash an unexpected note.
Barr’s menu is available in the Gladstone’s cafe (1214 Queen West, at Gladstone) for dinner Sunday through Thursday until September 28. Visit the Gladstone’s site for more information.
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