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And just like that, on a blustery afternoon in late October, a journey that began six months earlier—the summer but a promise, the future wide open and entirely uncertain—came to an end.

The farewell, bittersweet.

As much as I derided Toronto during my stint as a resident, I came to appreciate, even like the place. Big, bustling, a beacon for all those looking for a fresh start, a bit of fun, a next step, a new phase—I couldn’t have asked for a better experience in the Big Smoke.

At turns exhausting and exhilarating, hectic and hilarious, heart-breaking and utterly brilliant: this was my Toronto.

To my Brüs and fellow Belongers, thank you for your camaraderie and your gallows humour, for your supportive advice and welcome criticism, for schooling me in “would you rather” and in honest work, for the chance to prepare some great food together and have fun doing it.

To Brad, thank you for such an incredible opportunity, for the faith you placed in me and the confidence that it instilled in me, for the openness with which you welcomed me into your Belong family, and for inspiring me with your ethos of sustainability, of community, of belonging.

To my flatmates, thank you for making our house a home (even if it was a chaotic one) and a hub for like-minded souls, for being so loving and so familial, for giving me endless memories of mornings, afternoons, evenings and late-nights.

Most of all, thank you to the indefatigable, incomparable Charlotte. Without you, none of it would have ever been possible. You are a dear friend and an incredible cook; your passion infectious, your creativity inspiring, your heart enormous.

I’ve never been a big fan of farewells. I prefer the promise of meeting again, of reuniting with friends old and new, of picking up where we left off, of keeping the bonds, once forged, unbroken.

À bientôt, mes amis.

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In my ongoing effort to assuage those humourless Torontonians hurt by my missive about their city, I thought I might share with you three little gems I’ve discovered while here. After all, Toronto isn’t all bad, Rob Ford notwithstanding.

If I were to measure how much I like a place by how often I frequent it, I think Jimmy’s Coffee would be my favourite place in Toronto. Aside from brewing very good coffee, this little joint, in a converted house on Portland Street between King West and Adelaide, is a lovely little spot to grab a cup of joe en route to work, sit and knock off the daily crossword, or enjoy the afternoon sun on the back patio. Being watched over by the joint’s namesakes—Carter, Hoffa, Morrison, Hendrix, Dean, Stewart—is a delightful plus; so, too, is the friendly, community-oriented vibe.

I’m also quite keen on the Gardiner Museum. Did you know it’s the only ceramics museum in North America? I know, right! You’re probably thinking to yourself: there’s a museum for ceramics in North America; or, there’s only one museum for ceramics in North America? Either way, it’s quite the place—especially if, like me, you have a thing for tea sets. On the occasion of my visit, the museum was featuring a special exhibition on four centuries of British style, power and taste as captured in ceramics from that country. Quite good.

Finally, there’s the Toronto Islands. I’ve already mentioned them. They’re worth me mentioning them again. Accessible and affordable public lands, replete with gorgeous parks, beaches and forested areas; an oasis in the shadow of Toronto’s jumbled skyline of concrete and steel.

I’d previously spent the day at Ward’s Island; more recently, I decided to check out another of the Islands’ beaches, Hanlan’s Point. A “clothing-optional” beach, it was freer of screaming children and, consequently, quieter and less crowded on a weekday morning, but, as I discovered on a repeat visit, far busier—and naked-er—than I would have liked on a weekend. Nevertheless, the $7 it cost me for the round-trip ferry ticket was well worth it, especially since the ferry trip takes only 15 minutes in either direction but feels, once lying on the beach, to have transported me light-years from the madness of the city.

See? Not all bad!

July seems to have gone on forever.

No doubt the record-breaking temperatures and stifling humidity have contributed to the dreamlike state in which time has passed; so too, sadly, did the sudden and tragic passing of Cafe Belong’s executive chef, Dan DeMatteis, at the beginning of the month cast these ensuing weeks with a surreal gloom.

Various Toronto-based culinary websites have paid tribute to Dan, here, here and here. A website has also been established for friends to share their thoughts, memories and photos of Dan, here. I encourage you to spend a moment learning about him and his life. He will be missed.

Thankfully, there have also been moments of relief, of rest and of relaxation. One day in particular stands out, a few weeks ago: I took myself to the beach at Ward’s Island. Sweltering, sun beating down on the sand, I whiled away the afternoon with a good book, a large bottle of water, and plenty of sunscreen. It was sublime—and definitely cast Toronto in a whole new light.

Speaking of Toronto, I’ve received quite a bit of feedback on my previous post about the city. Most, it would seem, can’t take a joke—even a pointed one.

To those Torontonians I’ve offended: thanks for proving my point. To everyone else: whilst I appreciate your concerns for my mental state and overall well-being, I assure you I’m just fine. Heck, I’m grand!

Indeed, as was made all too plain this month, life is fragile and fleeting. Do not miss a moment, or waste a second; live life to the fullest, be thankful for everything, find the good in all things.

And love—always and all ways.

I want to like you, Toronto, I really do. After all, I know your reputation amongst Canadians not lucky enough to call you home, or worldly enough to assess you correctly. Still, you make it so difficult. What gives?

On paper, you look quite promising: Canada’s largest city, at around 5 million people; a diverse population of people speaking a symphony of mother tongues and worshipping at least a dozen deities; museums, art galleries, festivals, and seven professional sports teams; an integrated public transit system with streetcars, a subway, and extensive bus routes; the CN Tower, which is still a marvel after all these years.

And yet.

And yet, in practice, you suck. Not badly, don’t get me wrong. Just badly enough to make me bristle when one of your patriotic denizens pronounces on your status as a “world city.”

Not quite.

Barcelona, for example, comprises around 5 million people, too. It’s also situated next to a large body of water. It has not one but two official languages. Its museums and galleries and, ahem, UNESCO World Heritage sites blow your AGO and your ROM out of the water. And its transit system? Where do I begin?! For one thing: IT WORKS. Well. Consistently. Seriously, the TMB rarely if ever trends on Twitter as a hashtag fail.

Dislike the comparison to a European city, Toronto? Think it’s akin to comparing Valencia oranges to McIntosh apples? Fine. Let me draw your attention to another city on this side of the pond: Chicago.

Also on a large body of water—a Great Lake no less! Comprising around 8 million people—granted a little larger than either you or Barcelona, but fundamentally in the same class. And what of their high culture and professional athletics? IN SPADES. Not to mention a zoo and an effing aquarium.

Chicago also has a habit of electing civic leaders with, say, vision and, ah, competence. (See Daly, Richard M. v. Lastman, Mel; Emmanuel, Rahm v. Ford, Rob.) And don’t you go holding up your David Miller, Toronto, as proof you’re not completely hopeless when given the chance to install someone in the mayor’s chair with something approaching a brain. Having experienced both Lastman and Miller, you then opted for Ford—IN DROVES.

Yep, you seem to struggle—and struggle mightily—with the evidently impossible task of sound civic planning. When faced with what to do with your spectacular coastline, for example, you opted for the Gardiner Expressway. Chicago? Grant, Millennium and Lincoln Parks, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, The Art Institute of Chicago, Soldier Field, Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Navy Pier

Enough said.

Granted, you’ve still got the CN Tower. Be proud of that. Honest. A shame, however, it’s situated next to that billion-dollar white elephant, the SkyDome—sold to Rogers Communications for the tidy sum of $25 million. I mean, Jesus Christ. Even Montreal, with its decrepit Olympic Stadium, can take pride in the fact its billion-dollar engineering ignominy oozes (or at least crumbles) retro-futuristic cool.

Speaking of the Olympics, nothing tops the hubris of frequently floating yourself as a candidate for them. It’s laughable. You haven’t even properly connected your airport with your public transit system; in contrast, London has dozens to its THREE major international airports and it’s still working on contingency plans to move people about.

And when last invited to host something of any international import—the G8-G20 Summit—your police force—like a newbie tagging along with Charlie Sheen on a 48-hour hooker-and-blow bender—lost its shit in orgiastic displays of Orwellian oversight and Draconian enforcement. Imagine, as London (no stranger to serious and devastating acts of terror) must do now, having to actually implement the far more robust, lengthy and sophisticated security measures necessary to safeguard an event even remotely close to the Olympics, let alone the Olympics themselves.

Get real.

No, seriously. Drop the bullshit. Either you accept things as they actually are and resign yourself to simply being the biggest Canadian fish in the world’s municipal ocean, or you buck up and set about bridging the gap between how you see yourself and how the rest of the world actually sees you.

The choice is yours. Choose wisely.

Is it June already?

By my count, I’ve been in Toronto for about 6 weeks now. (With a brief return to Winnipeg, then to Edmonton, squished in there, too.) And yet, at once it seems like only yesterday I was driving cross-country with my bro — and so very long ago we were making the trip. That time has lost all meaning is, I suspect, a byproduct of working in the hospitality industry — my working life now revolving around others’ leisure time.

I’ve had days off before, but this one is the first I truly feel like I can take a breath and relax. I’m moved in, there’s no racing around to do, last-minute errands, things needed to be picked up, and so on. And so, I’m taking the opportunity to catch you up on the past month or so — my first in my new job at Brad Long’s Cafe Belong at the innovative Evergreen Brick Works (what Winnipeg’s Forks Market could have — and should have been).

Sustainable, local and, whenever possible, organic. To me, this best sums up the approach Chef/Owner Brad Long has taken with his eponymous-ish cafe. And it’s an ethos I can get behind. Indeed, what excites me most about my placement at Belong is how the work I do aligns with the values I hold (something that, as time wore on, was lost when I was toiling away in the political trenches in Ottawa). Quite simply, I’m working in an environment that is, well, conscious of the environment. That, to me — and Martha — is a good thing.

For the first few weeks, I spent most of my time in our production kitchen, supporting both the cafe and the catering operation. It was an excellent initiation, as I was able to see and work with virtually all the products we receive from our various local suppliers — from whole pigs to the tiniest of micro greens, live lobsters to the littlest sardines.

More recently, I’ve been brought on line to work the grade manger station. It’s been both a challenge and a thrill. When the weather is nice, our patio and park-like setting make us somewhat of a destination for area residents. On those days, the brunch and lunch services can be quite hectic. Finding my stride amidst the chaos has tested my patience, my skills, my nerve, and my knees. I’m managing. In the process, though, I’ve also been able to put up dishes I’ve been really proud of, and I’ve learned a great deal about plating style and presentation.

Though I spend the majority of my time at the Brick Works, I did have the chance to spend an evening at the Royal Ontario Museum serving up “picnic biscuits” for Toronto Taste 2012, an annual fundraising event in support of Toronto’s Second Harvest, which brings together some of the city’s best restaurant and beverage purveyors. We were among them. I think the kids would say that was “rad.”

Of course, it hasn’t been all work. On a previous day off, when my dear friend and chef, @charlotke, invited me to spend the day with her at Norman Hardie’s winery, I leapt at the chance. Not only does Norman make absolutely brilliant wine, but his vineyard is located in the otherworldly and utterly picturesque Prince Edward County.

In all, the first six weeks have tough, tiring, but never dull. Indeed, all signs suggest it will be a fantastic summer.

With school receding quickly in the rear view mirror of my mind, I loaded up the 10-foot u-Haul truck and, along with my brother and co-pilot, plotted a course eastward for Toronto.

Nearly 2200 kilometers away, our journey would take us two days.

Two… Long… Days.

The purpose of our trip was to transport a bed, dresser, night table, clothes and cookbooks to my new abode in the Big Smoke. It would be there where I’d hang my cook’s cap whilst completing my second work placement (required to complete my culinary arts diploma).

In a curious bit of symmetry, my brother and I made a similar journey two-and-half years earlier, except we were heading westward that time, from Ottawa to Winnipeg.

Here I was, so many months later — no longer a disillusioned political hack, but a still-wet-behind-the-ears culinary grad — making the journey in reverse.

Knowing we had so many hours ahead of us, and with only so many hours of daylight on our side, we made the painful decision to depart Winnipeg at 5 a.m. on Monday morning. Like so many tough decision, it proved to be a wise one.

By 7 a.m., we were cruising past Kenora; by 9, refuelled and caffeinated, Dryden (the “proud home of Chris Pronger,” by the way) was behind us. Emboldened, we set our sights on Thunder Bay — and lunch at its infamous Hoito.

***

Thunder Bay: Superior by Nature.

True, geographically speaking. Debatable, otherwise.

Nevertheless, we pulled into the Lakehead around noon, on schedule, and proceeded through town to The Hoito. Serendipitously, we’d seen the place featured on the Food Network’s You Gotta Eat Here! the night beforehand.

Was it a sign? Was it meant to be? Were they the “best pancakes in Canada?”

30 minutes late, the answer: no.

Still, we were fed, watered and ready for the next leg of our journey — and cautiously set our sights on Sault Ste. Marie, another 7 hours away.

***

Ah yes, the Soo. Never were we happier to see the welcome sign for a town than when we were pulling into the place at 9 p.m. that evening — a full 17 hours after we left Winnipeg.

Eyes blurry, butts sore, we refueled, then checked into Algoma’s Water Tower Inn and Suites, aptly named because of its proximity to, you guessed it, the city’s water tower.

Thankfully, the hotel’s adjoining Casey’s Restaurant and Lounge was still open, so we grabbed a quick bite and just sat, numb — at once pleased with ourselves for making it so far, and yet dreading yet another day on the road in our spartan 10-foot juggernaut.

Pushing through to Sault Ste. Marie, like our decision to leave Winnipeg before sunrise, had been taxing but wise. After all, we’d managed to avoid staying overnight in Wawa, Terrace Bay, or Marathon (which, incidentally, is “built on paper, laced with gold.”)

Rested, recharged, we set off at the lazy hour of 8 a.m., with our heads high and our sights set first on Sudbury, and then Toronto.

***

Of course, the downside to making this trip eastward, instead of westward, is the increasingly disappointing scenery the further east you go — glaringly obvious as you leave Sault Ste. Marie, away from the Great Lakes and glorious Canadian Shield, and approach the nickel belt.

Ugh.

On the plus side, however, the highways in and around Sudbury are first rate.

(Kudos to whomever was the political minister for the region who managed to strong-arm their Cabinet colleagues for the cash necessary to make those improvements. Undoubtedly you were rewarded by your constituents by being tossed out at the next election.)

***

By comparison, the second day was an easy one; we’d made such great progress on the first day of our journey we only had a scant 7 hours to Toronto. Easy. And easy it was, albeit uninteresting.

Seriously, there isn’t much happening between Sudbury south to Toronto — though we did have the (dis)pleasure of passing Tony Clement Country™ (a.k.a., Parry Sound–Muskoka).

Groan.

So nice to see that money from the G8 summit spent so well and so wisely. Atta boy, Tony!

***

At around 2 in the afternoon, something happened: the landscape no longer rocks and trees, but concrete and steel; the horizon, once endless and blue, now closing in and oh-so-cluttered.

There she was: the Big Smoke.

By God, we’d made it. 26 hours of driving and 2200 kilometers later, we’d arrived in Toronto.

It took another hour or so to actually get into Toronto, mind you.

Driving a rented truck with an engine retarder that prevented us from travelling at more than 120 kilometers per hour didn’t help much either, as cars whizzed past us on the 401, undoubtedly furious at us bumpkins inexperienced on these #bigcityfreeways. (It wasn’t us! It was the engine! Honest!) Nevertheless, we’d made it.

One journey over, another about to begin.

After one of the longest stints grounded in recent memory, I was up in the air this weekend, in the big smoke, the T-dot, the centre of the universe, Toronto.

The purpose of this brief sojourn was threefold: inspect the apartment I’ll be calling home this coming summer; firm up plans for my second co-operative work placement (the final requirement of Red River College’s culinary arts program); and, lastly but not leastly, have a bit of fun.

And oh, what fun I had!

Indeed, I was fortunate enough to spend a better part of Sunday working the line during the brunch rush at Café Belong, alongside the resto’s chef de cuisine — who also just happens to be a dear friend from my days in Ottawa, and with whom I’ll be sharing an apartment this coming summer.

It was intense. I’m but a lamb in the woods when it comes to cookery. She’s a frickin’ lion.

Nevertheless, I had a blast — and can’t think of a better way to have spent a frigid Sunday in the Big Smoke.