In my twenties, I lived in a brand new condominium complex in North York. By then, living in a condo had already become a sad cliche; during my three years there, I met the next door neighbour only once. There was little community spirit in the building and everyone stared at the floor when riding the elevator. I vowed to never live in a condo again.
Today, I live in Kensington Market, a “village” very similar to the one in which my restaurant is located. In the Market, the spirit of community is buoyant, and at times can act like the harmless drunkard late at night. Neighbours invite others to their homes for potluck dinners; cheerfully gossip at the local watering hole over pints of local beer; buy fish, fruit and meat from local purveyors, and wave “hello” to cafe/restaurant staff on their way to work. I love my neighbourhood because it reminds me of the small town in Korea where I spent my childhood. And so, I am sympathetic toward newcomers to the city who speak disdainfully about the anonymity and coldness of living in downtown Toronto. The spirit of community, arguably much alive in a mega-city like ours, can feel a bit too virtual, driven, as it is, by social media technology that allows people to “follow” each other without ever setting foot on the same sidewalk or “like” someone they have never actually met, but never get the feeling that they were part of a larger group of people with shared ambitions and values. The simple truth is that sometimes you just want to feel brick-and-mortar in your hands, connect to real people in real places.
In the short time since arriving in Baldwin Village, I have been overwhelmed by kindness and encouragement. There is a strong sense of community here. It feels very real to me, this cauldron of cultures and people with a real shared history. And a genuine concern for the overall welfare of people living and working in the neighbourhood abounds. There is Roger and Tess Concepcion from , three doors next to my restaurant, who reached out to me within days of my return from Korea. They own three boutique bed-and-breakfasts in the downtown district and call this first one in the village their “home”. They invited me over for afternoon tea and we chatted at their communal diningroom table about the goings-ons within the neighbourhood. They are not only masters of hospitality, but they care deeply about where they live and work; true stewards of the community.
There is Chef Gregory Furstoss and his partner, Tory Yang, who runs the front of their restaurant, , with informed and gentle service in mind. They met at one of Marc Thuet’s restaurants, fell in love, and opened up a modern Alsatian restaurant in the Village. I went there one night, exhausted and hungry after a long day, and was too distracted to expect much of anything. I asked Tory to order for me. She brought over a tarte flambee, beet salad, and “duo of duck”, paired with an Alsatian gewurztraminer. I was astonished by her choices: both the clarity and complementarity of flavours in the food and wine woke my senses. I envied their restaurant and hoped that my own menu choices would do the same for my guests. The dinner, and subsequent conversation with Tory and Gregory, made my day, and I left feeling proud that my restaurant might get shoved together in the company of an accomplished one like this in the neighbourhood by some imprecise restaurant reviewer.
There are other staples of great wining, dining, and coffee in the Village. This list is not complete, but should give you some visual idea of the variety of food and beverage options available to the stroller. Some of them were my favourite spots to hang out at when I attended University of Toronto. There are also very unique retail shops, a video store and ice cream shop, as well as a popular health food store. I intend on dropping in at all of them in the coming weeks to introduce myself, enjoy the fruits of all the labour it has taken to build their respective businesses and a community that I am now honoured to be a part.
For an informative piece about the Village, refer to James Chatto’s in Toronto Life.