Story by Janine MacLean, Vacay.ca Food Columnist
TORONTO — If you’re a fan of foreign film, pork belly, wine and a good story, this is a tale for you.
On January 29, a trio of Torontonians launched Reel Eats, a soon-to-be monthly event that marries a love of food, unique storytelling and film, creating an atmosphere that brings together foodies, writers, chefs and artists of all sorts. It’s a recipe for a magical evening, not to mention a great meal.
Conceptualized by food and travel writer Mary Luz Mejia, chef Vanessa Yeung and author Sang Kim, the first monthly Reel Eats centred around Chinese New Year and the Year of the Dragon. Taking place at Yeung’s venue Aphrodite Cooks, the menu not only championed Chinese cuisine but also held significance for Yeung’s roots, including family favourites like “Ginger Chicken Potstickers (Made in the Yeung Family Tradition)” and “Chef Chu’s Abundant Blessings Braised Pork Belly with Choi Sum,” which apparently took Yeung’s mother three days to prepare.
The venue itself was a restored warehouse in uptown Toronto. In a large room with an open kitchen (ideal for the cooking classes Aphrodite Cooks regularly hosts), long tables were set up so guests would sit together and mingle. Shocks of red covered the tables, which were set with chopsticks and a traditional symbol of the Chinese New Year: money (made of chocolate, but money nonetheless). The event required one to bring their own wine if they planned on drinking, but it wasn’t necessary — a refreshing green tea called “The Sky Flies the Bird” was provided for each table from Toronto’s NourishTea.
The evening included three courses, three storytellers and the film, “Eat Drink Man Woman” by director Ang Lee. The film was muted and shown throughout the evening with subtitles, becoming slightly lost amongst the food, stories and discussion.
“There’s a food and film festival in New York, in Chicago — and Toronto needs one,” Mejia said.
While the event was a far cry from a full-blown food and film festival, the essential elements were all there. Food professionals, connoisseurs, movie buffs and storytellers all played a key role during the evening.
I shared my table with veteran food writer and former food editor of the Toronto Star, Marion Kane, and pastry chef Kyla Eaglesham. As we got acquainted our first course was brought out: a winter melon soup. Mellow umami flavours and big textures abounded in a soup I hadn’t tasted since I moved to Canada from Korea two years ago.
As we ate, Diane Tso, playwright (“Red Snow”) and actress, told a personal story of wanting a sister for Christmas and the kitchen adventures that occurred when her wish was finally granted. Her funny and, at times, sad tale of loss and food was the gentle push we needed. Soon enough, stories of our own began to be shared.
Our main courses were served simultaneously and “family style,” which further encouraged the bonding around the table. Pork belly, lovingly braised by Yeung’s mother, their family dumplings made with organic chicken and organic heritage pork, sautéed snow pea shoots with garlic, chicken and cucumber salad adorned with black sesame seeds, and Taiwanese clams soon crowded our table to the limit. With fresh pillows of steamed rice, the meal was exactly what Yeung intended it to be: meaningful, comforting and, perhaps most importantly, a real conversation stimulant. She says that although her profession is not the most respected in her traditional Chinese family, she could never be kept away from her love for good food.
“The kitchen is where I’m meant to be,” she stated simply.
The dumplings were the first to be devoured at our table, completely adored. The pork belly was so tender it melted in my mouth, and after my third serving I grudgingly moved on to the clams. They were served in a spiced, gingery broth — perfect for pouring over rice. The chicken and cucumber salad was refreshing and tangy, and one of my favourite dishes of the evening.
As we ate we continued to tell each other about our lives, about where we like to eat and what we like to cook and where we come from. And even though I had shown up alone and not knowing a soul, I felt comfortable — as if surrounded by some very old and caring friends.
The second storyteller of the evening was Carol Devine, author of “The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning,” who made us laugh with her story of Russian scientists spending too much time with penguins and having relationship break-ups via telegram. Living an isolated life on that continent meant food was of utmost importance, culturally and socially. She fondly recalled Chinese cooks teaching Russians how to make dumplings as the different nationalities learned to live together in the desolation of Antarctica. And we appreciated our dessert of fried bananas with ginger ice cream all the more.
Our final storyteller of the evening was Grace Lynn Kung, a Gemini nominated actress for her role in CBC’s “InSecurity.” She told us about an embarrassing audition for a Swiss Chalet commercial, again connecting her story with food and eating and marking a suitable end to the event. As people trickled out the door, I asked Kane for her impression of the evening.
“I never miss Chinese New Year because of the food and this meal was no exception — especially the pork and the dumplings.” She continued, “My boyfriend, Ross, is a dragon so this is going to be a good year.”
Yeung admitted she identifies with the film “Eat Drink Man Woman” — the Academy Awards-nominated story of a widower and master chef in Taiwan who loves nothing more than cooking for his three grown daughters — and thought it would be a fitting cinematic tribute to Chinese New Year and to the overarching concept of Reel Eats — the appreciation of food through storytelling.
“I’ve always been a big fan of foodie films,” she says while telling the story of how she, Mejia and Kim developed the idea for the event over dim sum. The trio are, indeed formidable with Yeung’s film knowledge, Mejia’s coordination skills and Kim’s ability to attract talent. All three share a passion for food, and as Yeung put it, “A lot of things can be accomplished around a dinner table.” Like developing a concept for a future film and food festival in Toronto? Only time will tell, but the organizers’ goal is clearly to grow the event.
I asked Kim about the reasoning behind the grouping of storytelling, film and food. I mean, I got the whole food and film thing. It was the storytelling that had thrown me for a loop. Although I enjoyed it immensely, I thought there was a lot going on throughout the evening. It all made sense when he explained that the storytellers had been replicating the act of having a meal.
“It’s kind of an artificial way to highlight what having a meal truly entails,” he said.
When we eat, we tell stories. Our food tells us a story. We tell our friends and families about our day. The act of eating is made more meaningful by storytelling, and Kim, Mejia and Yeung believed it had to be a major component of the event. After spending the whole evening spinning yarns to complete strangers I could see why.
When I left the event to taxi home, Kim’s words continued to resonate: “When we’re at the dinner table, we are all reading narratives.” Throughout the following week those words compelled me to prepare meals a little more lovingly and linger over each and every dinner plate.
The next Reel Eats will transport guests to Italy with the event taking place at The Big Ragu on February 27. Tickets are $75 (taxes included). To reserve a spot, email Mary Luz Meija at email@example.com.