Activist chef Suzanne Barr on using food, culture and heritage to create community
The Gladstone Hotel’s new executive co-chef, Suzanne Barr, tells us how she incorporates her Jamaican roots in her cooking “as a love letter to her mother” and why empowering women in the restaurant industry is so important to her
By The Locallove.ca Team
“When I started out in my career, not just as a chef but as a working adult, I had so many mentors; I had people who guided me through this whole process of figuring out what it is to be an honest working person,” says Suzanne Barr, the new co-executive chef at the Gladstone Hotel.
One of Toronto’s top female chefs, Barr was the first “chef in residence” at the Gladstone. The program, which launched in July 2017, is the brainchild of hotel president Christina Zeidler, who was inspired by residence programs for artists. During her stint, Barr created a menu inspired by her Jamaican roots, called “Right of Passage: A love letter to my mother and our shared story of Caribbean immigration to Canada, food and memory.” It was a new experience for several reasons, not least because she’d never cooked Jamaican food professionally before. But the result is classic Barr: smart, boundary-pushing and, of course, delicious.
“I was pulling from something that was true to me,” she says. “It was a time for me to reflect on, how can I make a statement in this city, and how can I be remembered?”
After her residence wrapped up, she made the leap to executive co-chef at the Gladstone. (Her fellow co-chef is Lamesa Filipino Kitchen co-founder Rudy Boquila.) But Barr isn’t just a chef, she’s an community leader—and she speaks as passionately about mentorship as she does about food. After working in Hawaii and New York City, and a stint as a personal chef which saw her traveling the world, she returned to Toronto to open her restaurant, Saturday Dinette, in 2014. A program called The Dinettes quickly followed. It provides YWCA clients with restaurant industry work experience and skills training—and gives Barr a chance to support and empower women in the community. In fact, one of the key reasons she started the Dinette program was a desire to recognize the mentorship she received, and pay it forward.
Barr closed Saturday Dinette last summer, just before starting at the Gladstone, but The Dinettes continues. There’s no way Barr would let it shutter—empowering women and building a better community is as much a part of her expertise as knife skills and flavor profiles.
“Being a mentor is one of the most important parts for me in why I became a chef,” she says. “Being a mentor now to young women in the kitchen is something I’m thankful for every day, because being a woman in the kitchen is a position of power. It’s a position of joy. It’s a position of leadership, and it’s a position of the future.”