HSBC recently underwent some muscular and life-transforming team-building exercises. Okay, perhaps “life-transforming” is the not most appropriate term; nor is “muscular” for that matter. Just a bit of sushi-making fun.
It began at the headquarters in downtown Toronto. Managers and executives took off their gloves (and washed their hands with soap) before engaging in one of the more competitive forms of sushi-making I have ever witnessed.
Wonderful to see employees of the world’s largest bank chain, some of whom passed each other daily in the hallways without so much as waving a fin at each other, bond over rice and seaweed. There were groups from a variety of branches across the GTA, as well. Once class in Mississauga was so big, we had to move it to the Coptic Centre to make room.
In all my years doing this, I had never witnessed a group so talented at rolling sushi. Pitch perfect shapes, great touch with the rice, no mess. Perhaps some night jobs at local Japanese restaurants are in order? (I promise not to tell your bosses…)
The groups in Markham were a blast. Classes over a two week period, they were less focused on creating the best roll and more happy to be chumming around and bonding with their colleagues. Just good ole fashion fun.
It was a great experience had by all, especially by me. Having done so many team-building sushi classes for so many corporations over the years, this one was very special. The people of the world’s local bank proved again that if all organizations are ecosystems, HSBC is one of the healthiest and fun-loving ones around.
I get requests to talk about writing or to make sushi before an audience, but never has the two come together in one event. Earlier this month, the forces in the universe aligned and I found myself before a group equally in love with food and books.
It was a well-heeled affair, an old-school book club, led by the bona fide Grand Dame of Toronto’s literary salon scene, Jane Griesdorf, a woman with a 20th century artistic sensibility mingling with a 19th century indomitable character. My kind of woman.
You know you are dealing with a genuine lover of literature when her dog is called Gatsby- who, it must be said, also has his own blog and email account.
The night began with an engaging talk given by University of Toronto English professor, Andrea Most, who teaches a course called “Cook the Books”, which may attract those with a propensity toward creative accounting but is actually about Food Lit that incorporates a lab/cooking class component. She is also deeply involved in Toronto’s sustainable/local food movement. Her talk that night was about Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year Of Food Life, about the author’s year long experience of planting, pulling weeds, expanding kitchen skills, harvesting animals, and joining the effort to save heritage crops from extinction. The book made a passionate case for putting the kitchen back at the center of family life, and diversified farms at the center of the American diet. It was a controversial choice and Professor Most did what all good profs do: stir strong responses one way or the other from her audience.
I was also there to discuss how food and writing came together in my life (going days without food in the Jane & Finch projects; finding a book by Maya Angelou on the way home from work at Pizza Hut as a fourteen year-old dishwasher; watching the local drug lord read massive tomes on his roof while sunbathing etc.). Then I prepared some of my signature sushi for the guests, some of whom told me later that, like an epiphany, it struck them that Literature and Sushi felt like a match made in heaven.
I think they were just hungry…
It’s here that the Divas come to strut their stuff: the gown, the hair, the make-up, the paparazzi. All this without the attitude- unless, of course, like me, you consider an unwavering commitment to serve others an attitude. So, yes, there was enough attitude to make even the Marlboro Man in a saloon lose his swagger.
In what is one of the most creative and moving forms of service to the many of us who face the formidable challenges of having a family member afflicted by mental illness, Simply Divas is a day full of astonishing acts of grace; a day when the generosity of spirit hovers over a poised but frenetic human activity. So, on that glorious last Sunday in April at The Great Hall and over the valley of looming sorrow, everyone spread their wings.
And the Divas soared. Recruited from the Etobicoke School of the Arts- that machine designed to churn out authentic talent- they performed songs by the Masters in front of an audience bursting at the seams of the hall. Lead by co-hosts, Danica Brown, and Rockstar-turned-Chef-turned-Rockstar, Carmine Accogli, and having lost three of their own this year (Etta, April, Whitney), they did what all Divas do – turn adversity into song. These young talents gave a resounding answer to the perennial question asked by Maya Angelou: Why does the caged bird sing?
There was the army of unsung heroes, whose efforts over the months, under the direction of Kristina Chau and Barbara Fraser, lifted an event from what was do-able to what could not be out-done. “Giving back to the community”, that prosaic euphemism too often used by those who contribute less, metamorphosed into song. What a marvel it was to be surrounded by those who will, with a dose of their own determination and a pinch of everyone else’s hope, become the leaders of the next generation, perpetually giving because they know that it flows from an overabundant source called Love.
Oh, and those chefs whom I admire most in the city, including the Rockstar himself, Carmine Accogli (The Big Ragu), Jose Arato (Pimenton), Pepe Hadad (Frida), Vanessa Yeung (Aprodite Cooks), Luis Valenzuela (Torito), Matt Basile (Fidel Gastro’s), Pedro Quintanilla (Bloom), Rossy Earle (SupiCucu) and Monja Chiaravalloti & Barb Accogli (CakeStar)- all lead by that great acapella duet of Mario Stajonac and Mary Luz Mejia (Sizzling Communications). That I was asked to share the stage with them left this Karaoke Cowboy feeling something he was unaccustomed to feeling: speechless. To be honest, when trying to harmonize, it was difficult to stay in tune with this great chorus of chefs.
None of this, of course, could have been possible without The Diva herself, Christine Cooper, affectionately known to all who love her (and everybody does), Mama Coops, the Executive Director of F.A.M.E (Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere). With her team, including the indomitably elegant Heather Turnbull, Mama Coops has been integral to assisting all of those- and they number in the hundreds of thousands- who are affected, directly or indirectly, by mental illness across this country. I know that I am in good hands as one of them.
I was moved and humbled by this experience, allowing me to put a genuinely proud feather on what until now was a near naked-cap. Thank you, Divas, for an inspiring day resonating with song. It has brought me one step closer to making a peacock out of my head.
A Japanese friend of mine texted me this on Valentine’s Day. This is how it is pronounced in English: “happī barentaindē!”
Not much lost in translation.
As a custom, it’s the women in Japan who observe this day, offering gifts to the men in their lives- usually chocolates. “Obligatory chocolates” are given to those you wouldn’t approach with a ten-foot chopstick romantically- speaking, while “chocolates of love” are meant to signify or express a more substantial yearning. If he is truly the one-and-only (and not a mere friend-with-benefits), the chocolates would, of course, be homemade. The men have their own day, called White Day, in which they return the favour plus some. The term sanbai gaeshi (“triple the return”) which is used to describe the etiquette of this day says everything. So, for the fiscally-challenged man or the dude who is couch-surfing in his parents’ house, he might be hoping not to receive any chocolates on VDay.
I went on a date to a sushi restaurant on Valentine’s Day here in Toronto. Nothing fancy. No reservations; no candles; no maitre’ d. Just one of those astonishingly average and ubiquitous sushi bars on Bloor Street that I have been to a few times. It was meant to be a casual date, since we had only met the previous week, but the moment we walked into the restaurant we realized we were in for something else entirely. Love (and lots of red streamers) was in the air. Whitney Houston was a poor choice to play in the background since her death was still so raw and deflected away from the light chatter I was hoping for. The lights were unusually dim- the fish took on the color of turnips just pulled from the soil- and even the usually morose sushi chefs seemed to have a lightness about them, occasionally smiling mischievously in my direction. Of course, the female servers had an exaggerated bounce to their step and the Milky Way in their eyes. I could read what was running through their minds: “Oh, that’s so sweet. How romantic.” “Look at them, so cute together.” The whole charade had a cloying, saccharine, and claustrophobic feel to it like we were all trapped in an elevator with a woman wearing cheap perfume. I don’t know if my date felt it, but I certainly did, and it made things a bit emotionally confusing for me. And it may have have also contributed to the over-playing of my aloofness- “compensation”, according to the great sex doctor, Siggy Freud.
Clearly, we had picked an inappropriate night to have a simple dinner. Valentine’s Day is, of course, a day when couples go out to celebrate their love for each other and, if permitted, to parade their affections publicly- why else would they be in a public space on presumably the most private of the big calendar days? Flaunt it to the fullest, thinks the cynic, even if you intend on breaking up the morning after. The food was mediocre as expected, the service was exaggerated in ‘niceness’, and we went separate ways that night. I went home and cozied up to a great book about solitude. Then I fell asleep and dreamed about a box of chocolates.
Moral of the story #1: Forget the DAY. The only longing I feel on Valentine’s Day is the one that draws me to a good book or better friend, and lots of wine.
Moral of the story #2: Come out to my singles sushi class, EATMYSUSHI. It’s a ton of fun, no pressure, lots of laughs, lifelong connections, and the odd (I have received two already) wedding invitation. Did I mention that is also VERY popular? Which is why I am doing a Twitter contest (it’s cute) for the limited number of seats (12 women/12men). Go to the CLASSES page to find out more info and email me if you have any questions. Lots of prizes to give away! At this single’s event, everybody walks away with something of value.
Please accept my most sincere apology for not having responded to your email about my broken string of promises for sushi classes in August and September. I have been burdened with an equally important, but much more pressing commitment: the opening of a second location of Liberty Noodle in the Eaton Centre. Many years of opening restaurants should have had me anticipating a later opening than planned, with all the delays in construction; of design pieces that just wouldn’t fit and had to be returned; the plumbing mishaps; the human resource challenges etc. And it was as a consequence of this that lead to my postponing the classes. I am happy to report, however, that the launch of the new restaurant, opened two weeks ago, has been an unqualified success. I hope you will be dropping by in the not-too-distant future to sample some of our dishes.
In the meantime, please accept my humble offering of make-up sushi-making classes for the following dates:
Saturday November 12th and Friday November 25th, both at 7:30pm.
Cost is $15 per person (not including taxes and 18% gratuity). As you may recall, this consists of making 2 sushi rolls (Spicy Tuna, California) and 2 handrolls (Salmon, Seafood Medley) and eating them too. This is the least I could do after leading you aimlessly back and forth from this site to Groupon’s and back again all these weeks.
Please feel free to email me directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) about which night might work best for you, using the following subject heading: “The Next Great Sushi Chef”. And feel free to comment or ask questions in the comment box below.
I hope all is forgiven and that you will be honoring me with your presence on one of those nights.