This past Friday, Torontoist took a sweet trip back in time via a quietly spectacular photography exhibit called “Thirty in Twenty: An Exhibition of Photography, Food, and Wine.” These evocative and romantic black-and-white photos were taken with a tiny 35mm camera back in 1973 when then newly married Toni and Ria Harting embarked on a life-changing adventure to eat their way through ten three-star Michelin restaurants in just twenty days. Friday being the opening reception, we not only enjoyed the lovely images, but had the pleasure of meeting the Hartings and hearing their stories first-hand.
The couple met in Holland at an aerospace engineering lab where they both worked, and in 1970 they married and emigrated to Canada. A few years later, Toni’s mother passed away and left her son a small inheritance along with strict instructions on its use. “My mother was as adventurous as I am. She said to me, just before she died, ‘I don’t want you to put it in the bank. Use it for something nice…something that you enjoy.’ So I thought, ‘I enjoy France, I enjoy food, I enjoy travel, and I enjoy my wife.'”
The couple flew from Toronto to Holland, spent some time catching up with old friends, and then jumped into a rented Volkswagen camper van bound for France’s most luxurious restaurants. During the trip, Toni and Ria spent their evenings in lavish dining rooms, indulging in decadent food and wine, served by impeccably skilled professional waiters (both remember a graceful, almost balletic, serving of “loup en croûte” at Bocuse). By day, they lived cheaply, ate very little, camped, and enjoyed the French countryside.
Throughout the journey, Toni took pictures of not only every three-star experience, but also the in-between moments—a simple breakfast of hot chocolate and fresh croissants in a quiet outdoor cafe, Ria wincing under a cold outdoor beach shower, and relaxing together with a picnic under a perfect, shady tree.
The photos only existed as small, dark prints in a family scrapbook until Toni and Ria showed them to their friends Johanna Reynolds and Zach Kellum, owners of The Department, a cultural marketing company that recently opened a multi-use facility on Dundas West with a bright gallery space. Immediately, Reynolds—who is also the gallery’s curator—knew they had to be shared. “It’s a great human story. It’s full of adventure…it’s everything you would love.”
Thanks to Toni’s mad archiving skills, he had all of the slides and negatives from the trip on hand, as well as notes on everything they ate and drank, and some of the original printed menus, one of which is hand-written. In addition to being on display, these menus will soon come to life when several celebrated Toronto chefs (Bertrand Alépée, Jason Inniss, Tawfik Shehata, John Lee, Donna Dooher) prepare selected dishes for ticketed receptions that are being held in conjunction with the exhibit. As Reynolds described to us, “You get to see the photos, sample the food and wine, study the trip route on a large, pristine map of France laid out on the wall, look at the menus, and of course—the best part—meet the actual people who took this brilliant trip.”
Ria and Toni Harting at the opening reception, replicating their original pose from one of their photos.
Contrary to its title, the most compelling aspect of this show is actually not photography, food, or wine; it’s the real-life love story between Toni and Ria that is captured wordlessly through these images, especially in Toni’s favourite photo—an incredible shot of Ria returning to the table, looking at Toni while everyone else in the dining room is looking at her.
The “Thirty in Twenty” exhibit is on from now until September 26 at The Department at 1389 Dundas Street West. Regular gallery hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 12–4 p.m and admission is free. Ticketed receptions are from 7–10 p.m. on selected dates. For more information and to purchase tickets, see The Department’s website.
All black-and-white photos by Toni Harting. All colour photos by Ayngelina Brogan/Torontoist.