The inaugural Toronto Underground Market attracts capacity crowds to the Evergreen Brick Works.
The dark hills of the Don Valley loomed over the Evergreen Brick Works on Saturday night. The early fall air was chilly, but inside the massive industrial structure it was a bustling frenzy of approximately 1,200 deeply hungry people and 25 home cooks and aspiring entrepreneurs who were scrambling to feed them at the inaugural edition of the Toronto Underground Market.
The crowd—which included a mix of twenty-something bros in baseball hats, hipsters of all age groups bedecked in blazers, and mom ‘n’ pop types—was eager to enthuse about their latest foodgasm or complain good-naturedly about the length of the lines.
The hubbub reached a pitch appropriate to a gathering of unabashed foodies, most of whom flocked to whatever stand was serving meaty sandwiches, such as fatty pork belly or jerk chicken on a coco bun, or to the four local brewers and one winery onsite.
“This is more than I could imagine—this is fantastic,” gushed Josh Standing as he scrambled to prepare the night’s clear winner: cornbread grilled cheese. With an intense lineup in front of him, and only one grill working, Standing hurriedly squeezed generous amounts of guacamole and sour cream on the glistening fat stacks of freshly grilled sandwiches.
Like many of the other vendors in attendance, Standing was bringing his passion for cooking to TUM to test whether he could turn it into a business (he’d like to buy a food truck). After falling in love with Mexican food while in culinary school, he started Comida Del Pueblo, which means “food of the people.”
Even more enthusiastic were the vendors with absolutely no professional culinary background. Couple Vijaya and Krishna Kadambari beamed and posed for photos, all the while madly serving up great steaming heaps of rice in three permutations: lemon and lime, green mango, and baby eggplant masala. Vijaya is a hotel manager and is hoping to open her own catering business specializing in South Indian vegetarian cuisine.
Others were less ambitious. “I honestly just wanted to share this dumpling with people; I wasn’t thinking of turning it into an empire,” said Ian Sit, a post-production TV editor who crafted a dumpling so mouth-watering we literally went weak-kneed at the first eggy, oozy bite.
All cooks at the market had to pay a $150 vendor fee that included access to a commercial kitchen located at the Brick Works. Sit found the experience suited to his tastes. “I thought it was very impressive given just that this is the first time out,” he said, as the soothing sounds of the Great Lake Swimmers wafted in the background. “It was a little hectic in the kitchen, it was hard to find space and such, but I wasn’t expecting [organizers] to have this completely streamlined and figured out.”
Other vendors had a great deal more experience. Ryan Donovan, who was cooking up a succulent and very popular barbecue beef po-boy sandwich for $4 (all items were priced between $3 and $8), is the butcher at Marben restaurant. When I spoke to him, he’d just received an angel delivery of 200 buns that would allow the stand to keep serving.
Donovan also runs a freezer beef company called West Side Beef. He was the one vendor who cited any sort of food philosophy, as West Side Beef was born from a change in meat regulation that centralized meat production and thus made it much harder for home cooks to access large quantities of local, good quality beef.
The San Francisco Underground Market, the inspiration for TUM, was a not-quite-legal, members-only collective of home cooks and foragers, with a predilection for local eats. It was initiated by wild food co-operative ForageSF and, until authorities shut it down in June, it was run out of private homes and warehouses.
With major caterers such as L-Eat on site, TUM appears to be less concerned with these principles. “I approve of the movement but I don’t adhere to it,” said dumpling king Sit of the current local food frenzy.
TUM did have to deal with more stringent laws that necessitated not only the use of commercial kitchens but also demanded participants work with approved ingredient distributors. And, unlike in San Francisco, vendors were allowed to keep 100 per cent of their profits.
Toronto seems to approve of the local manifestation of the market; tickets sold out within a week. Organizers plan to hold a monthly market, and tickets for an October 22 event go on sale today at the TUM website.
Photos by Bronwyn Kienapple.