If you read her bio, Suzanne Barr is described as a Toronto-based chef and restaurateur, a judge on Food Network Canada’s Wall of Chefs and a committed social advocate. Talk to her, and she’s all of these things, but it’s the more intimate details about her life and the refreshing perspective she brings to her work that will make you wish you could share a meal with her weekly. We caught up with the chef to learn about her culinary influences, her role in the fight for food justice and equality, and ultimately what she contributes to the world with every plate she creates.
Photo courtesy of Samuel Engelking
Suzanne remembers growing up and crafting Jamaican beef patties in her parents’ kitchen alongside her mother, father and siblings. The flaky, fragrant pastries made for a coveted after-school snack or light Saturday supper (being of Jamaican descent, it’s long been a family staple for Suzanne). Today, her focus remains on paring a plate back to its essence, taking every opportunity to showcase local, seasonal ingredients.
“My cooking style has gone on a massive journey,” she says. “Right now, I’m really inspired by preservation, using old traditional techniques to store food and then use at later dates.” This past summer, Suzanne, along with her husband and five-year-old son, travelled to Montreal for a few days, and came back with a massive case of locally grown tomatoes, which she pickled whole with garlic and fresh basil. “It’s all about getting access to really incredible vegetables and elevating them to give them their shining moment of just being what they are.”
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Honing Her Craft and Mission
After over a decade in the film and television industry, Suzanne endured hardship when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She became her mom’s caretaker, often contemplating the role food plays in health and community.
“After losing my mom, I needed something that was more healing and connective, that brought me back to the most essential things in life, which is eating and breaking bread and having community around food,” she says. “I rediscovered this passion that was such a big part of me, but had lay dormant for far too long. It was now my duty to follow it and walk away from everything I had known and worked toward,” she says.
Growing up and witnessing her mother as a vivacious force who saw the value in voicing her opinion and beliefs instilled in Suzanne the courage to do the same. “Having my mom as such a matriarch in my life really pushed my passion and drive to fight for women and folks who look like me.” Suzanne attended her first protest in 1997 when she was in her early 20s. It was The Million Woman March in Philadelphia. She was moved and inspired by the act of travelling to another city for a day-long celebration of being a woman of colour. Advocating for women and the BIPOC community is woven into her work, shining light on issues of inequality and structural racism that too often go unheard.
“It’s become a big part of the mission in the work I do: feeding and healing folks with food, all the while educating people on the importance for BIPOC folks to be connected, and having a voice that can stand and fight for the people who don’t always have those same opportunities,” she says.
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Suzanne was the head chef and owner of Toronto’s True True Diner, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant and community space that paid tribute to the civil rights movement. She also paid her staff living wages, and believes tipping should be removed from every restaurant. Even if menu items become pricier, if you’re transparent with your customers about your values, Suzanne believes enough people will stand behind you and support your mission.
“It’s important to pay people real living wages, to understand that when we speak about sustainability, it doesn’t stop with the food that we’re utilizing as restaurateurs and chefs. The sustainability of your staff, of the people who are working in these establishments, that to me is one of the most valuable resources that we have overlooked for far too long.”
True True permanently shuttered its doors this past July, and Suzanne was blindsided (she wrote a heartfelt statement about the experience). “I wanted to share that it’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to share some of those not-so joyful stories that are part of being a business owner, and being a person of colour trying to compete in this industry that doesn’t always recognize the importance of having these faces for other POC and other non-POCs,” she says. “We’ll do it again in another space. True True lives within everyone who experienced it, and I’m grateful for that.”
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Recipe for the Perfect Dish
“I always tell my staff: No matter what you do, no matter where you end up working, make sure that when you’re creating a dish, a part of you is on that plate,” she says. “Because that same intention and love and commitment can spread, and it gets shared over and over again. It becomes a new memory for someone else in a different way. Even different from what you intended when you put it on that plate in the first place.” For Suzanne, the plate represents her Caribbean descent, her personality, her joy, and sharing that experience with others, from the first moment a diner sees the dish to their very last bite.
That’s Suzanne’s advice to home cooks and budding chefs, including those inspired to try out for Wall of Chefs someday. And with that comes embracing the fear of the unknown: “Being a little scared in the kitchen can actually inspire you to make some of the most incredible foods you’d never imagined you could make. Because you push yourself,” she says. And really, that’s the beauty of Wall of Chefs, too – it connects people to their own experience of cooking, and inspires fans to try their hand at making something new, whether it’s chicken cordon bleu or a first attempt at making pasta or bread from scratch. If it doesn’t pan out the first time, simply try again.
Watch full episodes of Wall of Chefs online. You can also stream your favourite Food Network Canada shows through STACKTV with Amazon Prime Video Channels, or with the new Global TV app, live and on-demand when you sign-in with your cable subscription.