I was recently directed to a Globe and Mail article that discussed the phenomenon of visible minorities working in Toronto restaurant kitchens. Interestingly, the Sri Lankan Tamil community was cited as staffing almost a third of these kitchens. However, few visible minorities, including Tamils, have found success in the “front of the house” as restaurateurs or culinary chefs.
Given an interest in the heavy concentration of Tamils working in Toronto restaurants — and with a personal connection as many of my father’s friends make a living in this industry — I recently connected with a man who exemplifies a kitchen success story. As the owner of an Italian restaurant located in the heart of ritzy Yorkville, it was clear that owning a restaurant in this area was a marker of success.
I felt a bit out of place given the wealthy Torontonians who frequent the area. Located in a district known for its celebrity sightings, highbrow fashion and for once hosting the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), I nervously walked into the lobby of the restaurant. I was quickly put at ease, however, when a smiling waitress ushered me in and introduced me to the restaurant owner Siva.
From the onset of our conversation, Siva made it clear that owning his glitzy restaurant did not come easy. He described the struggles he faced upon moving to Canada from Sri Lanka. Siva recounted his first job as a dishwasher at a restaurant not too far from the place he owned today. When asked why he decided to take on his first job in Canada, he stated “kitchen work was a job that had multiple postings in restaurant windows in Toronto 30 years ago.” With no resume or advanced skill set required, Siva found a job that gave him the immediate cash needed to build a new life in a new country. However, he quickly realized that working as a dishwasher had its constraints and would not be enough to provide for his family.
When explaining this next phase in his life, Siva discussed an assortment of jobs and business ventures he took up after leaving his job as a dishwasher. Eventually, he became a kitchen manager and then left the restaurant industry altogether to start his own set of small businesses (a Sri Lankan grocery store, a textile store and a hair salon). Siva leaned back in his chair and smiled as he reminisced about his past. Listening to him speak, I was taken by his bravery to embark on businesses on his own and to admit their respective victories and failures.
During an economic recession in the 1990s, Siva described how a number of his businesses took a hit. Siva found himself returning to the restaurant industry as a dishwasher. I could sense the emotion in his voice as he described this point of his life. Sitting across the table from me in an upscale restaurant he owned, I wondered if the Siva then had any idea how his life would change.
Through a mix of determination, hard work and fate, Siva went for an interview in a restaurant named Toni Bulloni in prestigious Yorkville. He was immediately hired as a second chef and worked at several restaurants owned by the people behind Toni Bulloni.
Upon taking a year off to go back to school, Siva described how the owners repeatedly asked him to come back. The regular customers loved him and would ask where he was or why he wasn’t there. Siva described with great fondness that he had formed an attachment to the customers and loved the restaurant environment. So, caving into the constant appeals for his return, Siva agreed to stop by a couple of times a week to help out and entertain the regular customers.
When business started declining a few years ago, the owners wanted to sell and turned to Siva to take over. “They trusted me and I loved it here,” Siva said while smiling from ear to ear. Looking at him after he told me this part of his story, I saw that he was genuinely happy with where he now was in his life.