Friends

Glutton for Pleasure Book Tour

5 a.m., Hong Kong.

Wow. What a long, strange couple of weeks it’s been of celebrated faces and crazy travel. It all started 12 days ago in New York City where I found myself sitting in a make up chair for the Today Show next to Dee Sneider. This was an auspicious beginning to a week of promoting my new cookbook/memoir (as it has been called) because before I my accidental food career began, I was in the music biz, and one of my first jobs was being the “T-shirt puke” for Twisted Sister. T-shirt pukes, FYI, are the low man on the rock tour totem pole. I mentioned this to Dee who was kind, but not nearly as excited as I was about the coincidence of our reconnection. In fairness, lead singers never venture into T-shirt puke territory on the road unless they need some swag for a “special guest.”

My Today Show segment was with Kathie Lee and Hoda. Hoda’s first question for me was something to the effect of “so I understand your mother had a lot to do with this book”. Well, as it happens, my mother has been dead for 30 years (a fact I chose not to bring up), and my recollections of her cooking have more to do with burned chocolate chip cookies than coconut shrimp lollypops. I recovered as best i could and buried the two of them in a little Glutton triathlon for some sweet revenge.

Later that day I attended a party at Hill Country BBQ where I ran into Mario Batali. His empire continues to expand as his waistline shrinks. Mario is one of the coolest guys in the biz and Eataly, the newest addition to his empire, is nothing short of stunning. And speaking of cool guys, I was fortunate enough to have a 3 ½ hour lunch with Jeffrey Steingarten, my food-writing hero, at Ma Peche, a contemporary Vietnamese restaurant that is part of David Chang’s empire. Jeffrey is as enigmatic in person as he is in print, and never fails to amuse with stories about his experiences as a judge on Iron Chef America and columnist for Vogue. I am trying to convince him to publish a third collection of his Vogue articles and offered to work for him for a month for $1 to help him compile the material. BTW, his first compilation, The Man who Ate Everything is a must-read for any inquisitive foodie.

Jeffrey Steingarten in the test kitchen of his NYC apartment

From New York, I flew to Tampa to do a surreal cooking demonstration on a Holland American cruise ship for a fund-raiser for the new Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg, FL.. The original Dali museum played a pivotal role in my evolution as a Surreal Gourmet, and I was happy to return the flavor. Before my appearance, I was treated to a half hour tour by the ship’s executive chef of the ship’s cooking facilities. I saw miles of kitchens and walk-in freezers capable of storing 2 weeks worth of food for 1300 passengers and 600 crew members. My favorite part of the tour was the crew mess hall which housed two kitchens, one featuring Philippine food and the other Sri Lankan—designed to keep the crew members from those respective countries happy and well-fed. (note to self: if I ever end up on a cruise, eat with the crew).

Twenty-one hours in the air later, I found myself in Hong Kong having dinner beside the Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown. I had met Samantha in Hawaii while shooting my Kona coffee-picking episode a couple of years ago. And when I say “met”, it was literally a 15 second conversation after which I concluded that she was a bit of a diva. Well as it turns out, I was quick to judge (another note to self: maybe 15 seconds isn’t enough time to sum someone up). Samantha is quite hilarious. As we ate and drank our way through an awesome Szechuan meal, she compared how humans meet for the first time, with the butt-sniffing ritual that dogs go through.

Sniff sniff.

My bacon & eggs dessert, as served at the TLC launch party in Hong Kong

Samantha and I were in Hong Kong courtesy of Discovery Travel & Living (the network that carries Glutton and Surreal Gourmet in Asia), along with the fabulous Janet Hsieh, to host a huge party in celebration of the global rebranding of the network to TLC. For the occasion, they built a life size “replica” of my Toastermobile. (It wasn’t exactly an Airstream, but it was damn impressive non-the-less). To top it off, the chefs at the Four Seasons prepared my bacon and egg dessert for the 400 guests in attendance. Suffice to say, those Discovery-cum-TLC folks know how to have a good time.

Life size replica of the Toastermobile created for TLC (Asia) launch party in Hong Kong

And the adventures continue…

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Mimi’s

I recently was talking with some friends about our “happy place”—that one special spot in the world where we go to escape the madness. Common answers included a cottage hideaway and swish hotel suites in far flung countries. For me, the happiest place on earth was always the middle booth at Mimi’s, Toronto’s legendary breakfast joint. From there I could take in the scene (and it was always a scene), while keeping one eye on Mimi as she worked her magic at the stove.

Last Sunday Mimi boarded one of her lighter-than-air blintzes and road it up to the big griddle in the sky.

About three years before her untimely death, Mimi closed her restaurant. Here’s the story I wrote for NOW magazine to mark it’s closing.

the queen of the kitsch’n abdicates her throne

It’s the end of the world as we know it. And by “we” I mean those of us whose definition of a perfect breakfast joint is a magical hole-in-the-wall that serves crispy herbalicious hash brown potatoes, airy blintzes, and kick-ass chili. Sure, this perfection personified was occasionally marred by bouts of rudeness, erratic hours and the looming possibility of being unceremoniously tossed out if the cook was having a bad day, but that’s what made Mimi’s so special—you had to work for the love.

After cooking at Fenton’s, the Horseshoe and the Bamboo, Mimi Braidberg opened Mimi’s in 1985 with a pot of coffee, a single customer, and the desire to “give the world a better breakfast.” The three-booth, seven-stool restaurant could not have been more inconspicuous. Co-joined with the Oak Leaf Bathhouse on Bathurst, just north of Queen Street West, there was no sign, and one had to squint through the window to see if the joint was open. In the beginning Mimi’s was almost always open. From 10 am – 10 pm, seven days a week, Mimi could be found at the helm of her six-burner Garland stove, cracking eggs and flipping French toast with a ubiquitous joint dangling from her lip. Then after taking in the local music scene, she would often reopen from 2 – 4 am, satisfying the late-night cravings of many of the same customers she had served earlier in the day.

Word of mouth spread quickly and on most weekends, even in the dead of winter, a line-up of hungry hipsters squirreled its way down Bathurst Street. They came for the waffles and they came for the omelets that were, according to one Now restaurant critic, “as well-fluffed as a porn star”. But they stayed for the atmosphere. Mimi put the kitsch in kitchen. Every available surface was jammed with flea market finds, vintage food collectables, pop culture memorabilia, and a flock of chicken-shaped salt and pepper shakers.

I was introduced to Mimi’s by Jane Siberry, the artist I managed in my past life. Mimi loved musicians and was passionate about music. This was evidenced by the eclectic cross-section of bootleg cassettes that crackled over the stereo and an endless loop of pre-publicity-conscious concert footage of artists ranging from Laura Nero to Fred Eaglesmith that flickered in the background on an old black and white television set. It’s not surprising that the love was reciprocated. On any given morning one was likely to find a gaggle of bleary-eyed local and touring musicians trying to revive themselves with a few cups of joe. Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cutty mused that the Mimi’s was a “public service” and “an island of tranquility” for musicians. Cutty’s bond was cinched when Mimi named her signature chili after his band well before they recorded their first album. “It was our first taste of fame” he recalls sentimentally.

In 1989 while Mimi was married to fellow chef Mark Collier, she decided that an ice cream machine might just be the ticket. In short order, the Cowboy Junkies, Jane Siberry and the Look People improbably rallied together for an ice cream machine benefit at the Brunswick house. A few years later, local music impresario and regular customer David Bluestein gifted Mimi with a blue neon sign for her front window. Reflecting back, Mimi laughs, “I never made a lot of money, but I sure made a lot of friends”..

When my accidental career as a television chef began, Mimi’s became my unofficial office. Mimi spoiled me by concocting an egg mash-up of all my favorite ingredients (bacon, avocado, fresh herbs…). On each visit, the plate was piled higher: the eggs were more decadent, the hash browns crispier, and the accompanying “toast party” even more festive than the time before. After so many visits, it’s no secret that the restaurant’s brick-a-brack esthetic inspired the interior of my Toastermobile.

Over the years Mimi reeled back the hours. In recent memory, she was open Thursdays thru Sunday from 10am – 2pm. This prompted Ricki Lee Jones to peer out from the stage at the Phoenix and ask “is Mimi here?” (she was) before admonishing her. “I went to your restaurant today, and it was closed! There was a discernible collective groan in the audience as if to say, “she’s ALWAYS closed”.

After 22 years, arthritis and exhaustion have taken their toll and Mimi is moving on. She plans to make beaded guitar straps and indulge in a little more of her passion for poker. Mimi will be holding court one last time this Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 am – 2 pm. She’s jarred up her last batch of Blue Rodeo chili and will be selling off many of her collectables, including the highly coveted salt and pepper shakers. I’ll be the one in my favorite booth, back to the far wall, shedding a freshly-squeezed pink grapefruit juice tear.