The financial crisis (which we currently may or may not be emerging from) has caused problems for most industries, but in one with margins as thin as those in fine dining, the result was a leveling nearly biblical in scale. Places that were already struggling fell first. Some that were healthy before the hit have managed to scrape by on loyal customers, credit and prix fixe specials. Others weren’t so lucky. Among those chefs who found themselves out of a job was Chris Brown. He didn’t know it then, but the closing of his restaurant was one of the best things that ever happened to him.
Brown’s new office is in a big, cluttered, windowless room. The building abuts a housing project in a working-class, immigrant neighbourhood hemmed by railroad tracks. His kitchen is next door, with the requisite big industrial stove, stainless steel fridge and prep counters, as well as a crew of three silver-haired Italian ladies wearing checkered aprons and sandals. Aesthetically, the space is a long way from the polished concrete and exposed antique beams of Perigee, his former haunt in Toronto’s Distillery District. As are his new sous-chefs. His customers, too, mostly residents of the nearby projects, are a change of pace, but Brown has never been happier. The way he sees it, his move from fine dining to nonprofit is the best thing that ever happened to him.
When Perigee, the restaurant Chris Brown started with his father and brother, once lauded as one of the finest in Toronto, closed down last winter, Brown was devastated. “It was everything to me,” he says, his face falling with the recollection. “It was my whole life. I put everything into that restaurant.”
Perigee, with its trademark central kitchen that allowed diners to watch the chefs at work, had been Brown’s baby since it opened in 2004. For a while, things had been great, Brown’s molecularly tweaked European cuisine drew enthusiastic reviews from Toronto Life and Frommer’s and the restaurant’s food-as-theatre concept proved the perfect fit for these Food Network-obsessed times. When the economy soured, however, things took a turn for the worse and Perigee, like so many others, fell victim to the economic doldrums, closing its doors last April.
After a brief stint as a consultant for other failing restaurants (“I couldn’t stand it. It was so depressing.”) he was approached by The Stop, a nonprofit Toronto community food centre, to become their Food Enterprise Coordinator. It wasn’t something he’d ever pictured himself doing, but now, after five months, he can’t imagine himself doing anything else.