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Donna Dooher's Ontario Food Terminal

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By Malcolm Jolley

It's not quite six in the morning and I am whizzing past the first wave of commuter traffic filing into the city on the Queensway. I am in the passenger seat of celebrity chef Donna Dooher's car heading west, past High Park, struggling to put together sentences, generally trying to appear like getting up at five o'clock in the morning is no big deal for dedicated foodies like me and wondering to myself how I ended up here. We are going to the Food Terminal.

All of this started many weeks ago at an event put on by the US consulate. I won the seating sweepstakes and sat next to Dooher, and her co-Food Editor at Wish magazine, Andrea Stewart. I have been a big fan of Dooher's restaurant, Mildred Pierce, since a beleaguered cabbie finally found it on a night many years ago. A mutual friend had given me her cookbook, Out to Brunch at Mildred Pierce Restaurant, and I had seen a few episodes of The Cookworks, her television show and the name of her cooking school next to her restaurant. This lady is big deal in gourmet circles, I thought to myself, and I was determined to get her into Gremolata one way or another. So after a few glasses of American wine a discussion on fresh, local produce turned into a self-invitation for Dooher to take me on a shop-like-a-chef tour of the Ontario Food Terminal.

The Food Terminal is the massive concrete complex, ringed by the tractor trailers delivering produce, that lies between the Queensway and the Gardiner Expressway, just past the Humber river. This is where independent grocery stores buy the food that they sell you and I (the bigger chains have their own supply networks). It also services the city's restaurants, and all manner of chefs can be seen buying boxes of fruit and vegetables, from David Lee to the guy behind the counter at your local greasy spoon. Most of this is done between five and eight in the morning, presumably so the farmers who bring their crops to market can get back to the field's for a day's work.

As we approach the Terminal complex, the coffee starts to kick in and Dooher admits she hasn't done this for a while. "I have to giggle," she says, "whenever I read a profile in a magazine that says 'Chef goes to the market everyday at 5AM'. Forget it! Chef is phoning his order into a commis at three o'clock in the morning and going to bed!" Still, Dooher spent many mornings there and admits to seeing many of Toronto's better known chefs circulating the stalls from time to time. Especially in August and September, when local farmers show up with the sort of fresh ingredients - pulled from the earth only hours ago - that make a plate worth every penny of $25.

The Terminal was set up by the Ontario government in the 1960s, and has the peculiarity of being policed by the OPP, even though it's in the middle of the city. Dooher is driving me through the checkpoint at the gates because her car has a sticker that lets her in. No sticker: no entry. She explains that space is tight and the terminal discourages civilians. Apparently the worst group are the ladies who descend from Rosedale or Lawrence Park in the spring to buy their beds of flowers at a discount. Somehow they manage to get a sticker or a pass from somewhere.

We enter the complex and are immediately ensnarled in a traffic jam of big eighteen-wheelers, smaller cube vans, used by the corner grocery stores, and the occasional car like ours. After much manoeuvring we find a spot in a parking area that's enclosed on three sides by the terminal proper. Dooher explains that the way it works is the wholesalers bring the buyers' orders to their cars, so each spot is numbered. I see a small army of mini forklift carts zipping by in all directions. This reminds me a bit of the scenes in James Bond movies set in the villain's lair, only it's much less organised and everyone seems to be smoking.

The square horseshoe of the terminal building is raised so the big delivery trucks can dock on the outside, and the smaller retailer trucks can dock on the inside, so we climb a ramp, dodging the forklift carts and start going into the wholesalers' stalls. Most of them are highly air conditioned and there's a shock coming from the hazy, humid cigarette and diesel spiked air into the cold fluorescent glare of the stalls. Each one is manned (there are very few women working in this part of the terminal) by a sales group. They ask us if we need help and would be ready to take our order if we had one. I ask Dooher if there is room for negotiation on prices and she says there isn't much. Only later in the morning, if a wholesaler needs to move a slow selling item, is there any real haggling.

The stalls are essentially big square storage spaces, often with a wicket to the side where buyers can pay for their orders. Along each wall, and in the middle of the floor creating artificial aisles, are stacked boxes on crates on boxes of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms and anything else that sprouts from the soil. Much of it is imported, mostly from California and other warmer climate states. But I see Ontario and Quebec addresses on many of the boxes, too. Dooher wonders out loud if all the packaging used is really necessary. I secretly enjoy the colourful designs printed on the crates and marvel at the sheer volume of it all.

Inside the terminal and in the stalls the mood is boisterous and fuelled by nicotine and caffeine. The sellers adopt a gentlemanly attitude towards Dooher and generally ignore me (I am clearly a novice and not worth bothering about), but as soon as she demurs from buying anything they return to insulting each other or cracking obscene jokes. This business is not for the faint hearted or the health conscious.

Our tour of the stalls ends, and as the sun starts to climb into the sky, we leave the terminal and walk out to an area underneath the concrete ramps you see from the highway. Here farmers have parked their trucks and trailers, and spread out what they or their neighbours have grown (there are rules about what you can sell). I see a gentleman carry an enormous basket of blueberries out of a van with Quebec plates. How much? $70. They look so good, I think about it. But even blueberries probably get boring after the twentieth serving, so I pass. As we pass each farmer's table or truck I see great bunches of fresh herbs and smell basil and dill. There are tomatoes from the fields and all manner of green vegetables. We pass by a small stall manned by an older man with fantastic tattoos up and down his arms. The address on his crates is from the Holland Marsh and what catches our eyes are his baskets of carrots: white, yellow and pink. If I could have just bought one bunch, instead of 24, I would have paid just about any price he offered. He looks at me like I'm crazy when I ask if he grew them. Of course he did.

Now I get it. This is what I came for. It's nearly eight o'clock, the sun is really starting to shine and we've visited every seller in the terminal. It's time to go and get another coffee somewhere. We leave the terminal in a line of vans heading to stores across the city. Filled, I hope, with the freshest fruits and vegetables, sold by the people who grew them.

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