Sacha Douglas points to a table at the back of the long storefront on Queen Street East in Leslieville and informs me this was the setting for what has become to be known as “Battle Cheese”. We are in Coupe Space, an old martial arts studio which houses her husband Bill Douglas’ design culture magazine Coupe and the 32 year old cook come impresario’s burgeoning gourmet business, which is part venue rental, part catering and part culinary experience. It’s the last part, namely her Tasting Club, that’s been making waves in Toronto’s foodie scene. “Battle Cheese” saw Canadian dairy against the world. Canada was passionately defended by Douglas’ long-time friend and former George Brown classmate Chef Tobey Nemeth from Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, while Nemeth’s partner, Chef Michael Caballo, from the Niagara Street Cafe attacked with the best from France, Italy and Spain. Douglas says it was close, but the forces of old world cream won in the end.
Until recently, Douglas was Executive Chef at Trish Magwood’s dish cooking studio, itself a pioneering Toronto food space. Douglas migrated to catering after a few years in the kitchens of big restaurants like the Rubino Brothers’ now defunct Zoom. But the windowless world of the brigade held little appeal for the Cornwall, Ontario native who didn’t want to spend her working day “with her head down”. Instead she worked on ways to “share food knowledge” while learning as much as she could herself. She’s kept to her script at Coupe Space and the roster of food experts leading her Tasting Club sessions is a who’s who of the city’s gastro-pros. Leaders have included everyone from Cumbrae’s butcher Stephen Alexander to The Cheese Boutique’s Afrim Pristine (he led a session on “Stinky Cheese”) to beer expert Stephen Beaumont. The events have proved popular with amateur enthusiasts and industry folk alike, with participants returning regularly. Douglas explains: “With the whole Food Network and celebrity chef phenomenon, people are getting so savvy about cooking. The next logical step is to learn about ingredients.”
When I caught up with Douglas, she was planning the next two Tasting Club events: a Champagne tasting with Zoltan Szabo and an Oyster tasting with Adam Colquon (aka “Oyster Boy”), the latter paired with beer from the Mill Street Brewery. Douglas’ roster seems to more or less alternate between a drinks tasting and a food one, but she’s quick to tell me that there’s always food with the former and drinks with the latter. It’s her mission to get away from the formal structured tasting and create a meal atmosphere where everyone sits around the table and talks to one another while they taste. While her visiting experts are always the stars, she also wants them to be able to relax and be themselves. This focus on conviviality is a natural outcome of her involvement with the Slow Food movement. She tells me she is committed to ensuring that every event she hosts stays true to Slow Food’s mantra of “Good. Clean. Fair.”
In the serene atmosphere of Coupe Space in the afternoon, Douglas smiles and explains that hers is designed to be a “chilled and mellow business, free from panic situations”. That may not always be the case – there are still hungry mouths to feed, after all – but she sure seems to be having fun, and learning a few things on the way.
Learn more about Coupe Space at www.coupe-mag.com/coupespace.html