On a muggy evening in July, food blogger Aisha Silim hovered by the kitchen counter at the Depanneur on College Street, eyeballing the small crowd of diners that slowly filled the cozy… food spot? Dinner joint? DIY culinary apothecary?
The Depanneur resists labels. It isn’t exactly a restaurant, but it’s not not, either. Instead, founder Len Senater calls it “a place where interesting food things happen.” Among these unique food happenings are the weekly meetings of the Rusholme Park Supper Club, a family-style dinner party hosted every Saturday by a different guest chef, both amateur and pro. For $50, guests claim a one-night-only membership to the club, which entitles them to enjoy the food and uncork their own wine. Senater pitches in throughout the meal, carrying food, serving water, and generally watching over the proceedings like a nurturing mother hen.
The night she hosted, Silim prepared a Yemeni-Kenyan dinner in the traditional style of her hometown of Mombasa, where a long history of Yemeni immigration has evolved a distinctive cultural blend that can be traced in the cuisine. First up were coriander-spiced beef sambusas, made with phyllo pastry, followed by a cardamom-flavoured crispy bread called mahamri, paired with white beans simmered in coconut. For the main course, Silim served turmeric-seasoned potato sambaro, coconut spinach, and a giant platter of chicken pilau. The meal concluded with cups of herbal chai and and an absurd abundance of saffron kaymati, which is like a crunchier and fluffier type of donut, and which one diner at least was unable to stop eating.
"The Depanneur has hosted a re-creation of the final meal served on the Titanic; a dinner with only black-and-white ingredients and a black-and-white dress code."
After dinner, Senater sat down and unspooled the etymology of the place. The Depanneur takes its name from the Quebecois word for convenience store, he explained. In its previous life, the storefront on College Street had actually been a corner store. Senater comes from Montreal originally, so when he took over the spot seven years ago, the name seemed a natural fit. Candybar-labeled shelving runs under the large storefront window—an homage to the Depanneur’s heritage.
The name also reflects Senater’s culinary mission. In French, the word “depanneur” is built from the root “panne”, as in “en panne”, which means “broken” or “out of order.” Technically, a depanneur is someone or something that fixes things. In France, the word is still used for mechanics and repairmen, but more broadly it means trouble-shooting a small problem, or lending a hand. When he launched, Senater felt that Toronto’s restaurant scene was in need of a depanneur—that is, a bit of help getting unstuck.
“We have expensive food and a lot of interesting ethnic food, but there’s not a lot of places that put a focus on creating more memorable and meaningful food experiences,” he explained later, over the phone. “There’s a lot more that food has to offer than what we currently have.”
Senater designed The Depanneur to be an epicurean maker-space for Toronto’s independent and amateur culinary creatives. By curating one-off events in a professional kitchen, he’s creating opportunities that don’t exist elsewhere. “If we lower the barrier to entry, we can promote diversity and entrepreneurship, we can create economic and social opportunity, and we can build community through food,” he said.
It can get weird. “The format allows you to be creative and to take risks in a way that opening a restaurant simply wouldn’t,” Senater noted. The Depanneur has hosted a re-creation of the final meal served on the Titanic; a dinner with only black-and-white ingredients and a black-and-white dress code; and a Scottish-Haitian fusion event called Voodoo Haggis.
As fun and creative as it is, Senater’s unique culinary curation also feels necessary. Apart from simply serving up hard-to-find fare, the Depanneur creates space for other palate-broadening rarities from around the world. “You’re not tripping over Yemeni-Kenyan restaurants everywhere you go,” he pointed out, recalling Silim’s meal for the Supper Club.
Other weekly events at the Depanneur include Levantine-inspired weekend brunches, open-mic-style drop-in dinners, culinary salons, and the Newcomer Kitchen. Every Wednesday, Syrian refugee women cook meals that are sold online for $25, with a main, a side, and a dessert. Foodora sponsors free delivery within three kilometres of the Depanneur, or a $10 flat rate within six kilometres. Anyone craving first-hand experience of Syrian cuisine can pay to join as a guest chef. “Can you imagine a more immersive culinary learning experience than that?” Senatur wondered.
The Newcomer Kitchen has found huge success in just two years, depositing more than $100,000 into the pockets of refugee families, Senater said. Most of the participants don’t speak English, but they can communicate through food, and earning a wage brings dignity to the sometimes harsh and isolating experience of acclimating to life in Canada. Senater wants the idea to spread; he believes the model will work anywhere. The Depanneur proves that the future can be sweeter (and more savoury) for newcomer communities and foodies alike. It’s simple—they just need a good kitchen.