I was recently directed to a Globe and Mail article that discussed the phenomenon of visible minorities working in Toronto restaurant kitchens. Interestingly, the Sri Lankan Tamil community was cited as staffing almost a third of these kitchens. However, few visible minorities including Tamils have found success in the “front of the house” as restaurateurs or culinary chefs.
Given an interest in the heavy concentration of Tamils working in Toronto restaurants – and with a personal connection as many of my father’s friends make a living in this industry – I recently connected with a man who exemplifies a kitchen success story. As the owner of an Italian restaurant located in the heart of ritzy Yorkville, it was clear that owning a restaurant in this area was a marker of success.
I felt a bit out of place given the wealthy Torontonians who frequent the area. Located in a district known for its celebrity sightings, highbrow fashion and for once hosting the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), I nervously walked into the lobby of the restaurant. I was quickly put at ease, however, when a smiling waitress ushered me in and introduced me to the restaurant owner Siva.
From the onset of our conversation, Siva made it clear that owning his glitzy restaurant did not come easy. He described the struggles he faced upon moving to Canada from Sri Lanka. Siva recounted his first job as a dishwasher at a restaurant not too far from the place he owned today. When asked why he decided to take on his first job in Canada, he stated “kitchen work was a job that had multiple postings in restaurant windows in Toronto 30 years ago.” With no resume or advanced skill set required, Siva found a job that gave him the immediate cash needed to build a new life in a new country. However, he quickly realized that working as a dishwasher had its constraints and would not be enough to provide for his family.
When explaining this next phase in his life, Siva discussed an assortment of jobs and business ventures he took up after leaving his job as a dishwasher. Eventually, he became a kitchen manager and then left the restaurant industry altogether to start his own set of small businesses (a Sri Lankan grocery store, a textile store and a hair salon). Siva leaned back in his chair and smiled as he reminisced about his past. Listening to him speak, I was taken by his bravery to embark on businesses on his own and to admit their respective victories and failures.
During an economic recession in the 1990s, Siva described how a number of his businesses took a hit. Siva found himself returning to the restaurant industry as a dish washer. I could sense the emotion in his voice as he described this point of his life. Sitting across the table from me in an upscale restaurant he owned, I wondered if the Siva then had any idea how his life would change.
Through a mix of determination, hard work and fate, Siva went for an interview in a restaurant named ‘Toni Bulloni’ in prestigious Yorkville. He was immediately hired as a second chef and worked at several restaurants owned by the people behind Toni Bulloni.
Upon taking a year off to go back to school, Siva described how the owners repeatedly asked him to come back. The regular customers loved him and would ask where he was or why he wasn’t there. Siva described with great fondness that he had formed an attachment to the customers and loved the restaurant environment. So, caving into the constant appeals for his return, Siva agreed to stop by a couple of times a week to help out and entertain the regular customers.
When business started declining a few years ago, the owners wanted to sell and turned to Siva to take over. “They trusted me and I loved it here,” Siva said while smiling from ear to ear. Looking at him after he told me this part of his story, I saw that he was genuinely happy with where he now was in his life.
Perhaps the most visible sign of the restaurant’s success are the notable celebrities who have visited Siva’s restaurant. I almost couldn’t keep track as I scribbled on my notepad names including former Toronto Maple Leafs Captain Mats Sundin, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sean Connery, Eddie Van Halen, Jennifer Lopez, and my personal favourite The Rolling Stones.
From hearing about the array of Siva’s celebrity encounters and his appearance on The Rachel Ray Show, I almost couldn’t believe his success story. From his humble beginnings as a dishwasher to eventually owning an upscale restaurant in Toronto’s ritziest neighbourhood, Siva’s story perfectly illustrates a tale immigrant families have been preaching for generations – hard work and determination will make you successful in a new country.
The overwhelming number of Sri Lankan Tamils working in Toronto’s kitchens can not be considered a coincidence. Like Siva, many have been lured by the quick cash and low skill requirement. Combined with the fact that many do not have English as their first language, for many Tamil migrants landing a job in a restaurant kitchen is an in to the competitive Canadian workforce.
Siva’s story is unique and he accounts for a small fraction of what we may deem as successful Tamil restaurateurs. However, as he described how he advanced in restaurants in his early days – and how fellow Tamils working in kitchens have come to help one another advance by learning new recipes and practicing popular dishes – I am confident that many Tamils will find themselves working in the front of the house and owning their own restaurants in the near future.
As our interview came to a close, I asked one final question about other goals Siva had. I didn’t think there could possibly be a higher marker of success than saying that your restaurant served J Lo! To my surprise, Siva said that he had one more dream – to open a “real Sri Lankan restaurant”.
Any Sri Lankan living in Toronto will attest that there are many Sri Lankan take-out places to choose from. However, there are no formal Sri Lankan restaurants where one can sit down and invite family and friends to enjoy a meal. “There are so many Indian restaurants but you can’t find a Sri Lankan one” says Siva. “Sri Lankan food is different from Indian food and I want to show people what our culture is like.” I find myself agreeing with Siva as I have found it difficult to explain to non-Sri Lankans what Sri Lankan food is without a sit-down restaurant to take them to.
I was thus surprised to hear that although Siva owns an Italian restaurant, he has occasionally served his customers popular Sri Lankan dishes to introduce new clientele to Sri Lankan food. Siva has even prepared dishes for Sri Lankan clientele who have brought non-Sri Lankan friends to the restaurant to sample Sri Lankan food for the first time. As he told me this there was a middle-aged Canadian couple seated across the restaurant eating fish cutlets. How ironic, I thought to myself. Here I was in an upscale Italian restaurant that was serving Sri Lankan dishes!
After hearing Siva’s story, I was left thinking that Siva would one day take on this last goal of his in opening a sit-down Sri Lankan restaurant. The bravery in his life choices until this point reflect who he is as a person. And I think that Siva will one day muster up the challenge in a few years to make this final dream of his a reality.
Despite humble beginnings and numerous obstacles, Siva has managed to swallow his pride and overcome them with a resilience and tenacity that many children of immigrants may take for granted. Siva’s story is one of never giving up on your dreams, and I was certainly left feeling inspired.
If you live in the Toronto area check out Siva’s restaurant Toni Bulloni at:
156 Cumberland Street