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An open mic for culinary performers & a gastronomic journey for diners

If you're just looking at its former hole-in-the-wall bones, then yes, The Depanneur seems like any other cosy corner café of reclaimed architectural pedigree. Exposed brick, vintage hardware, antique windows and menu chalkboards are indeed the norm décor accents for now-fashionable Brockton Village storefronts. The painted cue card signage for homemade jams, organic local produce in wooden crates and i deal coffee grinds is Honest Ed's-esque, while the tables that line its sunny windows are clearly repurposed chewing gum display racks. It's all very much in keeping with the café's franglais Québécois homage to Montreal's ubiquitous convenience stores, and the building's previous various retail iterations.
Yet The Dep's mix of clientele and its unorthodox business model, which embraces guest chefs who take over the kitchen, are its most intriguing features. Pop in during a late Sunday morning, and you'll see, seated at the two wooden communal tables that dominate the open-concept space, hipster ladies who brunch sharing pecan pie buttermilk pancakes right next to a stroller-to-boomer family gathering having different variations of the Mix 'n' Match B'fast. And if you ever stop by during one of their weekly drop-in dinners, or pay up for a one-night-only membership to one of their weekend BYOB dinner events, the experience of literally dining right next to one of The Dep's rotating cast of guest chefs—there is no separation between kitchen and dining area—gets you closer to what it's really about.
"The whole point is I'm not trying to be a restaurant," declares owner Len Senater. Critical of fine dining's high-risk model, Senater has a particular aversion for its expensive "bite-sized food" and overall "pretentiousness."
"Right now, it seems you can go out for fast food that's not wholesome, or go to a nice restaurant," he explains of the current Toronto dining scene. "But in between there isn't a lot of middle ground."
So what exactly is The Depanneur? Consider it a food hub or, in Senater's words, "a social experiment." In deliberately shunning the fancy, Senater is keeping things cheap, small and human-scale in order to pursue an atypical resto with a social enterprising mandate that includes inventive communal pop-up dinners and workshops. In serving food family-style on mismatched china, he's updating the home-kitchen-as-primary-source-of-nutrition tradition for the urban dweller whose familiarity with locavore practices may have first come from an episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution.
"It's this idea: where do you give someone a chance to try out being a chef for one night? Where do you give a student chef the chance to earn some skills? Where do you give a caterer a chance to meet some people? Where do you give a young sous chef to define their own menu, or a retired chef the chance to get back into the swing of things?" he says.
For Senater, it all began with his 40th birthday. While it's been said that the best parties happen in the kitchen, very few have actually started a business with that in mind. The former branding strategist/graphic designer—once a partner in local communications firm Hypenotic, whose values-driven clientele includes Fiesta Farms and the Gladstone Hotel—wanted something small, intimate and definitely not a Kelsey's for his celebration.
"I wanted to have six of my friends cook a really big meal together because cooking with your friends is fun," he recalls. "Then I wanted to invite a dozen more of friends to join and eat the food that we made. I went all over the city trying to find somewhere that would let me use the kitchen to have this kind of party. Nowhere would let me rent the kitchen."
When Senater's love for food finally convinced him to leave the graphic design business, he took over a run-down convenience store in the hopes of creating a hub that would treat food as a "participatory experience."
You could consider the The Rusholme Supper Club as a cornerstone of The Dep's investment in the "alternative." Launched soon after The Dep opened its doors last August, the BYOB dinner party works like this: If you "like" The Depanneur on Facebook, your social feed will catch between six and eight dinner invites a month. The dinner menus are far ranging, and representative of Toronto's diverse food cultures. Ten to 20 people can purchase a $40 one-day only membership for the three-course meal, which could be anything from a Jamaican ital vegan dinner cooked up by self-described culinary artist Kalmplex or a palate-baiting Southern Mediterranean tour (think a main that's chicken and quince tagine with couscous) with professional chef Natalie Ryan.
"The whole thing is designed so you can't get that fancy," says Senater. "The format, the price, the structure and the fact that you're literally in the kitchen eating with the chef."
Senater sees two kinds of networking happening. Attendees get to meet people from the community and "have a more interesting and significant experience rather than just going out to a restaurant." For chefs, it's their chance to be connected with the people they feed. (And take a 50 per cent profit split.)
"It's an open-mic for culinary talent," says Senater. The chef could be an amateur chef still at the bottom rungs of a commercial kitchen or veteran looking to beta-test particular dishes. (The Rusholme claims veteran chef Greg Coulliard as a member of its roster.)
The model positions local chefs in the middle of an open-source social enterprise that balances for-profit activities with a mission to support good-food movement-minded entrepreneurs.  Working alongside general manager Sarah Powers and main server/food prepper John Kipphoff, Senater often augments the café menu with seasonal produce from the Meaford-based slow farming venture Prairie Boy and fresh home-made soups from caterer Lisa Kates, who previously was the coordinator of the food program at street youth non-profit Operation Come Home.
Still, Senater confesses the City of Toronto's outdated regulations have been a challenge for a multi-purpose establishment like The Depanneur.
"To give you an idea of how current these regulations are, my current licence for retail food store prohibits me from selling horse meat in quantities greater than a quarter carcass," deadpans Senater, who credits the Centre for Social Innovation's Food Constellation for providing invaluable "good food sector" support.
Sometimes the very strength of the Depanneur—its café/corner store/supper club/workshop/drop-in mash-up hybrid model—has been a challenge. Casual passersby often mistake it for a mere café that's only able to do aeropress single-serve coffee. (It's a deliberate choice, since the Common, a popular café less than a block away, offers a wide array of caffeinated offerings.)
Nonetheless, Senater is tirelessly pursuing the Dep's experimentation. This summer they'll try an urban farmer mini-market in their patio/garden. The partnership with the Kawartha CSA food shares demonstrates the importance of community outreach.
"There's so many good things that food can do," says Senater.
Rea McNamara is a Toronto writer.
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