We love picking the brains of entrepreneurs in industries ranging from fashion to food for our FOUNDERS series. This week, we’re talking to chef, author, and social advocate, Suzanne Barr. Founder of Afro-Caribbean restaurant True True Diner, plus a cookbook and food product line in the works, Barr is a comfort food aficionado advocating for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities in Toronto.
True True Diner, Barr’s 2019 passion project, was a space for the chef to share her love for food with the local community and pay homage to the history of diners during the civil rights movement. Following the emergence of COVID-19, the diner temporarily shut down operations in March before later announcing its permanent closure. In honour of her endeavours, we asked Suzanne all about her cooking secrets, the importance of equity in the kitchen, and found out what’s next for the Toronto change-maker.
Suzanne, let’s start with True True Diner. You created such a significant spot in Toronto, especially for the Black community, as it honoured civil rights sit-ins from days gone by. Tell us about how its closing feeds into anti-Black racism and performative allyship.
The issues we battled within True True were, to be honest, rooted in no-transparency from our partners, white fragility, and white supremacy. You can read my full statement and the follow-up article with Post City.
We salute your activism for the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities in all of your work. How have you advocated for equity in your kitchens, and what would you like to see happen in the industry to better support marginalized staff?
In the early stages of planning True True, I remember sitting with my partner, Johnnie Karas, and manager, Stacey Brooks, and envisioning a way to focus on our hiring practices in support of finding individuals that would benefit from our business model. At TT we partnered with organizations that shared in our beliefs of the future of Hospitality, ie. Dixon Hall, Hawthorne Food & Wine, are just a few. We focused on “cross-training” employees, hiring staff to be servers, hosts, cooks, dishwashers, and bartenders, rather than everyone doing the same job every shift. We also planned to pool all of the tips allowing for equal opportunity tip-out for BOH and FOH. We additionally created safe workplaces and invited Dandelion Initiative to train our staff on Safer Bars and Safer Spaces.
How does cooking make you feel? How has that feeling evolved over your career?
Cooking connects me to my mother. Cooking connects me to memories of my ancestry. Cooking connects me with my father and his distant memories of his childhood. Cooking connects me to music and love and joy. Cooking connects me to laughter. Cooking connects me to the civil rights movement. Cooking connects me to Afro-Caribbean foods. Cooking connects me to Turtle Island and the Indigenous communities and ancestors. Cooking connects me to the future of food. Cooking connects me to the land and sea.
We can’t wait to get our hands on your new book! Can you tell us more about it?
Currently, I’m completing my first cookbook, a memoir of my life as a chef, called ‘Homecoming’. For me—and I think for many people—food is emotional. It can bring comfort and familiarity, and a taste or a smell can put you squarely into a remembered time or place. I want this book to be infused with emotion. I want it to explore the love between a mother and daughter, and the love and respect I feel when I think of Jamaican food, memories, my story from the beginning, the middle, and present.
You’ve mentioned that music is the secret ingredient to delicious food. What kind of music fuels your cooking? We’d love to hear about your favourite kitchen playlists!
Honestly, it’s the dance that moves within you to create, meditate, and connect with ingredients, and the purpose that lies in front of you and within you. Music saved my life and helped me through some of the greatest challenges.
As for the soundtrack of the current moment, here is a brief 4-5 hour highlight mix:
Kaytranada "a must" Sampha Cleo Sol Sylvestor Nick Hakim Unknown Mortal Orchestra Thundercat Steve Lacy LCD Soundsystem BJORK Tame Impala Kali Uchis Charlotte Day Lewis Lil Wayne Tom Misch St. Panther Thom Yorke Tyler the Creator OLD SCHOOL HIP HOP (Rawkus Records, Jungle Brothers)
Do you have any advice for emerging entrepreneurs in the service industry?
Perseverance is something that is witnessed within my family and learning stories of my great-great-grandmother being a Maroon warrior fighting in the mountains of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. I also learned early in my life that as Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people, it is a part of how we move throughout our lives, deepening into spaces of cultural identity, class, race, and the awareness of our mental wellness. It is a part of how I manoeuvre in my life and share within my community.
I’ve told this to many of my chefs – always remember to get a bit of you on the plate no matter what! Believe that the power to create, inspire, impact, and collaborate lies within you every day and with every opportunity.
We know you’re on your way to more greatness. Thank you for keeping your voice loud and shining a bright light on systemic racism within the industry. Can you let us in on what’s next for you?
I am working on my first food product line that will focus on comfort food, cultural foods allowing for storytelling, characters to create food memories, and experiences for folks who grew up eating traditional foods from the Caribbean and Black people. We will celebrate the roles and paths created by the wide, culturally-diverse chefs and cooks that paved the way for loving and understanding comfort Afro-Caribbean and Black food.
Additionally, I’m continuing to embody the work and efforts for those whose voices aren’t always heard and creating spaces and opportunities for the next generations within the food industry.
All photos are credited to Suzanne Barr.