In down town Toronto there is an exceptionally good bakery called St John’s. Trained by bakers from Brittany’s Pain de Vie community, this small bakery sells french style bread both wholesale and retail to realise a number of aims:
1. The profits from the bakery fund the St John’s Mission
2. The bakery employs a number of staff, many of whom have come through dark periods in their life during which they may have wrestled with addiction or mental health problems
3. The bakery trains volunteers and apprentices and is a haven for stray bakers (like me) who find a welcome refuge, a group of like minded people, and some expert tips on “easier ways to roll out baguettes” or “when to use steam in the oven”.
St John’s the Compassionate Mission is an “Apostolate of the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox church of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, in co-operation with local Orthodox churches of Greater Toronto.” I am not entirely sure what that means but what I do know is that since 1986, the mission has provided physical and spiritual haven for anyone in need. Housed in a building in the East End of Toronto, the main building has a tiny kitchen that turns out incredible meals that are free for those in need 365 days a year. Family nights and community dinners are weekly events and at any time during the day anyone can go in and find something
to eat and someone to talk to. I was there just after Christmas, on family night, and was both heartened and saddened to see the large dining hall nearly full of families tucking into a warm dinner in the company of one another. Heartened because the atmosphere was genuinely warm and comforting, and saddened that in a city as wealthy as Toronto, such a big dining hall could be so full of people who otherwise would not get enough to eat. Both Father Roberto’s office and the chapel open up off the dining hall and the basement houses administrative offices and a large room that holds various events including the St. John’s academy – an after school club/tutoring programme that is free for at risk and “new comer” children three days per week. The tutors are working professionals who volunteer their time tutoring English and Math to the 20 or so children between the ages of 12 and 18 who attend.
The philosophy of St John’s Mission is as follows, “The most fundamental need of people is something that most people take for granted – a meaningful place in a healthy community, a sense of belonging. Without it, drug rehab, improved housing or employment programs have little effect. Without it, people remain trapped in a lifestyle that is difficult to escape. When people do not feel like they belong, they just cannot seem to recover.” This desire to build community is shared by Virtuousbread.com and so, when I heard about the St John’s bakery from a friend, and then read about it in the foodie section of Toronto Life magazine, and then explored the ethos of the place on their website, I knew I just had to bake there, and bake there I did.
Graciously welcomed by Shawn, a golf pro turned bakery manager, I went into the bakery itself (housed in the next door building to the mission) and was warmly greeted by a lovely crew and shown where to get a cap and an apron. The shift had just started and we were working through a wholesale order of about 650 pieces (not a big order) that included English muffins, olive and coriander bread, angelius, baguette, red fife, walnut raisin, marble, integral and spelt loaves. I was immediately set to work shaping, weighing, and shifting baskets to the proofing area and finished loaves to the packing area. The crew working that night was small – three full time bakers, one packer, one apprentice, one volunteer, and me – the visiting eccentric baker from London. Thankfully, I think everyone who works there is a bit eccentric because they did not think it was odd of me at all to appear out of nowhere and want to bake with them. Father Roberto could not have been more welcoming or interested. Sadly, he was rushing off to a family event and I had very little time with him but he struck me as a warm and genuine person, highly intelligent, and wise. The only thing he wanted in exchange for welcoming me into bake with the mission was feed back on what they could do better. Here it is: nothing.
Seriously. The bread is fabulous, the variety, the quality, the love that goes into it, the dedication and skill of the crew that make it are all overwhelming. It’s a business and it has to work hard to stay on top of its game. Nobody is buying that bread because it is cheap or because it funds a good cause. They are buying the bread because it is excellent. The fact that the bakery is a haven and the profits are put to good use are the proverbial icing on the cake.