In 2014, Marc Cohen, the chef and one of the principal owners of Lawrence and its sister businesses Larry’s and Boucherie Lawrence, was living across the street from the Mile End Mission.
“I approached the mission to see if there was something I could do to help out.” said Cohen. It was the middle of winter, one of the most difficult times of year for those in need. “I met with Lou — the director of the Mission and one of the warmest people you could ever hope to meet — and we decided I would come and cook for the members at the mission at the end of each month, a time when things are a bit tight for people waiting for benefit cheques.”
The relationship between the restaurant and the Mission has since become a lot more than a monthly hot meal. After a few months of cooking dinners at the Mission, Lou and her team asked Marc if he would assist in their annual fundraising dinner.
“I agreed and figured I would call around some industry friends to see if they would help, too. Somewhat to my surprise, every single person I reached out to said they would be happy to help and so it quickly became clear we’d have quite an exciting line-up — one that merited being an event in its own right.”
Restaurants like Joe Beef, Nora Gray, Maison Publique, Tuck Shop and Patisserie Rhubarbe, among many others, have participated over the years. “The first event was at the Rialto [theatre] and was maybe the scariest thing I’ve ever done. But thanks to the support of so many people around me and in the community, it was a big success. Wine importers donated wine, our suppliers donated food, the Barr Brothers played a set, servers and cooks and dishwashers from all the restaurants were falling over themselves to lend a hand. You had restaurant industry royalty polishing cutlery, bussing tables and washing dishes AND having a great time doing it — it was quite something.”
The event is now into its fifth edition, and to date the dinners have raised close to $100,000 and are an essential resource in allowing the Mission to continue to service the community. Barring a small advertising budget, Cohen estimates about 99.5 per cent of all the funds raised are directly donated to the Mission. “Since everyone pitches in, we don’t really have any costs and I think that’s massive.”
This year’s dinner will be hosted at Lawrence, and will feature dishes from Elena, Nora Gray, Marconi, Lawrence and Alma, with bread from Boulangerie Automne and dessert provided by Patisserie Rhubarbe. Wines are graciously donated and served by the teams at Wino, Vin I Vida, Primavin and La QV, and much of the produce is supplied by Birri and La Ferme des Quatres Temps. The format is quite simple: each restaurant cooks and serves one dish, and wine is served throughout the evening. Though the $250 price tag for tickets may seem steep, for 100 or so dollars more that you’d pay for a good night out at any one of these restaurants alone, you avail yourself to a six-course tasting menu from some of the most celebrated restaurants in the city while being served wines from some of the most sought after wine agencies. Moreover, while you eat and drink like royalty, you can feel good knowing that all of the money you’ve paid for your ticket is going directly towards a truly deserving charitable organization. It’s hard to put a price tag on the karmic benefits of generosity.
When asked about why, when restaurant profit margins can be so meager, does Cohen continue to host this event, he says, “Although we’ll never be millionaires, we are surrounded by fancy wine and expensive food every day and that makes it difficult for us to ignore the reality of our privilege.”
While it’s true that those in the restaurant industry are steeped in the trappings of privilege one wonders what responsibility restaurants actually have to contribute to their communities. “I don’t think we have any more or less responsibility than any other industry. I think it’s always about asking yourself what you have the capacity to do. Finances are always tight for us restaurant owners so we can’t give much money — but we know how to cook and serve you dinner.” ■
Mission Possible takes place at Lawrence (5201 St-Laurent) on Monday, Nov. 25, seatings at 6 and 9 p.m., $250 ($150 tax receipt provided). Tickets are still available and reservations can be made by phone (514-503-1070) or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).