I had heard of this place through word of mouth, and looking at their menu I knew I had to try the food as soon as I spotted Irish Moss in their drinks section. The food was as great as I'd hoped for and then some. Simone graciously accepted our request for an interview as we were keen to hear the story behind the restaurant.
Sadi: Hi, so I’m just going to start off by asking you how business is going here.
Simone: It’s growing. It’s not great. Rent’s high. Foot traffic is…sporadic.
Sadi: Right now, would you consider it a busy period or…?
Simone: No. It’s seasonal, definitely seasonal here. Good in the summer, reasonable in the spring and fall, and awful in the winter. So you can say feast and famine. Taste of the Danforth, is supposed to generate business, but it’s very political. So don’t expect anything, and let is surprise you.
Sadi: So how long have you guys been here?
Si: Uh…two years and a couple of months? October of 2013.
S: Why did you decide to open a restaurant here? In this neighborhood I mean? (The Danforth)
Si: You saw the back patio?
S: I did not see the back patio.
Si: I saw it, and it was charming, and there were no other Caribbean restaurants on this strip here, to lower the competition. But then the Saturday after we opened, The Real Jerk opened at Carlaw and Gerrard.
S: Did you guys know that that was going to happen?
Si: I saw it, but I thought it was far enough away, and I also thought the food here would be better.
S: Was it tough for you to decide what kind of food the restaurant was going to be about?
Si: Nonono. It was going to be Caribbean. It was going to be a sit down place. Have it in such a way that you could sit awhile. Most of them are takeout here I noticed. In the States you see them, there are sit down ones, like in Harlem and stuff. But here, everything is takeout pretty much. There are sit down ones, but more like Sports Bars type of things, but this is more like you can bring your Mom here, you can bring the kids here. It’s not quite fine dining, but it’s casual enough.
Andrew: Can I ask you, what made you decide to want to open up a restaurant?
Si: It was not because I was dying to show people my cuisine or anything like that. It’s more like home cooking here. So it’s as close to home as possible. What I wanted to do was be able to feed myself, and I wanted to have a child. And I wanted to educate my child. That’s it.
S: That’s it?
Si: Yeah. Just teach them something culturally. And find some place where they can do that. Build a community. I remember what it was like, what food was like for me in my culture. And I don’t see that here.
A: When you were much younger, you always have that question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ did you know you wanted to open up a restaurant?
Si: Nonono, no I didn’t want to do that, at all. I like to bake. It’s more science, it’s always exact. And cooking is an art. And I was a wedding planner. I did interiors. And this fits with that a little bit, do you know what I mean? It’s a little bit artistic, it makes sense. But to answer your question, I never saw this. I’m more of a journey person then a destination. So I’m always wanting to see where this all takes me. I want to do a bakery. I want to bake with butter again. No one bakes with butter anymore. I think simple recipes work best. It works well with the food here. I think it will work well in a bakery. Like ice cream with real cream, and churned properly. Not a lot of fancy things.
S: So you know how to do all these things?
Si: Yeah! Once you can read a recipe you can bake. And once you read enough recipes, you know when you’ve found a good one. I’m not interested in creating something exciting and new. I want you to taste it and remember…a good pound cake for example and say ‘Oh this is a good pound cake, I’ve had good pound cake before, where have I eaten good pound cake?’ You can always come here, and find that. That’s what I want. You remember that birthday cake you had as a kid? With the sweet frosting, and it’s a good recipe and your mom would make it and you know it’s like magic. I want a good apple pie. It’s a simple recipe, you know it’s the easiest pie and you still can’t find a good apple pie anywhere. That’s what I want.
S: Is this your first restaurant venture?
Si: First first first.
S: Was there something that surprised you about it?
Si: Everything surprised me about it.
S: Was there anything you thought was going to be easy that became hard?
Si: Everything, I thought everything was going to be easy because I had such a brilliant idea. I thought I was going to open the doors and there were going to be lines around the block and I would have to fend them off come 11 o’clock ‘Go home, come again tomorrow!’ I thought it was going to be genius, and people were going to come in by droves, one person is going to taste it and go out and scream into the streets, ‘Fantastic!’ And I actually thought that haha. But in reality, it is constant and unrelenting hard work. And so much of it is up to whim. If one person gives you a bad review it’s hard to come back from. It’s also subjective to taste, and the food is perishable. So you’re always trying to hold onto good suppliers who are understanding, and you’re trying to keep the marketplace in such a way that people understand that you’re trying to give them a good fresh product, and you’re not trying to cheat them out of everything or you’re not trying to overcharge them. They’re just trying to survive and you’re trying to give them a little bit of your culture and a little bit of yourself, and it’s all of that and so much more.
A: So you had this expectation…
Si: And I had to adjust my expectation.
A: So what would you say is one of the most challenging things that you dealt with? And what was the most valuable thing that you learned from that challenge?
Si: So, I’m a control freak. But I can’t control what the customer thinks, or what we appear like on the web. There was a time when we had a big five-star review and it made me very nervous. I knew there was a time when a person would come in and think that our food wasn’t the greatest. I spent a lot of time preparing my staff for that, telling them ‘It’s going to be okay, even if we get a bad review!’ But it’s mostly for myself anyways, in my head saying ‘It’s going to be fine guys, it’s going to be fine!’ And then when it finally happened, they took it better than me you know, I was like a crumbled ball, a mess, but I got out of that. My staff was way more resilient then I was, and they really have my back, they’re so supportive. They helped me deconstruct the whole thing and the next day we were right back to it. It’s good.
S: How much do you guys pay attention to online reviews? Does it affect what you guys do here?
Si: It’s necessary and essential. It’s essential to keep an eye on your web presence. It’s almost as essential as good ingredients. People read them, you don’t think they do but they do. They take that, and what their friends say, more than anything else.
A: Do you find that you have any regulars that come here?
Si: We do, we do, and they are our life blood. They come in the winter.
S: People who have never been to Simone’s, what do you want them to know about your restaurant?
Si: I want them to know that we put everything into it. We don’t send anything out to them that we don’t ourselves eat. We love the food here, we don’t try and do anything fancy, we keep it simple. We have gotten better since we’ve opened. That was our intention. We don’t know yet if this is something we’re going to do forever, but while we’re at it, we want to always do it this way with these standards.
S: Is there anything that you want to serve here, but you’re unsure of how it will be received?
Si: There is one thing that we have served, but we can’t get it consistently. It’s the sweet potato salad. It’s fantastic, it’s a simple recipe, but we had to take it off the menu, just because the gap between the product, getting it here consistently was too difficult. It’s just the drought and the worms from where it’s grown, and it doesn’t work with any other type of sweet potato except for the Jamaican one. It’s been brutal, we had it when the restaurant was smaller, we were able to keep up with the demand of it. But as the demand kept increasing, we just couldn’t keep up and it was the hardest thing to let go of.
A: What’s the most popular dish here, and on top of that, what’s the dish you’re most proud of?
Si: The most popular is between the Chicken Soup and the Chicken Roti. The Jerk Chicken is a distant third. It’s a tie between those two, because people love that Pumpkin Chicken. It was my Grandmother’s recipe, and my Mother shortened it, because my Grandmother’s version took all day to make. She started with a Common Fowl, which is almost like a Stewing Hen here, and it’s a tough little chicken. The way she does it, it takes all day, she boils the whole thing, with carrots and onions, aromatics mostly. Then she pours it off and puts the chicken aside. And the stuff that she pours off she puts food in it. Little dumplings, things like that. And when she’s finished, with the pumpkin that’s been boiled till it’s creamy deliciousness, she’ll serves it in a bowl, it goes in with all the dumplings and everything and then she’ll put a chunk of the chicken on top. Genius! You could just devour it. And my Mom shortened it, because you’re not going to take all day, it’s going to take you forever to find a Common Fowl. It’s that recipe that my Mother shortened and then I did commercially. But the thing that me personally that I’m most proud of here is the Stew Beef. It is the most time consuming but it’s the recipe that’s come the furthest. We’ve tried so many cuts to get the right one. We’re happiest with that, the way it turned out. We were so close so many times to just saying ‘It’s just not doable’, we were going to scrap it, but we were so relentless with it until we got it right. So we’re all really proud of that one.
A: If you’re not eating here, where do you love to eat? What is your favorite thing to eat?
Si: Pasta pasta pasta. This is going to sound so stupid to you, but they do really good recipes at George Brown College. They teach them to make really good recipes there. And if you ever go there, their food there is really good. Really simple recipes, and when it comes to pasta, I think simple is better. I love it. Just cheese, and olive oil. The simpler the better.
A: What would you say is the best part of your job?
Si: You know what, it’s when somebody comes in and they’ve gone and said ‘They didn’t know our (Carribbean) food was like this, or it was always fast food for them.’ Like they had this idea of what it was and then they left and they had a better idea of it.
A: Do you have a specific example of someone who said something like this?
Si: Usually it’s when the locals say it. Like when a Jamaican comes in and says ‘It’s as good as my Mom’s.’ I like that.
A: When you were opening the restaurant, there was probably a lot of people giving you advice, what would you say is the most important piece of advice you ever got?
Si: Show up every day. The butcher told me that. He said ‘Show up every day.’ Learn everything. Don’t be afraid to clean the bathroom. You know what I mean? Be present every day. Show up, even if it’s just for a little bit, and do something specific. Lead by example. No matter what I’m doing here, whether it’s painting chairs or cleaning the bathroom, or peeling potatoes or washing dishes, all of which I do almost every day, it’s good for my customers, because they see the interaction between me and my staff, and they see the way my crew is with each other. They’re easy, they want you to have a good time when you come here, they want you to experience the food in a good and positive way. It’s a cultural perception of what Jamaican food is, and we’re not trying to change your mind here, we’re just trying to show you a different part of it.
A: And if someone were to open a restaurant today, and they were to go to you for advice, what piece of advice would you give them?
Si: Show up every day. Same thing. Put as much as yourself into it as possible. Remember to save a little bit of yourself. It will be exhausting. Remember to sleep.
S: Are you getting enough sleep?
Si: Not enough. But that's how it is if you want to do it right. I don’t want to do it forever, but I want when it’s gone, for there to be another like it. Better. Of course better. I want another sit down Jamaican restaurant, I want it to be better than this one. I want people to come there and have a good experience. I want people to look back and see a little bit of this one in it. I don’t want it (Simone’s) to have been for nothing. I want an impression of it, an echo of it once it’s gone.
Simone's Caribbean Restaurant
596 Danforth Ave