Archive for ‘Toronto News’

August 17, 2013

AGO welcomes Ai Weiwei exhibit to Toronto

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Ai Weiwei’s According to What? exhibit opens Saturday in Toronto. It’s the only Canadian appearance for the showcase. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[Originally published on Vacay.ca on August 15, 2013]

TORONTO, ONTARIO — An earthquake thundered in Sichuan five years ago, unleashing devastation, a gush of tears, and one man’s torrid imagination. Ninety-thousand people died in the Sichuan disaster; 5,212 of them were children, almost all of whom perished in dilapidated schools built by the government. A few weeks after the earthquake, Ai Weiwei travelled approximately 1,500 kilometres from Beijing to the razed province in south-central China.

“I write every day, sometimes two articles a day,” Ai has said. “In Sichuan, I couldn’t write for a week. It was devasting. I was speechless.”

He was far from powerless, however. Ai took photographs and videos of the ruined towns. Most poignantly, he collected hundreds of knapsacks, which had been left strewn in rubble, the most awful kind of litter you could imagine. The knapsacks belonged to the children whose deaths have inspired Ai to change his world through relentless attempts to make the Chinese government more transparent and accountable.

Ai turned the backpacks into a serpent, a black-and-white polyester statement about what he believes is China’s treacherous treatment of its impoverished citizens and government corruption. The serpent is a symbol thick with meaning in China and Ai’s use of it in this context — with the backpacks representing the blood of the Sichuan children — is his way of shouting, “This is what you really are.”

Made from 883 knapsacks, Snake Ceiling has hovered on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario since this spring. The rest of the “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” exhibit begins its only Canadian appearance this weekend at the Toronto museum. It is a thought-provoking showcase of an artist who is affecting the world while in his prime — a rarity. Ai has gone from mischievous rebel who would photograph his upraised middle finger in front of icons such as the White House, Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square to a gutsy critic with a clear focus on doing whatever he can to break China away from its old and anachronistic policies and predilections.

“It’s not often you get to talk about art and the state of the world at the same time,” AGO’s director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum said during a news conference on Wednesday that unveiled the exhibit. “When you can place in front of a community an artist who is struggling to be heard it is an important moment.”

His rebelliousness left Ai under house arrest in Beijing two years ago. That was a bad move by China. Not just for the image of oppression it presents to the world, but for the fact that confining your most outspoken critic to his studio is akin to forcing a teenage hacker to remain locked in his parents’ basement with four desktop computers and unlimited Internet access. Relegated to his studio called 258 Fake, Ai created more provocative art that challenges the Chinese regime he has already embarrassed time and again. The government also detained him for 81 days, citing a range of charges, banned his blog and name from appearing on search engines within China, and confiscated his passport, another act that has served to make a martyr of him. Activists around the world have rallied to raise awareness. A “Free Ai Weiwei” campaign has snaked through the art world and student campuses and into some mainstream outlets. In May, Ai released his first music video, set to the expletive-rich song “Dumbass”that swipes once more at government restrictions.

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August 13, 2013

Chase is on to be Toronto’s best restaurant

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The rooftop patio at Chase is sure to be a hot spot in Toronto. (Julia Pelish photo)

[This article first appeared on Vacay.ca on August 12, 2013.]

TORONTO, ONTARIO — Steven Salm has opened 14 restaurants in his career. That would be impressive for anyone in the restaurant business. Consider that Salm is 29 years old and the feat seems astounding. The transplanted New Yorker’s most ambitious and likely finest achievement debuted on a Monday afternoon soaked with sunshine and a champagne sprinkle of rain.

It’s called the Chase and the Chase Fish & Oyster Bar — two restaurants, one building, four floors apart. Anyone would crown the combined 10,000 square feet of dining flair as Toronto’s new “It” spot without even pulling up a chair. The space is that phenomenal. The rooftop, home to the Chase, features lounge chairs on the patio, a wonderfully stocked bar, and lavish decor in the interior that’s bracketed by attractive glass walls.

“This is the most relaxed I’ve been in eight months,” Salm said on opening day, smiling in the way people smile after they’ve finished a marathon — half excited with the achievement and half astonished at what they’ve just put themselves through. “I thought we would do half the size of what we did, but the real estate is so good and the opportunity really excited me.”

New Yorkers Salm and David Chang of Momofuku have invigorated Toronto’s dining scene with culinary ambitions on a massive scale. Momofuku Toronto opened last September in a terrific 6,600-square-foot property adjacent to the Shangri-la Hotel. It features three restaurants, a cocktail lounge, and the recently opened Milk Bar. The Chase restaurants are in the historic Dineen Building, a circa 1897 heritage space.

Executive chef Michael Steh oversees both two restaurants, which have separate chef de cuisines and diverse menus. The oyster restaurant, which debuted four days earlier, flies in fresh seafood from both coasts of Canada. It’s offerings include Oyster Po’boy Sliders ($11), a Lobster “Waldorf” Roll with candied walnuts and apple ($28), and decadent seafood platters ($50 or $110). The upscale rooftop kitchen sources local ingredients and also features some seafood dishes from abroad, including a delicious grilled octopus with pork sausage, salsa verde, and piquillo peppers ($23).

“We want to reset the bar for fine dining in Toronto,” says Steh, who has worked at Splendido and Reds, a favourite spot for bankers in the Financial District. “I think a lot of restaurants get away with things in this city that they wouldn’t in a place like New York. I think competitiveness is something that’s been lacking in Toronto for a long time. Steven has a lot of competitiveness and that is why I jumped aboard. He brings a drive for excellence that’s contagious.”

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August 5, 2013

Eugenie Bouchard ready for the Rogers Cup

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Eugenie Bouchard is the top-ranked Canadian female tennis in the world and is 58th overall. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This article first appeared on Vacay.ca on August 5, 2012.]

Many Canadians skip off to travel the world when they’re 19. Eugenie Bouchard, though, is doing so in a high-stakes, high-style environment that only professional athletes would be involved in at such a young age.

The tennis sensation from Montreal is in her first full year on the WTA tour, which covers 59 tournaments in 20 countries. This week, Bouchard joins the Williams sisters and other top-ranked players at the annual Rogers Cup tournament in Toronto. The rigorous schedule that’s filled with practice sessions, media commitments, more practice sessions, and whirlwind scheduling that keeps her hopping from one destination to the next limits how much Bouchard can enjoy her world travels. But she does try to get out and see what she can of the stops on WTA.

“It’s tough travelling all the time, because you are always living out of suitcase for your job, but I love it. I love travelling, and seeing all of these different cultures,” she said Sunday during a press conference that followed a practice session at York University’s Rexall Centre, site of the tournament whose main draw begins Monday.

Bouchard will play Russia’s Alisa Kleybanova in the first round and will also team with retired champ Monica Seles for an exhibition doubles match against Venus and Serena Williams on Monday night. At 5-foot-10, Bouchard is a rangy, powerful player who has made a blazing ascent up the rankings since cracking the world’s top 200 last August. She’s currently No. 58 on the WTA and is no longer catching opponents by surprise after upsetting 12th-seeded Ana Ivanovic at Wimbledon in June. In a conference call last week, Serena Williams said Bouchard was “a talented player with improving control of her groundstrokes.”

With Maria Sharapova, the No. 2 player in the world, pulling out of the tournament, Tennis Canada is leaning on Bouchard to be a face of the Rogers Cup. With a quick smile and witty personality (see her Gangnam Style video with British player Laura Robson), Bouchard is poised to be Canada’s sporting sweetheart for years to come. Having the fans behind her in Toronto this week will be a help, she predicted.

“Coming home is special. I know I’m going to have great crowd support and that always helps. I’ll be using that to my advantage,” she said.

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July 30, 2013

POET Technologies says it has the world’s next great microchip

poet-technologies[As part of the Globe & Mail Report on Business articles I’ve recently written is one on an intriguing Canadian-owned company that says it has a microchip that can replace silicon and be 10 times more powerful. If the claims are true, POET Technologies has a very bright future. Its chief scientist, a Canadian, has spent close to 30 years devoted to this project, making this a potentially terrific human interest story as well. The excerpt of the article here is about POET’s attempt to sell itself to companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. The article was published on July 10, 2013. FULL DISCLOSURE: Since reporting on this company, I’ve taken a long position in its stock — listed as PTK on the Toronto Stock Exchange’s notorious Venture Index, not the place most people would opt to put their money :)]

Geoff Taylor has spent three decades building what he believes is a better microchip. Although silicon has powered an explosion in digital technology, Dr. Taylor is among the scientists who believe the chemical element is near the end of its shelf life. A native of Mississauga, Dr. Taylor has created a microchip at his laboratory at the University of Connecticut that is made of gallium arsenide (GaAs), a widely available chemical compound that the professor of electrical engineering and photonics says has shown a “10-to-1 advantage” in performance over silicon.

With his invention nearly complete, his hope now is to draw attention and dollars from companies whose wealth has derived from the production of silicon chips.

Dr. Taylor’s invention is owned by POET Technologies Inc., which changed its name from Opel Technologies Inc. in June. Based in Toronto and publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange’s Venture Composite Index, POET was a multimillion-dollar solar company until last year, when it sold off its solar assets to focus on developing and selling Dr. Taylor’s chips. It has 15 employees, most of them at the Connecticut lab, and a market capitalization of $61-million.

Led by its co-founder, Dr. Taylor, POET is preparing to approach industry-leading chip manufacturers in Silicon Valley this summer, and its pitch will be centred on the demise of silicon.

“The only thing that would give them pause is the challenge of how do you mastermind it, and get your arms around it. It’s a challenge to have it move into place,” Dr. Taylor says of the technology, whose acronym stands for planar opto electronic technology, and which he sees as a successor to silicon microchips.

POET, the company, possesses more than 35 patents related to the technology, which makes it difficult for silicon behemoths Intel or IBM to duplicate. An aim for POET in the coming months is to find partners interested in purchasing or licensing Dr. Taylor’s semiconductor chips. However, persuading large businesses – let alone entire industries – to alter course is a gargantuan undertaking.

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July 13, 2013

James Hinchcliffe revs up for Honda Indy in Toronto

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James Hinchcliffe is ready to floor it on Lake Shore Boulevard during Honda Indy weekend. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This article was first published on Vacay.ca on July 12, 2013.]

James Hinchcliffe grew up blocks away from Lake Shore Boulevard, the thoroughfare that runs for more than 100 kilometres in the Greater Toronto Area. Raised in Oakville, Hinchcliffe, like many civilians, would cruise down the road and itch to accelerate past the speed limit, which could be as low as 50 kilometres per hour in some stretches. This weekend, he’ll be paid to floor it on that same road — a turn of events that makes him chuckle.

“It’s funny blasting down Lake Shore Boulevard in an IndyCar at 250 kilometres an hour, rather than 50. It’s fun to say, ‘Take that, OPP,’” said the race-car driver, raising a fist playfully while thinking of the Ontario Provincial Police radar guns.

Hinchcliffe will be among 24 drivers zipping 1,900-pound race cars through the street course in Toronto on Saturday and Sunday. The Honda Indy is one of three events in 2013 to feature two races in one weekend on the Izod IndyCar Series. The race series has added second races in Detroit, Houston and Toronto to increase ticket sales and take advantage of the festival atmosphere in those cities.

Having dubbed the doubleheader “2 in TO,” race organizers were forced to hold their collective breath this past week as record rainfall flooded parts of the city, including Lake Shore Boulevard. But Honda Indy president Charlie Johnstone said the event was fortunate to see no damage to the venue. “Like everyone else, we were shocked by what happened and how fast it happened, but everything held up the way it was supposed to hold up,” Johnstone said of the course that blocks off one of the city’s most active commuter routes during Indy week each year. He pointed out that the event and the city were lucky that the rain occurred on Monday night, before any of the less-secure vendor and sponsor tents were put into place.

With the two races, he expects the Indy could top the $50 million in economic impact that it provided the city in 2012. There’s also the added benefit of more global media attention, with the races being broadcast in 200 countries. The race on Saturday will be the first time in the history of the racing series that a standing start will commence the chase for the checkered flag. Formula One races feature standing starts, where cars rev up before the green signal is given and then shift into drive. IndyCar races have traditionally begun with cars rolling forward to a start line, maintaining their pre-determined position until the green flag is waved. After changes were made to the manufacturing of cars used in the series last year, standing starts became possible for IndyCar and many race fans will be curious to see how the drivers adjust to the change. Sunday’s race will feature a rolling start.

For casual race fans, the 2 in TO format may seem confusing. If someone only wants to go to one race, which should they attend?

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April 14, 2013

Rene Redzepi speaks from the heart in Toronto

[This article and video were first published on Vacay.ca on April 10, 2013.]

The world knows Rene Redzepi can cook, but who knew he could write?

On Monday afternoon, Redzepi stood in front of 500 attendees at the Terroir Symposium in Toronto and read from a manuscript he prepared especially for the conference. Candidly, he detailed his passion for food, the roots of that passion that go back to his childhood in rural Denmark, how being true to his desires propelled his culinary success, and why losing sight of those desires led to standing on a beach in Mexico and contemplating running away from Noma and the mania surrounding it. His words about the dangers of burning out were a generous gift to chefs in the audience striving to attain what Redzepi has accomplished at his Danish restaurant. They were also extremely well thought out sentences, carefully chosen nouns and verbs that resonated with emotion.

Redzepi spoke about how so many people were advising him to go against the ethic of Noma, which has always been about food and flavours first and foremost. The restaurant, which has topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for three straight years, has never had the finest silverware or the most fashionable wait staff, but Redzepi has been encouraged in recent years to add such pretentiousness. Advisors told him to reach for more accolades and that meant more material luxury in his rustic dining space “as if a fucking bowtie would make the food taste better.” On top of those influences was the intense pressure of running a business that has faced more scrutiny in the culinary world than any other restaurant on the planet in the past four years.

“I said, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Redzepi said to the crowd at Terroir, an annual gathering that brings together international food industry professionals to discuss sustainability and better practices.

Afterwards, he told Vacay.ca and other media, “We got very confused at Noma when we first started having success. I went to cooking school to learn to whip a bernaise, not how to deal with the New York Times in a press conference.”

Like many accidental celebrities, Redzepi found himself performing tasks he never endeavoured to perform and, on top of 85-hour work weeks at the restaurant, the demands on his time resulted in a wish to escape. However, his drive to improve overwhelmed any thoughts of quitting. After introspection about how to deal with the stress and what it was doing to him, the 35-year-old said he chose to clutch onto the beliefs that made him so celebrated in the first place.

“I feel more energized than ever,” he said, explaining that any downbeat sentiments in his story were there as a cautionary note to other chefs. He urged them to not lose their vision, or allow it to be circumvented by people who feel they are better at business or public relations or management. “This was a story about memories and also a story about sticking to what you know.”

What Redzepi understands better than just about anyone is how to make the most of the quality of food within your grasp. When speaking about the use of unusual ingredients in his cuisine, he said, “It is all about a search for flavours, it has nothing to do with shock value.”

The ants that he uses in his dishes are “little tiny creatures” that have what he describes as an explosive taste exotic to Scandinavians. “Here we are in cold, grey, shitty, Protestant Denmark with our potatoes and our beet root, and suddenly you have the flavours of ginger and lemongrass to put on your beet root. That is magnificent.”

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April 6, 2013

Lee Harvey Osmond brings on the folk

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Tom Wilson put together a stellar lineup during Lee Harvey Osmond’s recent show in Toronto. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This article was originally published on Vacay.ca]

By its nature, roots music makes a statement through understatement. It uses poetry and art and subtlety to snake its way into a groove that listeners find themselves wanting to retrace time and again. If rock ‘n roll and hip hop are the Saturday night club, then roots and folk music are the neighbourhood coffee shop — the place we always wind up when we want to think and gain perspective and sense community.

Tom Wilson may look like Saturday night — and he’s no doubt enjoyed the rock lifestyle — but his songs have always had the elements of folk music, from their melodies to their characters who possess the depth necessary to connect a listener with their struggles.

On “The Folk Sinner,” the sophisticated second album by his Lee Harvey Osmond project, Wilson shows he’s at his finest these days when there is minimal bombast. With the goal of “serving the music first,” Wilson and his bandmates deliver an elegantly produced album with throaty vocals and a touch of First Nations texture in songs like “Big Chief.” It is reminiscent of Robbie Robertson’s brilliant self-titled album from 1987. “The Folk Sinner” also evokes another celebrated Canadian songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot. A cover of his song “Oh Linda” kicks off the album and was a highlight of Friday night’s performance inToronto that featured Wilson and several of his friends, who just happen to be among Canada’s most talented musicians.

Wilson’s Blackie and the Rodeo Kings bandmate Colin Linden performed “Oh Linda” while Michael Timmins of the Cowboy JunkiesOh Susanna, the Skydiggers‘ Andy Maize, and Paul Reddick were also on stage at the Great Hall for a 90-minute set that showed folk songs have no problem turning into rock music when infused with the energy of a live show and Wilson’s showmanship.

“That configuration has never played together before. They’re all friends of mine and have been for a long time. The idea was to serve the music, to put it first and see where it takes us,” Wilson told me on Tuesday.

A charismatic frontman, Wilson keeps audiences engaged with his humour, some of it self-effacing (“I’ve been on a no-wheat diet and I’m trimmed down and feeling good, but before the show I had a burger for the first time in months and I tell you, I owned that bun, man”), and talents, whether with his vocals or his on-stage antics. On “The Folk Sinner,” “Freedom” is a funky foot-tapping number highlighted by horns and slide guitar, but in concert it smoulders. With a riveting and fiery delivery, Wilson urges anyone within earshot to unshackle themselves and move.

Timmins’ sister, Margo, will be making appearances on upcoming tour dates, Wilson said. Hawksley Workman, who performs on the album’s first single, “Break Your Body Down,” will also join this rambling group of aging and congenial musicians who will show audiences that great concerts are still about great musicianship, not distracting choreography and lip-synching.

“We’re really astonished by the response. To be able to put 470 people into that hall is quite something,” Wilson said about Friday night’s show, which was part of Canadian Music Week festivities. “The album has been No. 1 in Canada already on the Americana Roots charts and we’re getting airplay in the States.”

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April 3, 2013

Rene Redzepi of Noma to appear at Toronto’s Terroir Symposium

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Among the delegates at Terroir will be chef Marc Lepine, who created this inventive dish featuring lobster and crab at his Ottawa restaurant, Atelier.

[This article was originally published on Vacay.ca]

Arlene Stein has tried for three years to line up a date for Rene Redzepi to join Toronto’s food industry at the annual Terroir Symposium. This year the schedules aligned and the executive chef of Noma is the marquee name among a list of culinary stars ready to appear at Monday’s gathering that’s focused on encouraging better practices in the industry and celebrating local food.

“I made a film with Rene last year about Noma’s Saturday night menu, which is pretty significant and pretty fantastic. Getting to know Rene even more than I had before helped to build that relationship. We were trying to get him here for three years but in 2010 he and his wife had just had a baby, and last year our conference was four days away from the World’s 50 Best awards,” Stein, the event’s founder and chairperson, said last week. “This year he decided to come and we are thrilled. We have outstanding international chefs and amazing Canadian chefs.”

The day-long symposium will be held at the Arcadian Court, an Oliver & Bonacini venue at the historic Simpson Tower. It will include seminars that range from appetizing (cooking demonstrations) to thirst-quenching (craft brew workshop) to thought-provoking (a debate on “culinary cannibalism”).

Along with Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant has ranked atop the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for three straight years, other international chefs at Terroir will include Magnus Nilsson of Sweden’s Faviken, Kobe Desramaults of Michelin-starred In de Wulf in Belgium, and South African Peter Templehoff of The Collection by Liz McGrath.

Among the notable Canadian chefs in attendance are Marc Lepine of Ottawa‘s Atelier, Jeremy Charles ofRaymonds in St. John’s, and Connie DeSousa and John Jackson of CHARCUT in Calgary — all of whom will perform cooking demonstrations.

Terroir will be a more high-profile gathering than culinary events with larger advertising budgets and more prominent histories in Toronto. While it is a gathering for the industry and not for culinary travellers, it is still a tourism driver for the city.

“It’s subtle and very grassroots what we are doing,” Stein said. “We’re not overly swamped with people. You can stand in the halls and have a conversation. I think the chefs like that.”

While Terroir started in Toronto and is in its seventh year, Stein is aiming to expand to “another Canadian city.” The notion of Terroir — which to a great degree depends on the willingness of chefs to share their coveted ideas, practices, recipes, and sources — would not have worked in the 20th century, Stein said.

“We happened to come around just as the local food movement really started to take hold. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time for us. We filled a gap in the marketplace because all of a sudden everyone needed more information and a way to build real resources around sustainability,” said Stein, who has spent recent months in Europe networking with several of the chefs who will be attending the symposium.

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