It all started with some carrots and a juicer. It was 1990 and Ruth Tal was a University of Toronto student with a thing for organic carrot juice. Armed with two industrial juicers (paid for by a student loan) and good old fashioned moxie, Tal hit the road and took the mobile Juice for Life bar to the thirsty masses. Her healthy elixirs were a hit with crowds at Lollapalooza, the Kumbaya AIDS Benefit and the Toronto Vegetarian Food Fair. Today, Fresh is no longer a little Queen Street patio – it’s a bonafide restaurant chain with an ardent following among Toronto foodies.
We wanted to know Fresh’s recipe for success, so we invaded the Fresh kitchens (and refrigerator) and interviewed co-owner Jennifer Houston (who also co-authored three Fresh cookbooks with Tal) about how the establishment has changed over 20 years, how she keeps things “fresh” and why Ricky Gervais would be her dream Fresh patron.
What’s the story behind Fresh? How did you get involved?
Juice for Life started about 20 years ago, but it was in 1999 that we became known as Fresh. I came to Fresh (then Juice for Life) in 1998 and over the next few years I took over the running of the kitchens and became a partner in the business with Ruth Tal and Barry Alper.
What’s the whole idea behind Fresh?
We aim to offer vegan and vegetarian food and juice to all people, whether vegetarian or not. We try to have something for everyone, while still remaining true to our roots and staying on top of food trends.
Having evolved from Juice for Life in 1990, how has the customer landscape changed? Do you find that a healthy food restaurant is not as tough of a sell as it may have been in the past?
Back in the beginning, most of our customers were vegan or vegetarian. Now, a large percentage of our customers are people who just choose to eat this way once in a while. We have tried over the years to prove that eating vegan doesn’t mean a sacrifice, and it seems to be working.
How would you describe your average Fresh patron?
About 40% of our customers are women between the ages of 18 to 45. The rest run the gamut of the entire population-kids, teenagers, adults and retirees. It’s great to see a whole table of businessmen having lunch in a vegetarian restaurant, and it’s nice to see a teenage vegan bringing their grandparents in and everyone finding something that they like on the menu.
What’s the most popular item on the menu?
We have big winners in each category. For appetizers it is our Quinoa Onion Rings, in the Salads it is the California Classic, in Fresh Bowls it’s the Beach, in burgers it’s the BBQ Burger, and in wraps it’s the Black Bean Burrito.
How are menu items developed?
First, I just think about what I would like to eat. Then I make it over and over again to perfect the recipe and to make sure it can be executed by anyone who works in our locations and that it can be made in large quantities. Then we test it out as a special, and if it is a success, it comes on the menu the next time we change it.
What’s your favourite entrée at Fresh?
That changes all the time. I tend to go through phases where I focus on one item and have it all the time. Right now I’m back in love with the Macro Greens with both Miso gravy and our House dressing on top.
Are you known for your cooking skills?
I hope so, or I’m in the wrong line of work!
What would you say is your best dish?
I don’t think I can answer that-it would be like asking a mother to choose which child was her favourite!
Are you vegetarian or vegan?
I’ve been vegetarian for about 14 years.
What is an average day like for you?
Right now I’m working on a new cookbook, so an average day consists of getting up, taking my dog for a walk, coming home and doing my yoga (sometimes!), checking all my emails and then starting to cook. I’m cooking at home because the kitchens at the restaurants are too busy for me to be taking up a whole prep table all day every day. When you’re cooking for a cookbook, you have to write down every single thing you do, and make it over and over again if you change anything, just to make sure that it will work for the home cook. It’s not like you can just throw a little bit of this and that in whatever you’re working on. It kind of stifles your creativity at first, but I’m used to it now. Sometimes I’m still making things at midnight, because I’m a bit of a night owl. Plus, when you’re cooking and eating all day, you get full, so I have to wait until I’m hungry again to taste test things. I don’t want to just have a spoonful of something and say it’s good enough, I want to eat a whole serving and see if it’s still good on the last bite. Once I am finished cooking, I tackle the mountain of dishes (that’s the only part that I don’t like about cooking at home; I don’t have someone to do the dishes for me! I think I use almost every pot and pan, every mixing bowl and every measuring cup and spoon in my entire kitchen every day).
What is your favourite ingredient?
These days, it’s leeks. They make everything taste better. But I’m working on the soup section of the cookbook right now, so that could change next week when I’m on a different section.
What ingredient is most used at the Fresh restaurants?
For sheer volume, probably onions, since they go in all our soups and mixes. We also go through lots and lots of tofu, rice and chickpeas. Our supplier of chickpeas always laughs when he hears how much I’m ordering, because he feels bad for the delivery guy who has to bring it all off the truck into our locations.
Who would be your dream dinner date?
Ricky Gervais. I find him hilarious in every way. And if he brought Steven Merchant and Karl Pilkington along, that would be even better.
What’s the most inventive dish you’ve ever tried in Toronto?
Probably the Singaporean Slaw at Lee. I love how they finish it at the table.
What’s the most inventive dish Fresh has ever put out? Is it still on the menu?
The Ninja, which was a hybrid of a rice bowl and a salad. It had a wasabi dill dressing and crispy tofu cubes. We took it off the menu last time but there was a huge uproar from our customers, so we’re bringing it back next time we change the menu.
What’s down the line for Fresh?
We would like to open a couple more locations in the next few years, and after that, who knows!
In all your years with Fresh, what achievements make you the most proud?
I’m most proud of setting up the systems in the kitchens that allow us to do the volume of business that we do. It took many many years to get to that point. I’m also proud of the cookbooks. They are like the tangible proof of all the work that has gone into the Fresh kitchens over the years.
Interview and photographs by Maria Cootauco