For nearly a quarter of a century, Sash Simpson honed his culinary skills at North 44, one of Toronto’s legendary high-end restaurants, helmed by celebrity chef Mark McEwan. He didn’t know much about fine dining when he started there. In fact, having only ever worked in casual restaurants and delis, it took guts, perseverance, and ambition just to seek a position there.
With no culinary school training and no prestigious restaurants on his resume, he was turned away by North 44 twice. The final time he went to apply, Simpson made a deal. He’d work for free for three months just to prove himself, and if the boss didn’t like him, he’d leave. The team took to him after just a week. But Simpson stuck to his word, did his three months, and proceeded to quickly rise through the ranks—taking over as executive chef for 18 years, right up until North 44 closed in the summer of 2018. By then, he had other plans. Simpson’s eponymous restaurant, Sash, opened in the North Toronto neighbourhood of Summerhill the following year.
The sleek restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows facing Yonge Street is crisp and fresh. White linen table cloths, soft grey seats, and a black accent wall give the dining room an understated elegance and is meant, Simpson says, to be fun and not stuffy. The menu “is a bit of everything for everybody,” says the 49-year-old chef. And it’s true: pasta, seafood, and meat come in the forms of chitarrine with wild mushrooms and truffle, French turbot with steamed lobster, and steaks dry aged to a minimum of 45 days. “Flavours come to me constantly and whatever hits my palate and I go—wow, this is really good—it could be Indian, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean—it doesn’t matter, if my crew, my colleagues and I feel it—it’s hitting that menu.”
The restaurant is a testament to how far Simpson has come. “I’m not embarrassed to say I was an Indian street kid, which is not uncommon in India,” he says. “I was one of those kids … eating out of garbage cans to survive … and then, all of a sudden, I was being put in an orphanage.”
The chef was about five years old at the time. If he hadn’t gone to sit on a bus shelter bench that day, he may never have been picked up by the orphanage patrols who were looking for homeless children. He spent a few years there until Torontonian Sandra Simpson, who at the time ran the orphanage and others around the world under the name Families for Children, adopted him.
Simpson grew up in a family of 32 siblings: Sandra’s four biological Canadian children, along with his 28 adopted sisters and brothers from Korea, Spain, India, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. The children shared the cooking at home with Simpson in the kitchen on Wednesdays making spaghetti. “I always made so much that there was enough for seconds,” he recalls. One of his sisters helped him get his first restaurant job as a dishwasher at Pat and Mario’s when he was 14.
“I have never forgotten where I came from,” he says. “We live in a diverse city and country—that’s what makes a difference in the flavours of cooking … But at the end of the day, I bring my Indian roots here.” That’s why you see dishes such as Chilean sea bass with Madras curry and Moroccan-style lamb lollipops with coconut cream curry on the menu. “I wasn’t raised in India, but I know I’m from there, and I want to learn about my roots, and this is my way of experimenting.”
Simpson has gone back to India to visit the orphanage in Coimbatore, south of New Delhi. Young women who haven’t been adopted by the age of 18, by law, have to be released and sometimes fall into difficult situations. At his mom’s suggestion, Simpson set up a restaurant at the orphanage and come the age of 18, they can work at the restaurant and develop skills for their future.
At Sash, Simpson changes the menu seasonally. And he points out that he doesn’t just want the restaurant to be about dining. Thursday through Saturday he brings in a DJ for the lounge crowd. “I want people to hang out here—to eat, dance, and have a good time.”
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