According to Peter McClusky, founder of the festival, for many of these women, the work entailed in growing food organically reminded them of farm life in Syria. It was a unique opportunity to share his passion for Ontario garlic. “The enthusiasm of the Newcomer Kitchen chefs showed me that the love of freshly-harvested garlic transcends national boundaries. It was a great experience” said McClusky. “My highlight was hearing them sing ‘Old McDonald Had a Farm’ in Arabic.” Newcomer Kitchen is a 2-year-old, not-for-profit project where women cook traditional Syrian meals for delivery to surrounding Toronto neighbourhoods. They have created meaningful employment for 75 women through pop-up dining, Syrian cooking workshops and special event catering. It has become a hub for social and cultural exchange. Already, the group has gone viral with a visit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and coverage in the New York Times.
Last weekend, something magical happened. A dozen chefs from the Newcomer Kitchen – a nonprofit organization that invites Syrian refugee women to cook a weekly meal in the Depanneur kitchen – joined garlic grower and Toronto Garlic Festival founder Peter McClusky on a farm near Acton, Ontario, to help harvest Ontario garlic. As recently-arrived refugees, this was their first chance to tour an Ontario farm and familiarize themselves with Ontario’s rich soil and of course, the hardy garlic bulbs that call it home. They were joined by farmers Johann and Maggie Kleinsasser, translators, and a few young farm hands. After touring the fields, the group sat down to a post-harvest lunch. The spread included a colourful Laphet Thoke -a Burmese fermented tea leaf salad, provided by Festival chef Carol Mark of Empower T. The salad was augmented with both raw garlic and fried garlic harvested from the field and prepared onsite by the Newcomer Kitchen chefs. Also on offer were samples of traditional Syrian food cooked by the Newcomer Kitchen chefs. It was a taste preview of their offerings at this year’s festival. There was Kibbe – football-shaped meat and bulgar dumplings, and Fatayer – a triangular folded pie stuffed with cheese and garlic. The chefs departed with loads of fresh Ontario garlic which they will feature in their dishes baked in a brick oven at the Toronto Garlic Festival.