I first heard about The Cookbook Store during my first couple of days in Toronto. It was March 2009, I had recently finished university at home in Ireland and I had taken myself to Canada yearning for adventure and a taste of the unknown. At this point the only new taste I had actually experienced was that of the stodgy free pancake breakfast at the colourful hostel I was staying in downtown. A little homesick, and somewhat cold and forlorn, I stumbled across the store one day and all was changed: a whole shop full of cookbooks! I couldn’t think of anything more wonderful to stumble across. I came back the next day armed with a resumé and spoke to Alison. As luck would have it, they had an opening and after a couple of days waiting for the phone to ring, she called to tell me I had a trial at the store. It must have gone well because before I knew it I had been christened “Irish Alison” (to save on confusion) and was a proud Cookbook Store member of staff.
In my first week or so at the store we held a bread and cheese evening and I think it was somewhere through a mouthful of tangy sourdough topped with creamy, salty artisanal butter that I thought, “this is it, this is the best job in the world”. I have so many great memories of my time there that it’s almost impossible to narrow them down; meeting bone fide culinary legends like Ruth Reichl, Elizabeth Baird, and Thomas Keller. Taking part in fun Cookbook Store events, from sampling Ontario apples until midnight on Nuit Blanche, to helping out with the liquid nitrogen at a molecular gastronomy showcase. There was so much passion and enthusiasm among both staff and customers, and I learned so much from my colleagues, and from cooking and baking for our events. I remember walking around my stifling apartment with a bowl and a whisk in the humid height of Summer trying to coax egg whites into peaks to make Reine de Saba cakes for Julia Child’s birthday party, and painstakingly applying the almond ‘nails’ to dozens of witches fingers cookies for Halloween.
But I think it was the day-to-day stuff that was the most fun; getting to know our wonderful
regular customers and neighbours around Yonge and Yorkville, who would regularly pop in to tell us of the success of a new recipe or, even better, bring us samples. ‘Testing’ a whole batch of Alice Medrich’s cocoa brownies (for research purposes, obviously) with a colleague who would also become a great friend. Having a customer pop in looking for something new, but not sure what exactly, and helping them to find the perfect book. Chatting about recipes for hours on end with fellow food obsessives, and sometimes even helping to troubleshoot cooking in real time; it was only after several lengthy phone conversations about jam setting that I realised that the Certo helpline is only a digit different to The Cookbook Store phone number, thus explaining the high volume of jam-related calls. What a lucky twist of fate that the unfortunate preservers would still get through to one of the only numbers in Toronto that would be able to offer real empathy and advice.
Even after nearly 30 years in business a new shipment of books would still cause excitement among the whole staff, all other work would be temporarily put on hold while new publications were pored over. Saturday afternoons were one of my favourite times of the week; listening to classical music with Jennifer as we helped customers select books for themselves, for friends, for family. Books that would be taken to bed for leisurely perusal, books that would later have their pages spattered with sauces, and stuck together with dough. Books that would inspire the city’s chefs to new creative heights. Books that would help to feed and nourish loved ones, and would become the cracked-spined, dog-eared suppertime bibles of families.
Although I now live across the Atlantic in London, England, Toronto is always still on my mind, and The Cookbook Store especially. What Alison and Jennifer have built isn’t just a business, it’s a community, filled with customers and staff members who have become friends, across years and miles. For me, working at The Cookbook Store wasn’t just a job, it was my home away from home, and it is still one of my favourite places in the world. So happy 30th birthday Cookbook Store, and here’s to many happy returns!!
Cookbook Store employee