The life of Sash

The in­cred­i­ble jour­ney of a for­mer street kid in In­dia who be­came the chef of North 44 and is now set to open his own Sum­mer­hill restau­rant and wine bar

Thornhill Post - - Food - by Jon Sufrin Sash Restau­rant and Wine Bar, 1133 Yonge St., www.sash.ca

Years be­fore he led the kitchen at Mark McEwan’s leg­endary North 44, be­fore he worked his way through the ranks from line cook to ju­nior sous chef to ex­ec­u­tive chef, be­fore he was on the cusp of open­ing his own high-end restau­rant and wine bar at Yonge and Sum­mer­hill, Sash Simp­son lived in a dif­fer­ent uni­verse.

He doesn’t re­mem­ber much about his time grow­ing up on the streets of Chen­nai, In­dia, over 40 years ago. His me­mories are fuzzy, he says, like tele­vi­sion static. He re­calls that his mother had long, beau­ti­ful hair, and that his father was deaf and mute. He had an older brother and sis­ter.

Some­how, when he was around four or five, he went astray. Af­ter that, it’s a blur of wan­der­ing, beg­ging, steal­ing food and do­ing what­ever he could to sur­vive on his own on the streets of Chen­nai.

“Peo­ple ask me if I have seen Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire,” Simp­son says. “I’ve lived it. That was me.”

The fu­ture for a street kid like him was bleak. Cer­tainly, he was a far cry from be­com­ing an im­por­tant fig­ure in Toronto’s fine din­ing scene. If vol­un­teers from the Fam­i­lies for Chil­dren or­phan­age hadn’t spot­ted him dur­ing a rou­tine comb­ing of the streets for home­less chil­dren, if they had walked in one di­rec­tion in­stead of an­other, his life would have been very dif­fer­ent.

But they did find him, mal­nour­ished and weak. They asked him where his par­ents were; he didn’t know. So they brought him into the or­phan­age.

A lot of home­less kids in In­dia aren’t so lucky, and even if they are, they might find that no­body wants to adopt them. Even­tu­ally, though, Simp­son would be taken in by the Fam­i­lies for Chil­dren founder, San­dra Simp­son, a Toronto res­i­dent. He says he knew, some­how, that he wanted to come to Canada.

San­dra had no in­ten­tion of adopt­ing an­other child, hav­ing al­ready taken in plenty, but this tena­cious lit­tle boy — who she calls Sashi — was dif­fi­cult to ig­nore.

“Sashi per­sists in what­ever he does,” San­dra says. “Ev­ery time I vis­ited our In­dian project, Sashi would be front row and cen­tre ask­ing, ‘Canada, mummy, please.’ ”

He won her over, and in 1979 moved to Toronto to live in a 22room man­sion in For­est Hill with San­dra, her hus­band Lloyd and 32 broth­ers and sis­ters from around the world, most of them adopted. He was around nine years old, he es­ti­mates (Simp­son doesn’t know his birth­day, but his best guess is that he was born in 1970). Sud­denly, in­stead of des­per­ately search­ing for his next meal, he was liv­ing the life of a nor­mal Cana­dian kid, hang­ing out at Sir Win­ston Churchill Park, to­bog­gan­ing and play­ing soc­cer.

While Simp­son’s res­cue from home­less­ness is wor­thy of cin­ema, his foray into the world of food was less dra­matic. He prob­a­bly wouldn’t have ven­tured into the restau­rant in­dus­try if he hadn’t taken a ran­dom dish­wash­ing job as a young man at the now-closed Pat and Mario’s at Yonge and Eglin­ton.

Soon he was buss­ing ta­bles, run­ning food and even­tu­ally, he made his way into the kitchen to cook. One of his sis­ters gave him a warn­ing: “If you go into the kitchen, you’ll never come out.” She ended up be­ing right, but in a good way, he says.

“It’s all I wanted to do. School never did any­thing for me — I was bored at school.”

Simp­son worked his way through cookie-cut­ter restau­rants such as East Side Mario’s, Mr. Green­jeans and Dunn’s deli. One day, in the mid ’90s, he saw a job post­ing for North 44. He was un­qual­i­fied, but his in­tu­ition told him to ap­ply any­way.

“It was a big leap,” he says. “I didn’t even know what fine din­ing was.”

North 44 — celebrity chef Mark McEwan’s crown­ing achieve­ment at the time — had al­ready es­tab­lished it­self as a fine din­ing in­sti­tu­tion and an in­cu­ba­tor for emerg­ing culi­nary tal­ent (Clau­dio Aprile, Rob Gen­tile and Luis Valen­zuela, among oth­ers, have all passed through the restau­rant’s kitchen).

There was no rea­son why such an in-de­mand restau­rant would take on a cook of Simp­son’s cal­i­bre, and it didn’t — at first. He was re­jected twice, he says, which only made him come back stronger. Even­tu­ally, North 44 took a gam­ble on him.

Simp­son did ev­ery­thing they needed: peeled pota­toes and onions, worked the veg­etable sta­tion. And he did it well, pulling long shifts, grind­ing his way through the ranks.

“It was so dif­fer­ent from the food I used to cook,” he says. “It was an art, and it in­trigued me.”

His men­tors were the chefs who were in the trenches with him, ded­i­cat­ing their lives to their craft and the restau­rant — vet­er­ans such as Brooke McDougall, An­drew Springett and for­mer ex­ec­u­tive chef Richard Andino.

“Work­ing at North 44, around that time, was very dif­fi­cult,” says Andino, cur­rently ex­ec­u­tive chef at David Dun­can House in North York. “We were al­ways un­der­staffed. Sash came in, he did the work, he did it prop­erly and he suc­ceeded.”

In 2002, Simp­son was put onto the open­ing team for McEwan’s next project, By­mark, as ex­ec­u­tive sous chef. It wasn’t long, though, be­fore he’d get called back to North 44, this time as ex­ec­u­tive chef. It was a po­si­tion he’d hold for 16 years — an un­usual dis­play of loy­alty in a field char­ac­ter­ized by tran­sience.

“Half my life I’ve been at one com­pany,” Simp­son says.

Dur­ing his ten­ure, Simp­son du­ti­fully main­tained the restau­rant’s el­e­vated stan­dards, but in June of 2018 he re­signed to pur­sue his own project. Soon af­ter, McEwan an­nounced that he was clos­ing the restau­rant af­ter a 28year run, in­di­cat­ing that the lease had ex­pired.

Cur­rently, Simp­son is at work on his own restau­rant, a 95-seat spot to be called Sash. Set to open in the new year, it will serve brunch, lunch and din­ner — mod­ern food with global in­fu­sion from France, Ja­pan, Italy and In­dia.

He gets wist­ful think­ing about his pre­vi­ous ex­is­tence and how far he’s come. He’s built a solid life for him­self: he’s mar­ried, with a fouryear-old son and an­other child on the way. He’s fo­cused on mov­ing for­ward, but that doesn’t mean he’s let go of his past com­pletely.

“One day, when I have time on my hands to wan­der the streets, I’ll try to find my par­ents,” he says. “They don’t know I’m alive. I’ll do that run one day.”

Peo­ple ask me if I have seen ‘Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire.’ I’ve lived it. That was me.”

Clock­wise from left: Simp­son at his of­fice, Simp­son with his adop­tive mother San­dra Simp­son, Simp­son’s 2001 visit to the or­phange that took him in as a child

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