The sisterhood of Toslow: Talking female food entrepreneurship in downtown St. John's
Five minutes after the pint of QV Dayboil was placed in front of me, I felt like part of the sisterhood.
With music playing, and customers filtering in and out grabbing a coffee or a beer, I sat at the bar and chatted with the women of Toslow about their business, their food and their distaste for the title chef.
Jessica Gibson, Glen May and Chris Scott opened Toslow as a pseudo-speakeasy in 2018 with success — but it's their food — donuts oozing with lemon curd and mile-high breakfast sandwiches that have garnered a cult following.
Toslow, located on Duckworth Street in St. John's, started meal service in April 2019 with a consistently bustling brunch service on Saturdays and sandwiches and pastries throughout the week.
One Saturday, they sold out in less than four hours; more than 500 transactions were clocked on the register.
The kitchen is manned — sorry, (wo)manned — by an all-female staff.
There's Becky Gibson, who covers the savoury side of things, devising daily sandwich creations like the focaccia pretzel B.L.T. or the fried tofu waffle sandwich. Her pastry compatriot, Catherine Roberge "The Donutress," rules the sweet side with donuts, pastries and galettes galore.
Becky's sister, part-owner Jessica Gibson, bakes (in addition to going to school full-time) and works both front and back of the house. "I do everything. I do whatever is needed," she said.
At the front of the house, the third Gibson sister Caroline is a self-proclaimed bartender, but the four others quickly chime in: "Caroline is the general manager; you can say she's the GM," doing everything from changing the kegs to the staff schedule.
Isobel McKenna rounds out the group, she's been on staff since May 2019 working the day shift in the front of the house.
We don't really have a hierarchy of structures here. Even the term chef, we find it a bit weird.- Becky Gibson
But the sisterhood didn't start when Toslow started pumping out sandwiches.
"We all met because we worked together at Fixed, except for Isobel," said Catherine.
"I hadn't worked in a kitchen before Jess got me a job. Becky started shortly after me and we have worked together in kitchens for almost 10 years."
Most of them have been working together for a decade in a variety of restaurant kitchens and coffee shops around St. John's, ending up at Fixed Coffee and Baking just up the National War Memorial stairs. Fixed's closure in early 2019 was the catalyst for food service at Toslow. While none of the women have formal food service training, their years of experience working side-by-side have made them a solid team.
"I always baked as a hobby. Then I did the baking upstairs [at Fixed] after Catherine went to Raymonds," said Jessica. Catherine worked under award-winning pastry chef Celeste Mah for more than two years at Raymonds.
"I wanted to expand my skills and I didn't want to go to school," explained Catherine.
"Celeste had reached out to me and it was an invaluable opportunity. I worked there until we opened Toslow and I worked here, and baked the bread there. I had to stop working there because it got too busy and transitioned back to full time here."
Where are the accolades for Newfoundland's female chefs?
The all-female makeup of the kitchen may be a happenstance, but the staff feel it's important and is happy having it that way. Toslow's drool-worthy Instagram has referenced their pride in the all-female food team, as has Catherine's personal page.
"It is important to us because lots of cis male identifying people get a lot of accolades for being chefs in the community," Jessica said.
"Not to make any opposition, but we would definitely prefer to give positions to female-identified or gender non-binary to help people who are underrepresented get experience."
A communal appreciation for the men who've put St. John's on the culinary world stage among the group is evident, but the women of Toslow are amongst those in the periphery of the spotlight despite their success.
Catherine pointed out that when her mentor Celeste Mah won Best Pastry Chef at the Canada's 100 Best Restaurants awards in 2019 there was barely any local media coverage, while other local male chefs have been heralded for lesser feats.
Talk about dismissing the patriarchy; at Toslow, there's no hierarchy at all. "We don't really have a hierarchy of structures here," said Jessica.
We try to make conscious choices about who we do business with, if we do business, who we support and who we have in here.- Catherine Roberge
When I broached the subject of what it feels like to be a female chef in Newfoundland and Labrador it provoked a profound reaction from all five women.
"Even the term chef, we find it a bit weird," said Jessica.
"We don't self-identify that way. I don't want to identify, I hate that word. I hate having to say it back to people," said Catherine.
"I understand there is tradition there, but we don't really want to go by a hierarchy of importance in the kitchen here. We kind of subvert traditional structures that are present in the restaurant industry. Obviously this is a capitalist venture but we try to steer away from that by not having big investors or noticeable hierarchies."
Everything to do with the business is done with intention. Teamwork and collaboration are paramount with all decisions, from who's working Friday night — to moving into a bigger location.
"We try to make conscious choices about who we do business with, if we do business, who we support and who we have in here," said Catherine. "We have a say in that collectively as a staff."
What's next for Toslow?
The question "where do you see Toslow in five years?" got a big reaction from all the women sitting around the bar. A collective buzz of excitement and reverie mixed with trepidation accompanied dreams, both small and supersize.
"Hopefully not still in here," said Catherine, laughing.
"We daydream about our space with white tiles and pink stuff and wallpaper and windows. It would be nice if some plants could grow there."
Since this interview, Toslow has made a public appeal to help them find a bigger space, lamenting about a neglectful and absent landlord.
"Hopefully in a larger space," said Becky, imagining the space to do bigger dishes like noodle bowls, fries with toppings and of course, more baked goods.
"It would be nice if we could have an espresso machine," said Jess, explaining people come in to Toslow on a regular basis looking for lattes. "We just want to make good coffee; a lot of our roots are from cafes making coffee."
"More beer taps, like 12," said Caroline.
For them, a downtown space would be ideal, but it's been challenging. They've looked at dozens of places.
"I see other neighbourhoods around the downtown developing more. That's what I've always wanted. Like west end Water Street or Rabbittown," said Jessica.
The physical space — which they stipulated needs to be accessible — will be inclusive in more ways than square footage. They see a workspace for more women in food in Newfoundland and Labrador.
"We could be in a role where we trained other people," said Catherine. "We haven't done a lot of that; it would be a natural progression and can challenge you as a cook or a chef."
Passing on the pastry torch would lead to more inclusiveness in the industry. Growing the number of women in food in the province has become as important as a shiny new oven.
"It would be nice to share our skills," said Jessica.
"If there was a young person who wouldn't feel comfortable in a kitchen otherwise, they could come to us and we teach them what we know."
This is the first instalment of the Women in Food N.L. series. Writer Gabby Peyton will be speaking with women rooted in the Newfoundland and Labrador dining scene about the food they make, and their daily lives on the edge of the culinary spotlight.