Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto
Working from his spare restaurant in Kensington Market, Brock Shepherd gives off a restlessness that’s unusual even for a chef. Last year, he added a new batch of cocktails to his menu, ambitious, experimental drinks made from soju, a Korean liquor, and created using techniques he’d taken from molecular gastronomy — the cutting edge of cooking these days, with its cribbing of techniques and processes from the laboratory and food science. By the time winter hit, though, he was looking for a new project again.
The first victim was his office and the icebox at the back of Rice Bar, which went to make room for a sandwich bar that he mostly built himself, shivering in the uninsulated space that used to house a bakery as winter set in. Using recycled materials, bamboo counters and flooring and “green” paints, he slowly finished the space, putting off the opening date every month until, with the first sweltering weeks of summer, he couldn’t postpone it anymore. Wich? finally opened early this month, Kensington’s only purpose-built sandwich bar, run according to Shepherd’s exacting standards.
“I just saw a need in the neighbourhood for it,” he says from behind the counter of the small space. “This neighbourhood needs a lot of grab and go food — what my partner calls hand food. It’s just like the rice bowls — vegetarian options, naturally raised meats, organic produce, quality stuff.”
He’s tried to buy as locally as possible, getting his bread from local bakeries like St. John’s, a mission project that trains workers for six-month apprenticeships to give them a trade, and the care shows right across the simple menu.
There are four savoury and four sweet sandwiches named after local streets, as well as a selection of custom ingredients to design your own meal, all on top of a bespoke grilled cheese menu.
“As for the grilled cheese part, I thought where else can you choose what you want in a grilled cheese sandwich? The basic concept is just grilled cheese and ketchup; you can choose your bread and choose your cheese and sauce. And people asked ‘Look, you’ve got these sauces here that aren’t on the menu here.’ I just didn’t want these long columns of sauces. If it’s on the menu, of course you can have it. I’m not going to say no.”
Even the names of the specialty sandwiches have been chosen carefully; the sweet sandwiches are named after the main streets that bracket Kensington to the north and south, while the savouries are meant to evoke different parts of the Market. “Kensington has that hippy edge to it, the vegetarian thing,” Shepherd says. “And Queen? Marshmallow fluff. The whole mall part of Queen from University to Spadina — I don’t know if everybody will get that joke, but I do.”
The Augusta is a particular favourite of the chef, a sandwich he made for himself, with buffalo mozzarella, arugula, truffle aioli and bresaola — Italian dried, cured meat — on slices of foccacia. Then there’s the College, meant to evoke another Italian influence, which tops a spread of Nutella with a sprinkling of fleur de sel, the salt enhancing the sweetness of the hazelnut spread. It’s typical of the attention to detail that clearly obsesses Shepherd.
“It’s my style. Like I make our kimchee. And I’ve had older Korean women approve of my kimchee — except for the fact that I don’t put fish products in it, because of vegetarians, I don’t want to make problems for them. I’m a white boy from Mississauga, so I’m a clean slate — my influences are within the Market. Within a five-minute walk I’ve got tons of influences. There’s the Italian thing, and whatever else works, but nobody’s ordered kimchee in a sandwich yet.”