Toronto mother, Sunday duo translates South African roots into free-spirited food

TORONTO – At 2 o’clock, Dan Gütter regularly began receiving texts from his mother in the direction of: “Hey, cinnamon buns came straight out of the oven. If you’m still up, get one. ”

“I just saw this passion for food. And I knew objectively that her food was absolutely good enough to compete with what was out there, ”Dan said.

He had the knowledge to make that statement. After a decade of working at some of the city’s most famous restaurants, Momofuku Daishō and Shōtō, Chantecler, Buca, Lee and Drake Hotel, he intimately understood the industry.

In addition to quality, Dan saw a “unique flare” baked into his mother Lauren Gütter’s food that was rooted in her upbringing in Johannesburg.

Although their family moved to Toronto when Dan was three months old, Lauren’s South African food philosophy remained mature.

One day, Dan took up the subject. He put it simply: “We have to cook.”

Not long after, in 2014, Jack and Lil’s were born, named after Lauren’s parents, a nod to their family business and South African lineage.Jack and Lil'sFirst, customers asked, “What is South African here?”

While their menu included biltong, a traditional South African dried and eaten meat, it also offered chilled soba noodles and banana tahini muffins.

“The guava yogurt and the seed bread, but also me and my mother and our South African hospitality,” Dan would reply.

Dan and Lauren initially struggled with how to define Jack and Lils as South Africans, without compromising their drive or limiting their creativity. But over time, they realized that their menu did not control their operation, it did their virtues. It was their warmth, openness and spontaneity that made Jack and Lil truly South African.

“It just makes it authentic,” Lauren said. “That’s just right.”tahinemuffinsGoing forward, that recognition guided their business.

They started by selling meringue boats and dulce de leche caramelized in white chocolate at food markets.

Soon the word spread, they started cooking for photo shoot sets, leading to private events, signing a lease for an industrial kitchen on Dundas Street West and later, a customer-facing grab-and-go window, typically in South Africa, tucked away in a roadway just off St Clair Avenue West.

While Jack and Lil ventured out for catering, they would never make the same meal twice. Their creative pursuit was in stark contrast to the industry’s norm that catering was predictable, but it lined up with their dismissal of limiting their business by conventions.

Of course, they created a wild card catering concept. “We built the catering out of, you don’t know what you get until we show up,” Dan said.

Customers were hesitant at first. “It was amazing what a result we developed where there were enough people embracing that element of surprise,” Lauren said.

She was eager to keep pushing their creative boundaries and created a “harvest table” common in South Africa, at their Dundas location.

autumn tableOn Sundays, they would fill a buffet with pancakes, French toast, eggs, yogurt, granola or whatever Lauren felt inspired to throw on the stove that day, and customers stacked their plates up as high as they wanted and paid according to the weight of their meal.

While shared food has almost been abandoned due to the pandemic, Dan and Lauren maintained their mission through a concept they called jack-in-a-box, an individually packaged version of their family-style mix.

Just as the jack-in-a-box kids win up and wait for the moment the ghost suddenly comes to life, Jack and Lil kept their eccentric, vibrant essence alive, even as their business model shifted gears.

“It’s South African because that’s who she is,” Dan said, referring to his mother. “And by extension, who I am.”

“It’s a lot in our blood and a lot a part of us,” Lauren added. “It’s very much a part of Jack and Lil’s.”

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Table Talk is a weekly CTV News Toronto series exploring the people who shape Toronto’s food scene, published every Friday on CTVNewsToronto.ca.

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