The White Lily of Toronto

White Lily Diner

All that glitters is green! It’s been three years since Michelin touched down in Toronto. When they announced that White Lily Diner was receiving a Green Star, we all did a double-take. “What is a Green Star?” We all asked. “Where is White Lily Diner?” We had to investigate.

White lilies symbolize rebirth. Rising out of the ashes of the pandemic, White Lily Diner represents a new concept in the Toronto restaurant scene.

When Ben Denham and Ashley Lloyd first opened their diner, their goal was simply to be a cozy neighbourhood restaurant. There was one problem: 2020. Their pandemic pivot ultimately took the form of takeout orders from the restaurant and trying their hand at farming. While still operating their kitchen, they harvested a new idea of growing their own ingredients.

@whitelilyfarms
With a focus on sustainability and quality of life, they endured all the trials and tribulations of starting a farm from scratch. Their holistic approach to farming also took root in their menu, where many of the ingredients are cultivated on their own ten-acre farm. Much of their farming, especially in the beginning, involved experimenting and learning, especially with produce that was not typically grown in Ontario, like Japanese okra, purple tomatillos and blue Japanese corn.

“It doesn’t matter how much you’ve read about what’s about to destroy your livelihood,” shares Denham. “You are not prepared until you go through a few cycles of everything that could happen.” They embraced the fear factor unleashed by the pandemic, and through tenacity and teamwork, literally started anew from the ground up. Lloyd emphasizes that she was particularly amazed by how similar the kitchen environment and farming environment could be. The work ethic and attention to detail has to be equally meticulous.

@whitelilydiner, tomatoes
Acquiring the farm has enabled more creativity with what they bring to the restaurant. They’re able to experiment with exciting ingredients. Jalapeños, green Anaheim, green cayenne, and green habanero peppers are bursting with flavour. They’re produce is so fresh and delicious, that they’re even being sourced by other restaurants. Their Black Salsify, requested by a French Chef, for example, is a hot item in another Toronto restaurant.

As farmer-chef duo, Denham and Lloyd believe this model can become the new normal for chefs and farmers, working together to bring the best ingredients to the table. “When we break down those barriers, growing vegetables for these chefs is the exact same feeling that you get from cooking for a customer,” said Denham.

@whitelilydiner, asparagus
We can taste the difference too. Everything tastes farm fresh. Preserves are in season. Asparagus, rhubarb and sweet potatoes all taste like they’ve been plucked right out of the ground. This is not a typical diner or greasy spoon; clean white and beige tones imbue the restaurant with a country-chic vibe. I can even convince myself that their beautiful soft donuts are guilt-free! Clearly Lloyd and Denham embody the farm-to-table philosophy.

All their work has led to their MICHELIN Green Star. In 2020 the MICHELIN Green Star was announced as the newest award, since then there are 291 MICHELIN Green Star restaurants across the world. MICHELIN started awarding Green Stars to restaurants that hold themselves accountable for their ethical and environmental standards, as well as work with sustainable producers and suppliers to avoid and reduce waste. There’s no kind of green witchcraft going on here, says Denham.

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White Lily Diner
White Lily Diner, by Pawelec Photos

For Lloyd and Denham, it’s not just about clean presentation, it’s about the heart and soul that they put into every detail of their farm-to-table practice, from cultivating their land to prepping their dishes. It was never about Michelin recognition, which actually came as a surprise to them both. “For us, it’s definitely way out of left field,” said Dunham, “we sought to be a neighbourhood restaurant. Period. This was never part of our journey.” However, they are thankful for the recognition, as well as to be included among other acclaimed restaurants that go through diverse lengths to do what they do.

“The industry is much bigger than just those dozen elements of an ultra-fine dining restaurant,” shares Denham. “What we do is not any less work; it’s just a different route.” It’s a route of sustainability for which we must all be increasingly conscious.

White Lily Diner Family, by Aaron Wynia
“It ain’t easy being green,” but this dynamic duo showcases the bounty of the land, combined with their imagination and experimentation, for a humble and healthy dining experience that has us seeing stars.

White Lily Diner, 678 Queen St. East, 416-901-7800

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