By: Jim Bamboulis
Her restaurant, legendary. Her brunch, an experience! For the past 35 years, Judy Perly has seen it all as Owner-Operator of Free Times Cafe just north of Kensington Market in downtown Toronto.
A beloved member of the city, she’s played a leading role within both the culinary and cultural circles of Toronto for decades. She’s not only helped introduce authentic Jewish cuisine to the general public but she’s also provided the launching pad for several now famous Canadian artists and musicians.
Judy’s the first to admit that Free Times Cafe isn’t exactly trendy. It’s not only the food that makes this landmark a consistent go-to for so many – it’s also Judy, herself. She has an innate ability to make you feel good, happy. It’s also the history and spirit of the place. You’re welcomed into what feels like a hospitable family dining room, without the family fights that sometimes come along with it.
I caught up with Judy to talk about the evolution of Jewish cuisine in Toronto, the times grown men almost cried tears of joy while eating, her social media infamy, the musicians that have come through the doors (and the one she’s still waiting for) and of course the love and passion she has for hosting her infamous Jewish Brunch; an experience that has brought joy, uniting people from around the world every weekend for the past 20+ years.
Q. Let’s get people salivating right from the start; what’s for Brunch, Judy?
A. Ok, we make our own cheese blintzes, freshly made potato latkes, our own salmon patties, our own gefilte fish, our own horseradish, eggplant salad, cucumber salad, beet salad, chunky coleslaw, chickpea and kale salad, fresh cheeses including cottage cheese, cream cheese, fish, herrings.
All these things you don’t even get at restaurants and if you do they’re very expensive. Unfortunately, a lot of buffets today, the choices aren’t great so people get disappointed. If you give people great choices at a buffet of unique foods, it makes them really happy! You know, I’ve seen grown men almost crying over this food because it takes them back in time.
Q. How has the Jewish food scene in Toronto evolved since you began the Jewish Brunch 20 years ago?
A. There’s a lot of people who are doing creative things with Jewish food other than myself. Caplansky does his version of a deli with smoked meat and other Jewish dishes like Knishes and Kishka. You also have Anthony Rose who does a more Middle-Eastern/Jewish fusion with Fat Pasha and then with Schmaltz he does more a Jewish style fish-dairy takeout. And I’ve been to Schmaltz and it’s very much like the dairy’s I use to go to as a child.
People are getting interested because actually Jewish food is least represented of all the foods. Jewish food was always considered to be a home food or a deli food. So, as the traditional deli’s started going out of business, some of the Jewish people who were involved with food and who knew how to cook said to themselves the same thing that I did: ‘I’m Jewish, I know how to cook Jewish food, let’s take it to the public’.
Q. With 900+ Jewish Brunches and counting, you obviously love doing it. Why do you enjoy it so much?
A. It makes everybody really happy! I get personal thanks from everybody when they leave. And it allows the entertainment part of my personality to come out.
I feel as if I’m doing a huge service not just to the Jewish community but in general to re-create this kind of atmosphere the Jewish people had at their grandparents house on Sundays; bit of chaos, tonnes of food but in a bigger way.
I have two names for it: ‘Bubbe’s house without the fights’ and ‘Bubbe’s food on steroids’. It’s over the top. But it’s funny, nobody fights at the brunch but when you went to your grandmother’s house, there was always a fight. Everybody in the moment has a great time and that’s what people are looking for in a restaurant experience. Your generation especially wants the experience when they go out.
And we have the entertainment to go along with it. We’re the only place in the world with weekly concerts of Yiddish and Klezmer music. Music’s included, there’s no extra fee for it. And then they get me, doing the ‘OY’s, my schtick, laughing. In our family, I was half time entertainment at the family fights.
Q. Speaking of entertainment, did you originally set out to give musicians a chance to get their feet wet at Free Times?
A. No. They came to me. I’m a positive person and I try to say ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’. And I take a lot of risks. People came and said we don’t have a place to play, we’d like to play here. I said ‘let’s do it’! I had a musician friend whose nephew was at York University who wanted to play on Saturday night; we had a little room in the back that wasn’t being used at night. We started once a week, then it became twice a week then three times a week. The music started in 1981 and by ’83 it became seven days a week.
The other thing I’m really proud of is we fostered so much talent that has moved on to other places, including Ron Sexsmith who I discovered here on our open stage. Bob Dylan even came here in ’88 to see Ken Whiteley.
Q. You’ve had a lot of musicians in here, is there one that got away? One that you’ve always wanted to play here?
A. Yes! Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen. (Laughter)
I’m waiting for Leonard I’ve even written him a song. It’s called ‘I love you Leonard Cohen’. I’m really waiting and hoping for Leonard to come.
Q. Considering your VINE success, if social media was around at the time you were starting your business 30 years ago, would you still open the restaurant or go down the social media route instead?
A. I probably needed to do the restaurant business because I was kind of introverted. I needed to develop that side of myself more and how to work with people more. Same with VINE, it brought my personality out but I don’t think one or the other; you can do a lot of things in tandem.
What I would like to do at this point in my life, if I wasn’t running the restaurant, I would probably become a Speaker to raise money for charities because that’s what I do the best, speaking in front of people.
But honestly, if I could do my Sunday Brunch every single day and nothing else, I’d be very happy. That’s the thing I most enjoy in my whole life, being here on Sunday.
For more information about Free Times Cafe and to book a seat for Sunday Brunch, please refer to the links below. Happy eating!