The modern day hero wouldn’t be caught wearing a cape, or fighting crime in an iron suit, or seen contemplating life from the tops of sky scrapers.
The modern day heroes are the people who inspire us to strive when the future is grim, to take another step when it seems impossible, to dance like no one is watching (when really, there’s always someone watching). The modern day hero inspires us by being their genuine selves.
As a regular civilian, I search for these kinds of extraordinary people; those that are inspirational in every day life. I yearn for them, I hunger for them: the heroes that save the day, on the daily.
Mani Mogo creates community meals that are über Instagrammable and fit for a white-tiled gastro pub on Ossington.
This is the story of two every day heroes that I am honored to know and have as friends: Phil and Grace, founders of Mani Mogo.
Though the three of us are all Torontonians, we met in a more roundabout way. It took a Euro backpacking trip across 3 months and 6 countries, locking down a job in London, couch surfing a cousin’s friends’ place, and finally making some cash and looking for a new flat in foggy London, for me to cross paths with Phil. A mutual friend knew Phil was moving out of his room, and I needed a roof over my head if I was going to make my London journey work.
Out of those early 20’s adventures, a beautiful friendship was born.
Over the next two years, I witnessed and ate many of Phil’s delicious dinners. By day, Phil worked in finance, crushing it as one would crush garlic. In his off time, he’d nosedive into cooking. He fed myself, all his friends, neighbours, flat mates, boat people, travellers, and strangers, earning his nickname: MaMa Phil. His food was infused by his two great culinary inspirations: Spanish food from the Basque country, and Korean home cooking, the latter of which would soon become his signature.
Phil returned to Toronto about 8 months before I did and teamed up with our second hero in this tale: Grace. Together, they formed Mani Mogo.
Mani Mogo creates community meals that are über Instagrammable and fit for a white-tiled gastro pub on Ossington. Picture their take on “late night breakfast”: garlic, truffle, and butternut squash mash with thick pork belly strips roasted with bacon, grapes, and fried sage; or bacon risotto balls perched with a quail egg, which is also their signature dish to date!
Phil and Grace do what they do purely out of the joy of seeing their friends gather, talk and “mani mogo” – which, by the way, is Korean for “eat lots”
But what always really impresses me is that despite the tremendous effort that goes into creating crafty meals, Phil and Grace do what they do purely out of the joy of seeing their friends gather, talk and “mani mogo” – which, by the way, is Korean for “eat lots” and its sentiment is best expressed as “bon appétit”. It’s refreshing to see Mani Mogo doing something just because they like to make people feel good.
At first, Mani Mogo was just the two of them cooking for friends, then they started getting hired for gigs, until eventually they were catering a wedding for 200 people. Having done a variety of different events, they realized that Mani Mogo was something they wanted to do for fun, not for money.
Now they run Mani Mogo Mondays, warm and intimate gatherings where our friends eat and try their hand in the kitchen under Grace’s supervision. “I don’t think anything made me happier than seeing Dave and his neighbour Arthur cook for the first time,” Phil said once. “He even photographed what he cooked and sent it to his mom. I don’t think he’s ever took a food photo in his life!”
They both devoted time to study the culinary arts, and they both somehow ended up working in finance.
Phil & Grace have a brother-sister type relationship even though there’s no family relation outside of growing up in the same neighbourhood and sharing close friends. After a lifelong but coincidental friendship that stalled in their teens, they reconnected a few years ago over their mutual love of Korean food. They both devoted time to study the culinary arts, and they both somehow ended up working in finance. But despite their similarities, their differences in the kitchen are clear.
Grace says she likes to envision exactly how things will look and taste in the end and hopes to achieve it with the freshest and fewest ingredients possible. Phil, on the other hand, tends to throw things together and see what brews. His most prized ingredient? Butter. And indeed one of my favourite additions to their meals is a pot of melted butter in which to dip the butter-fried ploughman’s bread. Yes. Butter-fried bread dipped in butter dip. Yumm.
Phil says he is “an eater first, then a cook”, and Grace says she is “a feeder first, then an eater”
Phil says he is “an eater first, then a cook”, and Grace says she is “a feeder first, then an eater”, a quality that might have something to do with her being a wife and new mom. As Grace added, “motherhood creates the perfect condition for authentic Korean food to flourish”.
In fact, when I ask my friends how Mani Mogo came to be, they never answer with an ode to culinary techniques, food or even eating. Instead, they tell me about their parents. It was the 1970’s when Phil and Grace’s parents, the “last pollination of old Korea”, emigrated from Korea to Finch and Weston Road, the self-named “Liberty Village” by the first landed Korean-Canadian Immigrants. They came here for a better life and found a brutally cold winter in a neighbourhood that still today is smattered with shootings and muggings; but still, they bought us into this country and even voted for Trudeau. Pierre, that is.
“My mom raised two kids on 25k a year working two or three jobs at a time,” Phil told me. “She worked hard to provide us with clothes and meals. We didn’t have a lot of money but I always had a good pair of clean shoes.” Grace was one of three daughters growing up in occasionally roach infested apartments in Rexdale. Her parents also had to stretch the dollar. Her father became a sort of rogue farmer who grew garlic, tomatoes and Napa cabbage in his backyard urban farm way before hipsters were doing it. He and his wife foraged north of the city decades before Michael Pollan made it a sophisticated weekend outing. When shopping with her daughter, Grace’s mother will hold up an organic head of Napa cabbage and scoff: “Why pay five bucks for something you could grow for free in your backyard?”
In Korean culture, Mani Mogo is less about food than it is about parents, and specifically, moms.
Korean mothers never stop feeding their kids, no matter how old they, or their kids are. And before each meal starts, that timeless sentiment is expressed: “Mani mogo”. Something almost sacred is conjured when Phil and Grace recount stories of food and their Korean families—the smell of fermenting soybean and chilli paste on the window sill, how their mothers watch over their shoulders while they cook in their new-fangled methods. I’m almost envious of the deep relationship to food that implies so much more: family, culture, language. Something that can’t be told but only experienced.
"Has following your hearts ever led you astray?”
“It’s not about the food,” says Phil, and I know that Grace is right there with him. “It’s about doing what you love, and bringing people together.” At this point, I decided to ask: “Has following your hearts ever led you astray?”
G: There’s one incident that really opened our eyes.
P: We were doing a charity thing and someone had a dietary restriction—they asked for gluten free, we thought they weren’t respective of what we were doing and we were annoyed.
G: And I think we just said no, we’re not going to do it.
P: And then after we found out the reason, the woman was asking for her husband and he had cancer.
G: As soon as I found that out my heart just kind of dropped. I felt like such an asshole.
P: I’m glad I got slapped in the face, that was the best lesson. Now I’m on the other side, I get angry, I’m one of those people that’s like veganism’s important—respect that! I eat pork every day but I respect your choice.
This is exactly the sort of humbleness and self reflection that called me to Phil and Grace. To me, this is what makes them extraordinary, feeding my hunger for everyday heroes. And I swear it's the love that makes their Mani Mogo dinners taste so damn good!
Instagram images provided by Grace C., Phil L, Henry L., and Edward L.