By Darren Lum
A short drive from downtown Minden will bring your taste buds to faraway lands at Val’s Soul Food where the dishes are slow-cooked and infused with love.
Operated by the mother and daughter team of Val Braithwaite and Layla London from Toronto, they said food is a universal gateway to another culture.
They are serving up savoury “soul food” offerings at their food truck located on the grounds of Ray’s Place, located on 6254 County Road 121.
Johnson encourages people who have never tried soul food – which includes items such as chicken roti on the weekends, samosa, curry chicken with rice, jerk chicken wings – to take a chance on trying something new.
“It’s one of those things where you get to experience someone else’s culture … the way they appreciate food. Everyone has a way with food. Mum’s way is quite special,” she said.
Braithwaite, who has 30 years of experience, has enjoyed being able to introduce people to new flavours and experiences, such as her curry chicken.
“I love it. It’s just in the way it takes time to cook it. Slow cooking. A little bit of spice,” she said, specifying the spice is not extreme, for palates unfamiliar with it.
She adds it’s important for her to carry on this generational family knowledge passed on to her, and be able to share it with others.
“Soul food comes from a tradition of a combination of southern, West Indian, African and Canadian. I learned how to cook from both of my parents,” she said. “[Cooking] through the generations. It’s comfort food with a southern flair.”
Her daughter said her mother takes a lot of time and care making all the dishes. She feels fortunate to be part of the lineage to carry on her family heritage.
Brathwaite said her family settled in London, Ontario after making the journey from the U.S. as slaves via the underground railroad.
“My family goes back several generations in Canada,” she said. “My ancestors came up as slaves and travelled on the underground railroad and settled down near London, Ontario. We’ve been in Canada a long time. The traditions of the old-fashioned cooking and the flavours have been passed on.”
Val’s Soul Food’s menu also includes standard food truck fare from burgers and fries, beef on a bun, and wings to pork chops and roast beef. Braithwaite points out all the dishes use fresh ingredients and are made daily. The well-portioned banquet burgers are made with fresh ground beef patties, topped with crisp lettuce, full-size bacon strips and cheese.
Sweet tooth? The duo are also capable bakers and have had the crowds to prove it.
Braithwaite said her pastries and butter tarts have garnered awards from community fairs.
Johnson enjoys baking her “designer cupcakes” as she gets to express her artistic side, which is also on display with a mural on the food truck.
“I’m an artist at heart, so just having that time to create and play around with the different colours, flavours. It’s been fun,” she said.
Although the pair paused for the winter after opening in the autumn of 2020, they have been given assurances by Ray’s Place owners about a plan to have a new space on the property, so Val’s Soul Food can operate all year.
The sharing of food and company on Sundays is a family tradition the pair want to have here once the restrictions related to COVID-19 are over. The plan to is to have a drop-in, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. with a by-donation event, so families can come, eat and socialize.
The decision to start the food truck came after a series of challenges from a serious car accident for Johnson, the loss of husband and father in 2016, and a stroke by Braithwaite in early 2019, which left her in a coma-like state for several weeks and included months in the hospital. There was such a proliferation of cooking after getting out from the hospital, the portions became too much for them to consume alone, so they ended up sharing the bounty.
“So I started to give it to family and friends and then when COVID hit we had the idea of, let’s see if we can post this and see if anybody in the community wants to have a home-cooked meal because you can’t get out. I was dropping it to like over 30 people in the area. We had such good feedback from it. There was one lady she’s like, ‘I haven’t been able to see my family and I don’t cook, so having this home-cooked meal was so special.’ She cried. She was so happy. We felt like we were really helping and giving back,” she said. “When we first opened we kept that going. We didn’t have any set prices. It was just by donation, or whatever you felt. We can’t continue to do that, but we do want to do it on Sundays.”
Although Braithwaite has run restaurants in Bobcaygeon and Fenelon Falls, she has not had a place in the Highlands before and saw the potential in Minden after a recommendation from friends in the general area as a way to return.
Coming back to rural Ontario from Toronto was a return rooted in love for the beauty of the area and, in particular, its people.
“For me it’s the people. The people up here are very, very special. They’re very welcoming and it’s a simpler way of life and I love to interact with the people,” Braithwaite said.
Her daughter said life here is different to the city.
“People will stop you and want to chat. They’re friendlier. It’s not the hustle and bustle of the city. Everyone has time to kind of reflect. Everyone has a story,” Johnson said.
She adds it’s important to be a positive representation for people to see.
“We are kind of like the first of the first in this area. It’s nice to be that doorway of connecting people, and better understanding between people,” Johnson said.
Her daughter said there was a prevailing feeling when they came to the area that this was the place for them.
“We felt it right away. This is the spot. We’re going to try and make something here. It’s been wonderful,” Johnson said.
The food truck operates Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and weekends from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
For more up to date information about the food truck such as hours and specials see www.valssoulfood.com.