Thursday Night Cookups started in the fall of 2017 as a way to bring friends together to cook a big meal we'd never attempt as 20-somethings on our own, like a savoury pie or batch of perogies.
We’d gather at my friend’s shared house in Kitsilano and cobble together cozy meals as icy rain drummed against the windows.
We were in our mid-20s, working precarious, low-paying jobs and living on our own for the first time after school. We were cash-strapped, lonely and relatively new to the world of cooking for ourselves every night.
Though restaurants were a luxury few of us could afford, we could comfortably pitch in $5 to buy ingredients for a communal meal. Thursday nights worked best for everyone's schedule, and so the ritual was born.
In the beginning, there were three of us. We’d roll out dumpling dough with a discount wine bottle, and eat together. Eventually, over weeks and months, Thursday Night Cookups sprawled into something way more chaotic and wonderful — a 60-member-strong community, where dozens of us gathered, prepped a mountain of food, fed the hoards and then rolled up our sleeves and dove into the pile of dishes.
There were just three rules. First, you had to help out, whether it was prep, cooking or dishes. Second, you had to make sure you paid Tom Laventure, the organizer, on time. And third, everything had to be made from scratch.
To streamline money collection, Tom created an app to keep track of who’d prepaid for dinners and who owed him cash. He'd joke that Cookup officially had a bank. The app also helped impose a cap after the dinners grew too large. We could cram around 20 people into the house on a regular basis, but a sprawling 30-person dinner drew complaints from the neighbours.
Everyone was encouraged to invite their friends, friends-of-friends, family, partners or co-workers; everyone was invited.
Tom’s roommates, who were often visiting from other countries and only staying in town for a couple months, were briefed about the dinners before they were shown the room they could rent. They wore bemused expressions as hordes of strangers invaded their home every week to cook them dinner. Some integrated into the group; others found things to do elsewhere on Thursday evenings, waving goodbye with an exasperated sigh as we arrived.
If you pitched a meal idea you'd be tasked with organizing it. Something as approachable as bánh mì or spaghetti quickly loses its approachability once you take the time to consider making the baguettes from scratch, or rolling out noodles for 20 people. Organizing the meal also involved planning and picking up groceries to feed everyone within the budget.
As labour-intensive as meals could be, we had limitless labour. Whoever was leading the meal always had the authority to assign tasks. “Shred this bunch of carrots,” “mince four bulbs of garlic,” “cube this bag of potatoes,” “roll out this dough.” We were used to tucking into dinner at 9 p.m., when all the dishes finally came together.
For me, these Thursday evenings were pure magic. I’d wrap up work, drop by the liquor store for something to share and head to Tom’s. His apartment door swung open into the kitchen, already filled with the comfortable smush of friends catching up as they chopped vegetables and stirred pots. You’d do the “rounds,” pausing to hug almost everyone you passed, before returning to the kitchen to hunt down a vessel to pour your drink into.
The gentle chaos of the kitchen was comforting, so whether I was cooking, prepping or doing dishes, that’s where I’d settle. Others shared the couch or perched on the deep freeze that sat awkwardly in the hallway. Groups swelled and shifted as people moved through the evening, transitioning from conversations with old friends to animatedly telling stories to strangers.
To seat everyone, we used plywood and foldable chairs to expand the table. We accumulated enough plates, glasses and cutlery slowly over time, from a mixture of items donated to the dinners and items found in alleyways around the city.
Elbow room was not something you got at Cookups. Instead, you were served a heaping plate of salad, fresh steaming bread, a pile of saucy pasta, or curry, or stew, or pie, or dumplings. Dessert was usually organized by my friend Kim Cafferky, who would pull out a double-layered chocolate ganache cake with raspberry filling just as we were wrapping up dinner and declaring we were too stuffed to eat another bite.
At the time I celebrated Cookups as a chance to feast. But looking back, it was the community more than the heaping dinner plate that made it special.
My friends agree.
Maxine Wagner, originally from Winnipeg, says Cookup made her feel at home in Vancouver. “Even though when I came in I was basically a stranger to most of the group, I never felt left out or like I didn't belong,” she says. “Having large friend groups is so rare as an adult as it is, and to have a group like Cookup where people were so friendly and down-to-earth is really something special.”
Another friend, Wei Chou, told me he found shelter and an escape from his “constant stream of stress” at Cookups. When he joined the dinners, Wei had just launched a startup, lost his job and was living in a “bug-infested” single resident occupancy hotel on the Downtown Eastside. “I found shelter at Cookups during some of the most stressful, impoverished and exciting moments in my 20s,” he says. The community helped “remind me what humanity is,” he added. (Wei’s startup is doing well and he’s since moved to better housing.)
Today, the community built by this weekly tradition persists, even though the dinners do not. COVID-19 killed Thursday Night Cookups.
Our last dinner was March 10, 2020. News reports of the freshly named COVID-19 virus had been read by even the most news-avoidant of the group, though no one yet understood the weight of it.
Disease had yet to derail Cookup — even when Tom was unwell, we gathered. He'd go to bed early, leaving us to tidy the kitchen and turn off the lights as we left.
On March 11, 2020 the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
By March 18, Tom had sent out a message the dinners were suspended. “Once this pandemic dies down a bit we will pick up again right where we left off,” he wrote.
As the weeks wore on we tried to move the dinners online. We'd cook the same recipe in our own apartments while on Zoom. But it wasn’t the same.
By summer 2022, when we were comfortable enough to gather indoors again we discovered the momentum had died.
We lived in different, smaller apartments with fewer roommates. We had new jobs and busier schedules. We had dogs to walk and early mornings to be rested for.
Cookups were over. And in some ways I’m grateful for that.
While I still ache for the routine and the gathering of friends and sense of community, I’m happy Cookups ended properly, instead of fizzling out or blowing up — a bit like a favourite book that you wish had a sequel but would refuse to read if it ever came out.
In Cookup’s heydays, Tom always chose someone to give a toast to kick off each meal. Nothing fancy — you could simply raise a glass and say “cheers.”
But most people took the opportunity to express gratitude. For the meal, for their friends gathered around the table who had been strangers mere months ago, for being welcomed into the community.
Sappy, earnest or comical, we'd raise our glasses and clunk them against as many neighbours’ as possible before tucking in.
I am grateful to the group of strangers who came together to build a community around making food together. I am grateful for small acts, like setting a weeknight aside, that can sprawl into things bigger than we could have ever dreamed of. I’m grateful we had the opportunity to do Thursday Night Cookup for several years.
So here’s to what was, and here’s to hoping it inspires similar gatherings in the future, in my kitchen and in yours.
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