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This Soup’s for You

Ralf Dauns is gone. He leaves an impact that he never understood. Latest in our series on the spirit of sharing.

Josh Kozelj 27 Dec

Josh Kozelj is the inaugural Hummingbird Fellow with The Tyee.

The man in a grey puffer jacket strolls into Lonsdale Quay Market with his sunglasses on. As he walks through the food court on a Monday in December, he doesn’t break his stride.

Then he sees the “Temporarily closed” sign plastered on a plexiglass window outside a kitchen.

He stops.

Inside the kitchen, the ovens are off. The silver pots and pans sit idle in the sink. Three stacks of white soup containers stand beside the fridge. The place is devoid of that memorable savoury aroma of onions, carrots and celery gently cooking in butter that has attracted so many customers over the years to this corner of the market.

Despite being closed for the foreseeable future, people continue to gather outside the shop, and wonder why the namesake of this restaurant — the Soup Meister — is no longer here. Many remember seeing him standing there in the kitchen, presiding over a stock pot, clad in chef’s whites. His eyes would light up with recognition if he knew you. And he seemed to know just about everyone.

“He died?” One passerby says out loud, to nobody in particular.

“What? Do you know how this happened?” A man says to a stranger also consuming the news.

The man in a grey puffer regains his pace and huddles behind a group of people that have gathered at the kitchen counter. The pieces start to form in his mind: the flowers, the big black book with handwritten notes, the fact that there isn’t a lovable German man in his trademark chef’s whites and his young teenage co-workers behind the counter.

Ralf Dauns is gone.

The man shakes his head, puts his hands in his jean pockets, and walks out of the market without saying a word.

A love for soup

Years before he became North Vancouver’s “Soup Meister,” Dauns grew up on a vineyard in a German village called Reil.

In his childhood, Dauns developed a love for winemaking. As he grew up, that passion extended to cooking.

He was an executive chef in Europe before moving to Windsor, Ontario in the 1980s, where he worked at a local hotel. It was there that he met his wife, Paulah Dauns, and inherited three children from her previous marriage.

Renee Robertson, one of Dauns’ three stepchildren, met Dauns when she was 14. She said her stepdad was stoic, but seamlessly integrated into her family through his playful attitude.

“There’s something similar about all the family gathering photos,” Robertson said. “There’s all the adults and then there’s [Ralf] with the kids.”

 In the top photo Ralf Dauns poses between two kids at the counter of the Soup Meister. A young boy with blonde hair and a grey shirt holds a snowflake sugar cookie on the right. Dauns is in the middle; an older girl with blonde hair is on the left, smiling. In the bottom photo, Ralf Dauns poses with a young girl who is hugging him around the waist. They are standing in the kitchen of the Soup Meister.
He never had children of his own, but Ralf Dauns had an impact on generations of young people, including his stepchildren, his grandchildren and the youth he hired to work in his shop. Photo supplied.

When Dauns and Paulah moved to North Vancouver in 1991, he worked at various Vancouver restaurants including the Delta Pacific Resort and the Teahouse in Stanley Park.

While he loved those jobs, the long nights of work prevented him from spending time with his family. Coupled with the fact that he dreamed of owning his own restaurant, he decided to take a risk.

In 1995, he opened the Stock Pot, which would later be renamed the Soup Meister — a soup kitchen offering a rotating selection of fresh soups every day.

Over the course of 27 years, Dauns turned the Soup Meister into one of North Vancouver’s most popular places to eat. His soup became a favourite for tourists visiting the Quay and locals who wanted a hearty meal. In 2016, the Soup Meister was voted the best meal under $10 by readers of the North Shore News.

However, before community recognition, Robertson said soup was viewed as a side dish, not a meal in itself. As Dauns tried to get his business off the ground, people scoffed at paying $4 or $5 for a bowl of soup.

But she said her stepdad never swayed from his vision. To him, soup was a comforting extension of the kind of simple hospitality he extended through his humble, friendly presence in a crowd.

“My daughter interviewed him one time and she said, ‘Why soup?’” Robertson said. “He said it was a universal food. Kids love it, adults love it, seniors like it. It’s complete nutrition in one bowl.”

Working through cancer

In September 2021, Dauns was diagnosed with lymphoma.

He went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy, but his body didn’t respond well to the treatment. So his doctor suggested he try a new treatment called CAR T-cell therapy that might be able to help him battle the disease.

Although chemotherapy is still the typical tool to battle cancer, CAR-T has also been proven to be effective against lymphoma. It’s a form of treatment that adds a special receptor to a patient’s T-cells through an infusion and directs them to attack cancer cells.

But there’s a long waitlist to access the treatment — and even if a patient makes it on the list, the procedure is only offered in a few hospitals across the country.

For months, Robertson tried with her oncologist to get Dauns on the list, to no avail. Even as his health continued to deteriorate, Dauns continued to do what he loved: work at the shop.

“He would do his weekly Superstore run, come into the loading dock and have a meeting from the seat of his car,” said Nathan Booth, a Soup Meister employee.

Booth met Dauns when he was a teenager. He first worked at the Soup Meister between the ages of 16 to 19. When Dauns was diagnosed with cancer, Booth, now 29, was building mountain biking trails in North Vancouver. As soon as he heard the news, he came back to help Dauns.

He supported the day-to-day elements of Dauns’ business and made a recipe book for the restaurant’s most popular soups.

“He never had anything written down, it was all in his head,” Booth said. “He had 250 different soups he would rotate through, with about 70 being the most popular. So I took those 70 and converted them into proper recipes.” The top seller was Boston clam chowder by a country mile, followed by Italian wedding and chicken noodle soup.

Booth stayed at the restaurant throughout last winter. By the spring, Dauns felt stronger and took the reins back throughout the summer and early fall.

Then, at the end of October, a spot opened up for a CAR-T clinical trial in Montreal.

The treatment date was less than a week away.

“He was finally able to go, and it all happened very fast,” Robertson remembers.

She had three days to fly Dauns across the country.

A mentor

His ability to connect with a younger generation is part of the reason why Dauns became a beloved member of the North Vancouver community. He was a father figure to many, yet he hated the attention that came with being so recognizable for his soup.

“He’s a quiet person,” Robertson said. “We could never go anywhere with him without someone stopping him on the street [because they recognized him from the soup shop], even on vacation.”

Dauns took it upon himself to give teenagers their first jobs.

Booth remembers the staff consisting mostly of local teens looking for independence and older people who eschewed a typical 9 to 5 job. “It wasn’t what I would call an ‘elite kitchen’ but they’re fantastic people,” he said. “And Ralf was the reason they meshed so well.”

Stephani Baker had two sons who worked for Dauns. She said he was a mentor and their friend — someone who taught them hard work and respect in a subtle manner.

“I wouldn’t say he sat down and said, ‘Here’s how you be a nice human.’ It’s the subtle integration of how to be a good citizen,” Baker said.

Every once in a while, when Baker comes home from work, she’ll catch the scent of something delicious cooking in the kitchen.

For a moment, she’ll be surprised to see one of her sons behind the stove.

The other week, one of her boys was making pasta with chicken and spinach.

“He has a love of cooking from Ralf,” Baker said. He passed on important life skills to them: cooking, cleaning and listening. “My youngest son, that wouldn’t be his thing, he also whips up meals where I just say, ‘Oh there’s food in the fridge,’ and he’ll figure out what to make.”

A young girl stands with Ralf Dauns at a stainless steel counter in the Soup Meister kitchen, where they both have their hands in a floury mixture in stainless steel bowls.
Ralf Dauns’s granddaughter loved visiting him in the kitchen of his soup shop. Photo supplied.

‘I truly don’t think he understood the impact he had’

On Nov. 2, Robertson flew with Dauns to Montreal, hoping that his body would respond well to CAR-T treatment. When they got to the hospital, they needed to collect his stem cells.

Although the trip caused quite a bit of pain, Dauns seemed to be in good health heading into the operation. But then his body started to fail him.

The doctors had to postpone the stem cell collection. First a day, then two, then weeks, and as Dauns’ health rapidly deteriorated, Robertson was told that he was no longer a candidate for CAR-T.

His lymphoma had progressed to a point where the operation wasn’t going to save him.

“At that point, we knew it was over, we knew he was going to die,” Robertson said. “I thought we had weeks, maybe months, and then it became, ‘Ok, let’s get him home.’”

Since Dauns was too sick to fly back to Vancouver, Robertson realized they would need to charter a medical plane, which would cost thousands of dollars. She spoke with Baker, and on a whim, the two decided to launch a GoFundMe to bring Dauns home.

As soon as the page went public, money flew into the account. It quickly accumulated tens of thousands of dollars and plans were made to bring the Soup Meister to Vancouver.

“The outpouring was unbelievable, we put it up on a Sunday night and hit the first target by Monday morning,” Robertson said.

Even though the money continued to accumulate on the page, with many admirers leaving words of encouragement in the comments section, it became clear that Dauns would not be able to fly home. His health had worsened, despite his doctors trying to get him ready for a cross-country flight home.

The goal of the GoFundMe campaign changed, and the money was used to fly Dauns’ family from Vancouver and Germany to Montreal to be with him before he passed.

In his final moments, even though he was confused by the admiration, Robertson read the GoFundMe comments to Dauns.

“I truly don’t think he understood the impact he had on people,” she said. “He was a very humble, quiet person who was doing his thing.”

On Nov. 23, a little over three weeks after flying to Montreal, and three days after the campaign was created, Dauns died, surrounded by his family.

‘We’ll carry it on by making soup’

In the GoFundMe comments, one person wrote about how she used to make soup for her husband, but after he discovered the Soup Meister, she hardly made it ever again. Another mentioned Dauns’ soup had been a part of their family for 20 years.

Paula Dauns has blonde hair, wearing a dark sleeveless dress and is standing towards the left of the frame over her husband Ralf’s right shoulder. Ralf is wearing a light blue shirt and raising a glass of white wine.
Paulah and Ralf Dauns lived a happy life together. Photo supplied.

More mentioned that the Lonsdale Quay will never be the same.

Booth is optimistic the Soup Meister will reopen, but Robertson says there’s no timeline to get the business running again. There’s nobody in the family who is prepared to take it over, and they’re unsure if they will sell the shop or find a way to keep it going.

The remaining funds from the GoFundMe will be put towards a celebration of life ceremony at the Quay on Feb. 10. There will also be a donation to support CAR-T therapy with the hope of making the treatment more readily available.

Regardless, Robertson knows that Dauns’ legacy will live on with her family and friends.

“Hopefully we’ll carry it on by making soup, thinking of him, and playing games,” she said.

Inside the Quay, the Soup Meister’s stoves are off, but the pot lights that shine over the kitchen counter and makeshift memorial are on — a welcome bit of warmth in a kitchen that felt, for so many, like home.

Happy holidays, readers. Our comment threads will be closed from Friday, Dec. 23 until Tuesday, Jan. 3 to give our moderators a well-deserved break. See you in 2023!  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Food

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