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A cultural hub

Faith and Fortune curatorial assistant Bianca Weeko Martin interviews the owner of Filipino restaurant, BB’s Diner, to learn more about their origin story and community partnership with the AGO.

BBs Diner

BBs Diner. Photo by Daniel Neuhaus.

In preparation for the landmark exhibition Faith and Fortune: Art Across the Global Spanish Empire, the AGO reached out to a group of Filipinx and Latinx artists and cultural workers across the Greater Toronto Area in order to build community partnerships. These relationships have helped inform the exhibition’s narrative and strengthen its connection with the communities it represents. 

Specializing in Filipino cuisine, Toronto’s BB’s Diner has collaborated with the AGO to bring Longanisa – a beloved Filipino breakfast sausage – to the AGO Bistro brunch menu. In our curiosity to find out more about the origins of BB’s Diner and their work with the AGO, we tapped Faith and Fortune’s curatorial assistant, Bianca Weeko Martin, to connect with the diner’s owner and founder, Justin Bella. Check out their conversation below.        

Martin: Can you tell us a little bit about BB's Diner, its philosophy and how it came to be?

Bella: BB’s has a narrative that has carried us through three spaces so far. BB’s initial conception came out of a night at Cold Tea with Manny Veneracion and Julian Ochangco, the first Chef for BB’s Diner. My first restaurant job – and the first kitchen I ran – was a Denny's. We wanted representation in that dining space, it was actually really important to us to offer a quality brunch offering that was distinctly Filipino and provided a certain kind of nostalgia.  Julian's menu captured all of this; the space that we found was actually a home that was converted from a bakery at the time. We were received warmly and were successful in offering Filipino hospitality in a nostalgic setting. At the very beginning, we were reaching for a home in the diaspora.

During the COVID pandemic, BB’s Diner pivoted into a new space, occupying what was formerly known as The Shop at Parts & Labour, downstairs.  With an opportunity to make a home out of a well-known music venue, I wanted to transport myself to Poblacion after a few really great trips out to the Philippines. I was mostly inspired by the beauty of 'barangay architecture': repurposing things and making them beautifully your own. We made a 'home', working with what we had, knowing that we would move on eventually. The community and culture of our venue Sari Not Sari and the ongoing BB’s Diner service maintain momentum and begun to look beyond the walls of that space.

Martin: For the people who might not know about Longanisa—the main food item that you are very kindly sharing with the AGO for the run of Faith and Fortune (basically the only thing I ever wanted to eat as a kid)—please give us a little rundown.

Bella: BB’s Longanisa at its core is a nostalgic breakfast sausage for many Filipinos.  Our house sausage, handmade from scratch, incorporates garlic, annatto and paprika because of Spanish trade and influence, in a rustic style. Filipinos prefer it sweet and grilled to the point of light char that shatters when eaten. Longanisa are regional – to the point of contention – often on a spectrum of sweet and spice. Ours is most like a Bulacan style versus the other familiar Ilocos style and the chorizo of Cebu.

Martin: I've always said that one of the best things I've gotten out of working on Faith and Fortune has been friendship.  We reached out to Filipinx and Latinx cultural workers around the city that I've looked up to, to build community partnerships reflecting the countries represented in Faith and Fortune. The AGO is so lucky to be celebrating people like you and the business you have built. What was your relationship to the AGO as a museum before this partnership, and will it change now that you have collaborated?

Bella: I've actually had a family membership to the AGO since I moved to Toronto.  I love being able to take a break in the middle of the city in the beauty of the space. As a server between shifts, I would go to the Members' Lounge to decompress and see some art for a few hours before rushing off to a second job.

Martin: BB's is opening a new permanent location soon in Parkdale. I can't wait to visit. Can you tell us about the concept for this location? 

Bella: In this iteration, BB’s really wants to build community with Filipinos in Parkdale, which is also home to the restaurants Islas, Bernard's and Batibot. We are just realizing the dining and venue possibilities of this new home, where we will provide the same warmth and nostalgia that people have been coming for all this time. For this next step on Brock Avenue, I wanted to bring it back to our roots.  Both Chef Robbie Hojilla and I have career experiences primarily in casual fine dining settings, so this is a shift home. For me, it's always really important from a hospitality standpoint to give people that feeling of coming home.  We are back to the familiar with the space and this time we reach all the way back to the Ancestral home in the Philippines.  All the components of our experiences: the old Cold Tea, Sari Not Sari, The Shop at Parts & Labour and BB’s Diner are present.  It's a return to the familiar in the possibility of a new space. 

Bianca Weeko Martin is the curatorial assistant for Faith and Fortune. Her research has recently focused on domestic counter-histories and architecture in the Philippines, with the act of drawing a core part of her observing, communicating, layering and synthesizing ideas. She was born in Jakarta, raised in Scarborough, and lives in Toronto.

Don't miss Faith and Fortune: Art Across the Global Spanish Empire, on view at the AGO until October 10. Subscribe to the AGOinsider for more stories and art news, delivered each week to your inbox.

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