Gulshan Alibhai is the owner of Lahore Tikka House, Toronto’s beloved east-end hot spot for authentic Halal cuisine. She’s also one of the speakers we’re excited to catch at this year’s TEDxToronto, which will focus on the theme RISE. 

With a background in social work, Gulshan didn’t know much about running a restaurant when she took over the business in 2013. Her lack of experience, as both an entrepreneur and a restaurateur, may have been perceived as a weakness, but guided by her values, she applied her social-work background, and the result is a thriving restaurant culture that provides much more than delicious food. 

In advance of her talk, we caught up with Gulshan to ask her about how this year’s RISE theme relates to her, and what she’s excited to share on October 26. (We also asked about her favourite dishes at Lahore, as we’re already planning our next trip.) 

SDTC: What are the greatest lessons you’ve learned since taking over Lahore Tikka House?

GA: My professional and work experience was in the field of social work, and I knew absolutely nothing about running a restaurant. I had mixed feelings about the restaurant—it consumed me physically, emotionally and financially. I felt deeply conflicted that I was no longer contributing to society in the way that I had in my [previous] profession. Now I was an entrepreneur who had to meet the bottom line.

After many months of soul searching and embarking on an existential journey, I discovered that the core value I held for the organizational culture of Lahore Tikka House was to provide employment for many newcomers who faced barriers because they did not have “Canadian Experience.” We hire individuals who are marginalized due to their mental health issues and their sexual orientation. As well, it provides a safety net for newcomers who face linguistic and cultural barriers and supports newcomers when they are struggling with resettlement stress.  

I discovered that my social-work career had not ended; in fact, it continued. My journey became clearer, and I began to see my worlds unite: social work, social justice and entrepreneurship. The lesson clearly was that Belonging was the Bottom Line and that Lahore Tikka House was a social enterprise.

What do you love most about your job?

I love the relationships I am able to build with my customers. With my clientele it is not merely serving them a meal but rather engaging with them on a personal level. It’s building a relationship that spans over decades. In addition, I enjoy educating my customers about the Ayurvedic benefits of Pakistani/Indian cuisine.

What philosophy is currently guiding your life?

Take a breath and stay in the moment. Life is so precious. Every CONVERSATION, ENCOUNTER, AND RELATIONSHIP is a gift and should not be taken for granted.

What are you most excited to share at TEDxToronto?

Creating awareness about gentrification, which has changed the landscape and values of the many neighbourhoods and ethnic enclaves in Toronto. We need to preserve and protect ethnic enclaves as it is part of our national DNA; it lays the foundation of our Canadian heritage and values.

What are the dishes you recommend most at Lahore? 

Pani puri a street food best described as the Pakistani/Indian version of nachos.

Palak paneer served with sesame naan. 

When/how did you really begin to love food?

My papa’s passion was cooking for his family and friends. He never followed a recipe. He could use his senses to create a dish that would bring flavours harmoniously together. He taught me how to use spices and to always start with the freshest ingredients. For my papa, food was a way to express love and warmth, and this has remained with me.

In short, what does the word RISE mean to you?

Defying the status quo and rising up against social injustice.

Tickets for TEDxToronto are now 75% sold. This full-day event, happening Saturday, October 26, brings together some of the city’s top innovators and leaders, who will all be exploring the theme of RISE. See full lineup of speakers here.