Shaun Majumder is a busy man. In his words: "I'm like a Polish guy at a street circus where I'm spinning plates. And a lot of times I forget that I spun that plate over there, but I've got to keep that plate going over here. That's how my life has been lately." Though while running down his laundry list of tasks (he recently wrapped shooting Season 21 of CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes), the actor, comedian, and entrepreneur neglects to mention the talk he will be giving at the Terroir Symposium this Monday titled Redefining Rural through Social Business. Doesn't sound like a ton of laughs, but it will run down the inspired – if not very treacherous – road the performer-turned-entrepreneur has traveled in order to rejuvenate his tiny hometown of Burlington, Newfoundland (population 350), with Majumder Manor, a boutique eco-lodge (as well as a TV show) he and business partner Peter Blackie (also an architect) have been tirelessly working with the community and government to have built. Along the way, Majumder has created a never-ending symposium of his own that includes projects with local and international chefs, ambitious gardening projects, a food and music community festival, the reality television show, and micro-funding giveaways for local entrepreneurs just like him. Eater caught up with Majumder on Skype last week to talk Terroir and social business, about the chefs and musicians he'll host later this summer, where he likes to eat when he's in Toronto, and why drinking in a shed is the way to go.
How's it going? Where are you?
I'm in Los Angeles. Today I have been working on notes for Majumder Manor (Season 2 premieres on W Network July 21st), screening assemblies, answering emails about The Gathering, and getting geared up for our wedding celebration (with wife/actor/co-star of Majumder Manor, Shelby Fenner) which is going to be happening in Burlington June 15th as a part of the season finale for Majumder Manor. Also, talking to my manager about gigs that are coming up that we either want to do or not do.
How did the Majumder Manor concept come about?
I bought the school I went to when I was a kid. The owner asked $2700 for it. Zita (Cobb, owner of Fogo Island Inn) was the first person to say to me: "a larger slate box house is cute but that's a bed and breakfast. You need to go high-end." I was like, "Fook are you takin' about high end?" But, in fact, the more I read, researched – number one: there's a vacuum there – nobody's doing it. She's (Cobb) the first doing it, really on that level. Over the last two or three years, I see what she's done and it's transcendent.
Majumder Manor, the lodge idea, started small but now you're rebuilding a community with the community's help. Is this how social business plays into your plan?
Social business is something, I guess, some people really know about and others don't. The response I get from people who have no idea what social business is, is: "why are you doing it if you're not making any money? Like, what's the point?" It started with me wanting to share the place with as many people as I can by building a small thing there, and people going and spending their money, and the money goes back into the community. But now it's turned into a much larger community development project with Peter Blackie and me. I'm super stoked about it.
It started as, "we have one building we want to build. How much is it going to cost, giant number? We take it to the government and the government says: "Nope, you're not ready yet, because you have nothing there. How do we know this is going to work?" So, we went back to the drawing board and focused on things like a community greenhouse – which is one of the reasons I'm excited to come to Terroir.
Was the sustainable route always part of the strategy?
When I started, I was an entrepreneur but didn't know it. You don't think of yourself as a businessperson; many people don't and may go bankrupt and turn to drugs. There's nothing wrong with drugs! But I've been trained to perceive business – my business; the brand of my company which is me and all that I do. You learn about sustainability because it means rent-to-rent. It means early days, getting a bite to eat. It means: "Do I have enough toonies to take the subway from Mississauga to Toronto to do this fucking Keg commercial audition?" And then turn around after I feel like a bag of shit because I didn't say "potatoes" correctly. So you learn about sustainability in the way of just being smart with money and all of that. When people start taking the dividends off the top of something like this it gets clouded, it becomes something else, and it no longer becomes about the community. It no longer becomes about a holistic approach to business. In order for this business to be sustainable, all the money has to go back into the project.
It feels like a really tough climb. Why are you doing it this way? Why not go the easier route, call up Holiday Inn and…
(Interrupts with a grimace) Oh so bad, that's why I'm not doing it – (that's) my visceral reaction to gigantic corporations – and I'm not dead against corporate. I think what keeps bringing me back to not doing it that way is that then you've got something that is being imprinted upon a community from the outside instead of things growing organically from the inside out, brought about through their own energy. We're talking about a town (Burlington) of 350 people. That way it also checks itself. It's going to be, "this is too big, let's stop." If you have a corporation coming in from the outside, they do not have the community's interests at heart, primarily. They really care about the profit of the company. So, in terms of what I'm trying to do and what I want to talk about, as it's still a work in progress – I'm not going to make any bones that I've got it figured out. I don't know what the fuck I'm doing! I know what's guiding me is the simple concept of the idea of social business being there. All the money needs to stay within the community to support people coming to experience the place. The trickle-down effect is that the more people come, the more people spend money. There's going to be a critical mass of people saying: "Shit, I could open my own little store, my own café. I don't need to leave for Fort Mac, leave the place I love in order to make some money, to do okay." The cost of living there (in Burlington) is so low. If you make one-tenth of what someone makes in Fort Mac, you're doing great. It gives the outside world a great experience. It also gives some identity and life to the locals who may have always thought: "this town is dying," when it's not, if you look at it from a different lens.
In becoming an entrepreneur, you've turned into a party organizer and curator of chefs and musicians. Tell me more about 'The Gathering.'
This is the third year but it's the second organized year (August 22-24). The elements are fire, food, and music. There's a central area called the Gathering Grounds that will host most of the chefs. This year, Rory McPherson (Executive chef of the Sheraton Saint John's) heads up a team of chefs brought from Saint John's. The Ursa boys – the brothers (Jacob and Lucas Sharkey-Pearce) - came to my first gathering. They were spectaaaaacular! Rogers Andrews is coming to host one of the chef hikes. The concept of the chef hike is you walk through Newfoundland wilderness. It's about a 2-3km hike in and it spills out into a cove. It's literally a walk through the woods: you take in spectacular scenery; you pick berries along the way; and by the time you get to the end, you're pretty hungry because it's a bit of rigourous. And then as you spill out into this cove there's going to be a chef preparing gourmet food over an open flame with local ingredients – again, back to the elements. Last year, we had Sean McCann from Great Big Sea and he's coming back. Sam Roberts is coming with his lead guitarist named Dave Nugent as the acoustic duo known as Minotaur, and they're going to do Sam Roberts covers. The best Sam Roberts cover band in the country. We also have the Summer Mummer Shed Crawl.
So, basically in Burlington everybody has a shed and that's the bar scene. You get on a bus and you go from shed to shed. Everybody takes pride in their shed. You've got the Rivermouth Lodge; you've got Harbourview Shed. You just show up and it's a shed party.
Do you get "shed-faced?"
There's the T-shirt. "I got shed-faced!" It's hosted by Rex Goudie - he came second in Canadian Idol a bunch of years ago. David Garcelon (Director of Culinary, Waldorf Astoria, NYC) and his wife Kylie Garcelon are coming up to do a chef hike. We haven't talked about menus yet but we're really stoked about it. During the days, there will be great food like moose, as much seafood as we can get. I'm also doing a comedy show with Mark Critch and other hilarious people.
Sounds like a great time. When you have time, what are your top choices for dining out in Toronto?
I love Momofuku and Ursa. I knew Carl (Heinrich) before when he was at Marben. Now he's got Richmond Station. Those three are my faves.