Soup is a food that’s good for everyone.
That’s not just common sense, it’s a belief that was held by Ralf Dauns, who simmered and served boundless bowls of the comforting dish from his Soup Meister business on the ground floor of Lonsdale Quay Market for nearly 27 years.
On the evening of Nov. 23, Dauns died of cancer after travelling to Montreal for treatment. The 63-year-old was surrounded by loved ones, including his wife Paulah, his sister, three stepchildren, granddaughter and nephew.
As his condition worsened and he became ineligible for therapy, a GoFundMe campaign to bring him back home was set up by his longtime friend and neighbour Stephanie Baker. The support that immediately began to pour in was overwhelming.
“I don’t think he knew, really, truly, how much of an impact he’s had on so many people,” said stepdaughter Renee Robertson, “just providing them with nourishment, and a joke and a kind word.... I don’t think we knew, truly until this happened, how widespread that impact was.”
To his loved ones, he’s just opa, he’s family, Robertson explained, even though he would get stopped on the street wherever they went, even on vacation in Mexico.
On the GoFundMe page, on The Soup Meister Facebook page and in a memory book set up in Lonsdale Quay, thousands of people have written in to show support and share memories of the beloved cook.
Serving the community
Dauns was cherished by those who came by the front of his counter, with a cast of dedicated regulars who would queue routinely for his soup. He was also dear to many of the people he hired to work in his kitchen.
Robertson said he took in many kids that were considered “problem children” – who were down on their luck, struggled in school, had run-ins with the law or were coming off drugs or alcohol.
“That’s probably the best, long-lasting legacy that he ever had,” she said. Dauns believed he could be a good role model, so he took them in and taught them work ethic and responsibility while providing a safe place for them. A lot of them stayed in touch after moving on.
“Many of them were texting and calling in the final weeks, just to say, ‘Hey chef, you changed my life.’ And he really did,” Robertson said, remarking on the dozens of staff members captured in Christmas party photos over the years.
“It really was family for him,” she continued. “He really did teach them more than just how to chop vegetables – he taught them how to be responsible, compassionate humans.”
Dauns reached his arms out to the community in other ways too.
A lot of people received support from him when they or their family members were sick, said Baker, who became close friends with Dauns soon after he moved onto her street more than 25 years ago.
“It really was important to him, that anytime someone was suffering, that he would immediately arrange to get them some soup,” she said.
Dauns moved to the 400 block of East Second Street right around the time that Baker had her first son. Both of her sons went on to have their first jobs at The Soup Meister, and would still go to help out on weekends years later.
“We did a Christmas Day event down in the Downtown Eastside with a bunch of friends and made up sandwiches, and Ralf made the meat for us to slice up and put in the sandwiches, and provided big buckets of soup that we could hand out down at Oppenheimer Park,” Baker said.
'The quiet anchor that everyone adored'
When Baker lost another very close friend in May, Dauns was there to support her. He was really great at giving you a hug to make you feel better, she said.
“He held a special place in the heart of many people in very different ways. And there’ll be a hole where those who relied on him for it – guidance or insights – will have to imagine what he would be saying to them.”
Robertson noted that Dauns had a quiet way with people, especially seniors and children.
“The loss is just so profound for our family,” she said. “He was the quiet anchor that everyone adored, and the grandchildren are so devastated by the loss of their opa.”
There will be an open celebration of life in the new year, Robertson said, likely at the beginning of February. “We’ll make it quite public when we know.”
Some of the donations are earmarked for that event, to bring everyone together, including family members who live abroad.
Other funds will go toward making the cancer treatment that Dauns sought more accessible. CAR-T therapy is a promising new treatment option for lymphoma and leukemia, but is not yet widely available.
The Soup Meister is now temporarily closed. Robertson isn’t sure what will happen to the business going forward, whether it will be sold or shut down for good.
Still, another question remains in Ralf Dauns's legacy: Why soup?
Why would a trained chef that cooked in hotel restaurants around the world choose to make one modest dish for more than a quarter century.
He always wanted to start his own business, Robertson explained. But he wanted something with a more reasonable schedule than a restaurant. And he always loved soups.
“It’s good for kids, it’s good for the elderly, it’s good for everyone," said Robertson. "It’s a whole meal in a bowl. And, you know, everybody loves soup.”