Not to flog a well-ridden horse (ok, I will) but I’ve been meaning to get back to posting about the Terroir 2012 conference and while looking through my notes got to thinking about the dialogue surrounding the 50 Best Restaurants List. There was outrage, insult and a lot of defensiveness felt at Canada’s chefs being excluding from the rankings.
I read a few interesting opinions as to why we are being “overlooked” and even why we may not yet deserve to be there. Some writers seemed to feel that cuisine in Toronto (or across Canada) is very good, excellent even, but plays it too safe– no real risks are being taken. Or perhaps not enough. Maybe this is partially due to clientele. A restaurant has to survive in an incredibly tough business. A kitchen must cater somewhat to the palates (and wallets) of the customers as much as the chef may be dying to expand his diners’ comfort zone.
On my initial visit to Chantecler in April I asked which dishes were the “hits”. The answer was “depends who you ask”. The regular customers had certain faves and the industry people who ate there had others.
All of this was running through my head as I thought back to the Terroir 2012 “Culinary and Drink Trends” session. The first half seemed to focus more on food trends in general than just drinks, and a fascinating conversation evolved about where cuisine in Toronto was headed. Grant Van Gameren, executive chef at Enoteca Sociale (formerly of Black Hoof fame) was very outspoken and raised some interesting questions about the legacy of Toronto’s chefs as leaders.
He said that as new interests develop and old trends fade (so long charcuterie) we need more chef-leaders in the city. A lot of small restaurants are being opened by newer, younger chefs and a lot of the “grandfathers” are doing TV. Which wasn’t a criticism, just a question about who is out there teaching these new up and comers? In Van Gameren’s opinion, “we’re in a 5-year block of transition” to what our food scene is going to be. And which of these younger guys/gals is going to still be around?
He went on to say that the need to break free, expand your creativity in your own kitchen is understandable but are 27 and 28-year-old chefs ready to set the pace for the next generation? He suggested that many chefs in Toronto need to travel more, stage more around the world. Get a more international perspective. Right now no one in Toronto is doing much to stand out.
He even singled himself out saying sometimes that when he is mentoring his crew, he will find himself wondering what more he can learn–so he can better lead those under him.
Van Gameren also acknowledged that in order to sustain a groundbreaking restaurant like Chicago’s Alinea in Toronto you would need investors to take on the risk and also the local support of Toronto’s diners–people need to be willing to shell out cash for more than just comfort food.
He pointed out that a lot of the smaller places opening these days take on the same formula– reclaimed wood, edison bulbs and copper accents–and some chefs do serve avant-garde cuisine in these cozy rooms–but often the stereo is blasting so loud you can barely hear your server describing, with great care, the dish you’re about to eat.
Which brings me back to the type of restaurants that are featured on the Top 50 list; true “fine-dining” venues with a less laid-back atmosphere. Places where the chefs are moving cuisine forward, maybe even before the diner is ready to take the leap. Though hopefully they have enough faith to jump.
Do we have these kind of leaders (and diners) in Toronto? In Canada? I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens next year. Or in the next five.
For some interesting perspectives on the Top 50 list (and how it’s is judged) you can check out these links:
Lesley Chesterman, The Montreal Gazette
Chris Nuttall-Smith, The Globe and Mail