Earlier this week, the really nice people at CBC Radio’s Metro Morning reached out to ask if I could come on air to speak about a topic that had recently come to the producers’ attention. The crowd-sourced guide, Zagat, had taken to social media to ask whether followers thought Toronto was a world-class restaurant city.
The clip on CBC Metro Morning: World Class Food – August 18, 2015. Listen here.
The topic, a subject of much conversation and debate, is something that’s close to my heart, not because of my role as the current chair of Vacay.ca’s Top Restaurants in Canada list, nor the fact that I’ve been avidly watching our scene grow as a restaurant writer since 2007, but because I’m a food enthusiast who lives in Toronto and am quite proud of how we’ve progressed as a dining destination.
The thing is, years ago I would have found myself simply answering the question with a simple yes or no. (It was the latter).
The pursuit of excellence was within a small bubble, and my impression was that most diners and businesses (a friendly remember, that that’s what a restaurant is) were comfortable with what they knew, and what was happening within their own geographic boundaries.*
But the tides are turning, and there is no better time than now to revisit this question, especially with a fresh perspective.
Indulge me a little, as I build the case of why this is a relevant conversation in our current culinary environment.
Is Toronto a world-class/top food city?
This is a very good question and doesn’t have a simple answer.
Taste is subjective. Be it for food, fashion or music (the latter, an excellent example), there’s no denying that preference is an individual thing. Unless it’s something that you don’t fancy, they’re also something we’re all highly opinionated about. Yet, few would have as strong a reaction to a claim that The Beatles were the greatest band ever, that Debussy is France’s greatest composer, that Crocs (clogs) are *not* cool (unless you think Crocs are fashionable. Why??), the way they would when Noma is named the best restaurant in the world. At the same time, few would argue the difference it makes to business when recognition is gained.
The one thing I do strongly believe in is that despite subjectivity, there are members of the population whose opinions have greater weight. They’re what we call experts, and generally include professionals who have been selected to have a voice in the matter. Generally, these people are well versed in the subject matter and have experience or knowledge backing their educated opinion. An extreme example: I’d rather entrust my health decisions in the hands of a trained surgeon than a vocal anti-vaxxer.
In the same breath, I’d like to argue the case for a reputable guide. I like how Rebecca Burr, editor of UK’s Michelin guide who noted that despite the rise of food blogs and review sites, “a guide is more relevant as people lead busier lives.”
It’s great there are some fantastic amateurs out there, people know an awful lot about food and we never underestimate that… I think it’s become a little bit confusing out there and some people can say it’s fantastic about a particular establishment whilst others say it was dreadful and people don’t really know which way they are going. With our guide they know that places can’t pay to go in, that we are completely independent… Whilst there may be a feeling that an annual publication can be slightly out of date we know that these businesses are established and they’ve reached a level. So if anything the guide has become more popular as people want this instant decision and this reliability rather than sifting through so many comments.
– Excerpt from an interview with Burr http://www.thestaffcanteen.com/editorial/interview-rebecca-burr-editor-michelin-guide-part-2 (Hat tip to Elizabeth Auerbach for the link).
We also have to determine what criteria we’re basing the assessments on. Is a city’s food scene desirable because of the quality of the food or dining experiences available? Does the city’s food culture come into play? Are we speaking about variety? Or perhaps it’s the diversity of food offered.
For Toronto, few can argue against the latter.
Anytime I’ve been asked about the city’s dining scene, I’ve always answered that we’re full of potential and a bevy of options.
What’s unique about Toronto is that we’ve got a great representation of many cuisines. While they might not be the best (i.e. topping the version in their native land), they’re good. Our access to quality ingredients helps us also achieve a level of deliciousness that might not be possible in the homeland (one example is the quality of pork in Canada versus China, especially after the H1N1 influenza virus (swine flu). So, yes, the king’s barbecue pork at John’s Chinese BBQ in Richmond Hill is superior to the versions made with frozen imported pork in Hong Kong).
In a conversation with friends, EM (who seemed to be on the same page as me) commented that you can easily do a “food tour of the world” within the GTA. If you travel to any other city – like London, or Paris, even Tokyo, you’re not going to have the same amount of diversity.
Why is it that we don’t have any Michelin-rated restaurants?
On Metro Morning, David Common (who was standing in for Matt Galloway), asked me why it was that Toronto – or Canada for that matter – didn’t rank on the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant list or have any Michelin-rated restaurants. **
It’s logistics, really.
In order for a restaurant to be evaluated by Michelin, it has to be in an area that’s covered by the guide. I touched briefly on this technicality in an earlier post re: Vacay Top 50 results (mainly in why the survey was created).
In fact, the hundred-plus-year-old travel guide*** is still one of the most prestigious restaurant guides around, awarding stars for excellence:
1 star – a very good restaurant in its category;
2 stars – excellent cooking, and worth a detour; and the coveted
3 stars – for exceptional cuisine, that’s worth a special journey
(Recently they added the Bib Gourmand for places with good value.)
The first issue is that the guide is European focused. While there are about fifteen cities in the United States and Asia that have their own Michelin guides, the majority are based in Europe. That’s not to say that Canada is less important as a contributor to good eats (or that there are cities assessed that might not have as great an appeal as other world leaders, i.e. Las Vegas and Los Angeles both have suspended guides), but one of the challenges with being in Canada is that we are geographically spread out, so much that it kind of works against us (and even for denizens of Canada, many of whom would rather travel abroad than within because it is costly. Thanks, airline monopolies). In contrast, those who live in or are visiting Europe can travel with very little effort.
The comforting thing – which I did disclose on air – is that there are resources to help anyone interested in the Canadian or Toronto scene make dining decisions, i.e. Vacay’s Top 50 list. As noted previously, we went out of our way to seek the opinions of a panel of objective food experts – evenly spread across the country – and who had traveled throughout.
A second issue is that most of the restaurants that garner top rank in Michelin are traditionally formal or fine dining rooms. While Michelin does not specify that this is their criteria, and it does have some flexibility depending on the dining culture of an area (i.e. looking at the formal dining rooms in the United States and the gilded, potentially historic, formal dining rooms of Europe), this is a consistent observation. Hence, contemporary no-tablecloth places like Noma – the best in the world according to San Pellegrino’s 50 Best, still only has 2 stars.
What I’ve noticed covering the dining scene all these years is that sort of formality – with focus on presentation, high end type of dining establishment – isn’t as popular with the Toronto dining public. Torontonians prefer casual or mid-range places that are free of fuss, aren’t pretentious, and don’t have tablecloths (I won’t be surprised if we’ve cleared the world’s supply of reclaimed wood, exposed brick or salvaged antiques). Restaurants being businesses will cater to popular demands, so places that seem more accessible tend to be more successful in the current economic climate.
People are also going out less for special occasions and more as a regular occurrence, so it also makes sense that affordable places are doing well. This shift in behavior is exciting for a budding culinary scene because as diners become more knowledgeable and savvy, they’re more likely to drive up demand and support for good food, ambitious and creative restaurants. This is reflective of what’s starting to happen in our mid-range dining scene.
However for Michelin, they’re looking for a restaurant that people are willing to deliberately travel out of their way to experience. Chicago is a close example of a city that does experience that sort of attention.
Now more than ever
All these points may seem to stack the cards against Toronto being that “world class” food city. While there are plenty of options to keep our taste buds satisfied, the general public does have a conservative palate. Not only are we risk adverse (hence a lot of bandwagon jumpers. Might I remind everyone about the cupcake, the cronut and other fad foods?), but our young city does seek outside validation.
There are a few things happening in our favour which will help us gain that international attention we’ve (not so) secretly have been hoping for.
First, the influx of international talent to the city: from chef-owner David Chang of New York-based Momofuku, and his three-story, five concept space on University Ave; to renown chef-restauranteur Daniel Boulud with both restaurant and bar at the Four Seasons; 3-starred Alvin Leung (from Hong Kong’s Bo Innovation, and a MasterChef Canada judge) with R&D on Spadina; even original Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto is coming in the fall on King St. This is a positive opportunity in that it draws attention to the city, leaving some to wonder why these culinary forces are opening in Toronto? What’s going on in Toronto?
Second, the city and our culinary scene is starting to attract even international organizations from Cook It Raw, to festivals like the Food & Wine Festival.
Then there’s the weak Canadian dollar, which might not be so good for us, but is a good thing for tourism. And everyone’s got to eat. By attracting people to the city, they’ll start to discover what we have to offer one bite at a time.
Is Toronto fertile ground for Michelin? We’ve a good start, with plenty of restaurants that would fill a Bib Gourmand list, and a half dozen solid 1 stars (North American standard. This is another topic of conversation). I wouldn’t be surprised to find places like Auberge du Pommier, Buca Yorkville, Buca, Canoe, and Langdon Hall given the thumbs up. City favourites including Bar Raval, Bar Isabel, etc. are contenders (at least for Bib Gourmand). I would even venture to predict, where consistency is key, Splendido topping the list as a solid 2 star on a very good night (it’s a $180 experience that requires a 4-hour commitment, which I love, but I know is not for everyone). alo, although new in the game, is led by co-owners who have been trained in Michelin restaurants and keen to bring refinement back to dining, would likely rank as well.
While I don’t have any insider information if the city is under consideration for Michelin, I do know that other lists, including San Pellegrino’s 50 Best, or our very own Vacay Top 50 have actively made it a point to include a diverse number of Canadian voices.
As diners, the biggest way we can vote is by supporting our favourite businesses. Let’s show our appreciation for the good works our restaurants are doing by going out to eat. It’s a win-win situation all around. Let’s lift our forks (to our mouths) to that.
*I remember being encouraged to pitch a piece about the difference between Toronto’s scene relative to another major European city (I was traveling to) and being not so kindly shot down by my editor. I understood why: the publication wasn’t interested in comparisons, nor had any interest in seeing where Toronto fit on the world stage, versus celebrating what was happening within the city (which I support whole-heartedly). I felt I was misunderstood; it wasn’t an arrogant intention of ‘look at how well I ate abroad; Toronto sucks’ but more of a ‘these are interesting observations that are happening in another metropolis that many regard as influential, do these same values exist in Toronto, and how might that realization encourage our growth as a world class food city.’ It’s a curious reaction that still exists today, not just within the Toronto restaurant community, but throughout the country (I’m sure Canada’s not alone in this) that creeps up every time a “best” restaurant list is announced. The same people who have expressed they don’t care; also sulk when there’s a lack of representation. I agree that cards are often stacked against us (reasons outlined above), but I’d rather have recognition earned from merit than a medal of participation. It’s the same thoughts I have for anything that makes a separate category for women. If one is going to do that, then why not do the same for men. I digress.
** Actually, Commons asked why we didn’t have Michelin chefs in Canada, which I had to clarify wasn’t true. We don’t have chefs who were given Michelin stars for their restaurants in Canada, but we do have chefs from Michelin-rated restaurants from abroad setting up camp in the city.
*** Interestingly, the guide was first introduced by the French tire company, Michelin, to promote travel for those who had cars. More travel meant more tires were used up, resulting in a need to replace them, and more business.