by Lauren Mote
This is a story of passion. A story about someone seeking validation in eating just about everything for the sheer experience of it. I am a food enthusiast, bartender and freelance food writer from Toronto, Canada, and upon arriving in Vancouver with my partner, we have been tremendously well fed. I am graced to have now lived in two of the most famed Canadian cities for food exploration. With this theory in the forefront of my brain, I plan to write a thoughtful account of these two cities, and what they can offer the real food enthusiast. It’s a unique lifestyle to do what we do. I want to illustrate the similarities and differences between this mountainous paradise, and Toronto – a lively city of over 2.5 million people, some 4492 km east.
My first observation between Toronto and Vancouver was very simple, and was understood fairly early in my Vancouver food relationship – everything you missed about the Toronto food scene exists here, plus even more then you can possibly imagine. The only trade off is this: you must be willing to forfeit the icy cold conditions and smog for an endless rainstorm – but it’s worth it. My second observation between Vancouver and Toronto is this: survival of the fittest – which restaurants will succeed? In Toronto, you found a new restaurant, in a quaint part of the east end. You’re excited because it’s a new concept, the food and service is wonderful, and you leave feeling fulfilled. A month later you’d like to return and learn that the restaurant has closed or changed management. This can happen for any number of reasons, the first being financial. To own and operate a restaurant in Toronto is very expensive. A friend of mine in Toronto, chef and owner of a bistro downtown, tells me that him and his partner suffered financially for a few months, paying sky-high rent before they had even begun renovations in the space, plus the fact you need to pay for costly kitchen equipment, as well as the clean up and maintenance following the close of the previous restaurant that stood there before hand. This is all expected, but what’s unexpected is the risk in spending all of this money, holding your house as collateral, and hoping the doors swing open, and never close. We have seen this roller-coaster effect in Toronto so many times, and it’s sad. In Vancouver on the other hand, the restaurants have a chance at real survival. I am not doubting for a moment that Vancouver establishments close their doors, but it’s hardly an expected event. The amount of publicity food and restaurants get in this city is unprecedented. You really need not worry if customers show up, it’s what happens in the restaurant that predicts if they will return or not. Vancouver’s food perception is largely based on the endless supply of food writers and food enthusiasts, all with a different vision of “what sells”. If the food, the service and the general review of the restaurant are great, the customers will always be back, and the word of mouth effect in this city makes or breaks your business. Patrons will be loyal to the establishment, and although new places open all the time, 25 since May 2007 to be exact, Vancouverites never trade in their loyalties, they simply add more venues to their list of favourites. Dozens of Toronto diners tend to throw their hands up in the air while searching for the next “big thing”.
Vancouver based publications, such as Vancouver Magazine and EAT Magazine, publish equally interesting industry content. They also keep the food service workers busy reading on their smoke breaks by the dumpsters behind the restaurants. Then there’s Urban Diner, a website dedicated to the British Columbia restaurant scene, owned by EAT Magazine’s Vancouver editor Andrew Morrison, Urban Diner provides a much needed and desired “headquarters” for food industry personnel, avid diners, journalists, and of course, the super curious. On Mr. Morrison’s site, you have the ability to join the Urban Diner Forum, giving each member a chance to socialize with people as crazy about food as Chef Anthony Bourdain is. The Urban Diner listings for restaurant openings, news, gossip, rumours, and videos becomes an effortless way to get more involved, and be “in the know”. Toronto still thrives on their food journalism gems, Joanne Kates(Globe and Mail) and Amy Pataki(Toronto Star), which more often then not allow their personal feelings for chefs and owners to dim their credibility as writers. Maybe Toronto is now in the market for a Urban Diner type headquarters; more importantly, establishments like this, whether physical or cyber based, provide a space to vent, and a space to recharge.
Getting back to Vancouver journalism, it’s tactics and conclusions, Mia Stainsby of the Vancouver Sun performed a surprise and slightly “undercover” restaurant review on Lumière, just after Chef Rob Feenie resigned. It made front page in early November 2007. Not a chance that would happen with the Toronto Sun. Don’t get me wrong, I love to read the reviews that James Chatto writes for Toronto Life Magazine, but I find I am reading the same things over and over again; there seems to be a lack of excitement in Toronto food writing. It’s always about the same things and the same people; Claudio Aprile (Senses, Colborne Lane) and his business partner have dissolved their partnership, halting his “Queen West” project; or Josh Wolfe (Thuet, Trevor Kitchen & Bar) has made the leap out to Vancouver to become the new Executive Chef of Coast restaurant in Yaletown – this is news? Granted, Mark McEwan’s “One” at the Hazelton Hotel is open, but I haven’t even read a review yet that makes me dream about making a reservation or salivate for the menu. To be frank, I am more excited to go to Pied-à-Terre next week on Cambie St. in Vancouver- it’s new and exciting.
This brings me to an important point about the quality of food, in both cities. Vancouver is located on the west coast; the Pacific Ocean in all its splendor. A place where line-caught fish is sought after, and spot prawns and little neck clams are amazing when in season. What happens the rest of the time? Superstitious quality control? We note the exact date when local halibut goes out of season and avid foodies wouldn’t be caught eating halibut in a restaurant until 6 months later. Still we can walk into Goldfish Pacific Kitchen for a delicious plate of halibut, imported of course. The winter craze in Vancouver, in terms of fish is sable, Ahi tuna, ling cod and arctic char. I was stunned when I walked into a Japanese restaurant on Robson St. and was offered Atlantic salmon sashimi – and that’s an even farther distance then where the out-of-season halibut comes from. So here’s the truth: fish in British Columbia is mostly farmed – similar to the farmed catfish in Asia, also known as “tilapia” – but we’re not renaming the species. Somehow it’s still cheaper to indulge in farmed fish, then it is buy wild Pacific salmon from the fish monger at 7 Seas on 4th St. What else looks great on the menus? You’ve got everything deemed organic, and presently there’s a government sponsored inquest into certified organic farming and processing. Who’s really telling the truth? It’s rarely the fault of the restaurant, it’s the misrepresentation of organic product, and we’re all charged “organic premiums”. Organic could be a placebo effect similar to that of a caffeinated coffee secretly replaced by a decaf version, exhibiting the same hyper effects in its consumer. Personally, I feel better knowing that certified organic products are free from chemicals in the air, the soil and the processing, but it doesn’t make me feel physically different.
“To be honest, the consistency in fresh sustainable product was better in Toronto. The city is larger and suppliers are extremely competitive,” Chef John Corsi explains “great product is all around you, but who has the best price?” Some products are almost always available at North American distributor Costco Wholesale. Their fish department is constantly packed with previously flash-frozen sides of Atlantic salmon from South America, so even this product isn’t local, but it’s abundant each day. Some Toronto restaurants carry “black cod” which is not cod at all, in fact it’s part of the sable family, and sable is pretty unique in Toronto, but extremely common in Vancouver. The usual Toronto features include salmon, cod, shrimp and various Prince Edward Island or Maritime products like lobster, clams and scallops. This list is not always available though, Toronto just seems to be more of a central hub to retrieving more suppliers for the specifically available products. Companies like Highlight and Gordon Food Service(GFS) are rolling around Toronto constantly – best product, best price. Out here, we deal with conglomerates of GFS, and sometimes they even show up to the restaurants on time, and usually have at least 50% of the products ordered. Maybe you’re more of a hands-on bag carrying person, traveling in the mornings to the produce stands at Granville Island Market or Kin’s Farmer’s Market on Davie St. Restaurants and consumers in both Toronto and Vancouver make the most of what’s available, it’s just that the products vary from city to city.
Enough about the semantics of running a restaurant, this is about food and how my perception has changed within the food industry. Every writer must have a source. Someone to provide insight, secrets and objective opinion – someone who can remain anonymous, under the shield of an alias, protected from public scrutiny. I have one. As I was new in Vancouver, I desperately wanted to understand its recent gastronomical boom from someone that not only worked in the food industry, but is also bias and proud of the Vancouver scene. My source is simply called “Anonymys”, and of course it’s spelled a little differently so he can identify himself in my writing. What a place to conduct our first meeting, than over beers and beef carpaccio at Bin 942 on West Broadway; it was hoppin’. Anonymys maintains, in between gulps of his Warsteiner lager, that “… the industry out here really knows how to take care of their own…”. He further explains that “names never need to be dropped, anywhere”. The food industry is so tight and dramatic that it’s like a typical episode of “Cheers” on a larger scale, everyone knows your name. As someone that works in the industry, Anonymys explains that the simplistic customer service approach of “hey, how are you,” really goes along way and comes from the heart – some people really are genuine, but others can be the exact opposite. If a bartender can remember the last drink that you had, over a week ago, when you came in by yourself after work, that’s a home-run. It just seems that people in Vancouver are more caring to the individual experience, rather than solely the dollar signs.
Vancouver chefs and restaurants in general are seeking celebrity status, and have their own publicity companies – used to promote their status, or protect them from the manipulative ways of the media. The most recent case of Chef Rob Feenie is a prime example. Did he quit, or was he fired? Realistically, who cares. It’s “celebrity gossip”! This is Hollywood North after all. Anonymys put it in context for me. “It’s unacceptable to just walk out on the ice and talk to the Vancouver Canucks’ Goalie, it simply doesn’t work like that, but you can walk into Lumière or Feenie’s and ask Sebastien Le Goff, a very well-known Vancouver Sommelier, what he thinks about this wine, and that dish, or even have a normal conversation with him about your new umbrella, and why you love it so much. As a bartender, chef or server,” Anonymys explains, “you are hired to serve a drink, create a plate or serve a meal, that’s your job, why should you become a celebrity for something so repetitive that millions of other people do just as well as you?” Yes, he has a point, but is it not the angle of the Vancouver food industry that makes these simpletons so conceited? On the same hand, the Vancouver clientele crave the behaviour that industry people produce. M. Le Goff states that through all of the years he has worked in the industry, in countless countries, Vancouver has the best clientele; the most worldly, charming, wise and friendly. Maybe the industry created these food service creatures, but it’s the attraction to dine here by such worldly and wise people that maintain if not worsen the attitudes. Psychologically, we’ve all become a product of our environment, and to avoid getting into an accident, we all have to travel at the same speed as the other cars on the road.
Michael Ruhlman, best selling author of “The Soul of a Chef” has released his book sequel entitled “The Reach of a Chef”. Ruhlman’s book aims to educate an audience of chefs and non-chefs so that they too can understand this recent phenomenon of “celebrity status” in the kitchen. As a matter of fact, I just bought this book for my partner Johnny, who is starting to experience the spread of his “name” in the media. It’s not just about the food in Vancouver, it’s about your image, your motivators and your publicist. Owner of Lumière and Feenie’s – David Sidoo – is attempting to put the two restaurants back on the culinary map for new and previous patrons without the mascot of Rob Feenie. Mr. Sidoo promoting Chef de Cuisines – Dale Mackay (Lumière) and John Corsi (Feenie’s) by showcasing their talent and execution of Chef Mackay’s high end French at Lumière, and Chef Corsi’s casual bistro French at Feenie’s.
The fact is this: Vancouver is home to hundreds of great restaurants and great concepts. Firstly, there is the introduction of the wine philosophy and the wine program. Every restaurant in Vancouver has a sommelier that develops a philosophy to promote big bottle sales, flaunt wine knowledge and create an unbelievable experience through food and wine pairing. But everyone has one. Are the restaurants competing for the “best restaurant” award or the “best sommelier” award? I find it a little pretentious, but the fact that every establishment has a wine program and philosophy, it makes me wonder if a restaurants’ wine list would drown in the programs’ absence. The broad spectrum of Vancouverites want to know why you are featuring the wines you do, just the same as the Chef’s motive for featuring items on the menu. Who has more passion? Perhaps paired together, the double passion creates the typical Vancouver dining experience. Like peas and carrots – Chefs and Sommeliers – but I am not telling you anything you didn’t already know.
In Toronto, what makes a great bartender – speed and accuracy. From the bartop at the Guvernment night club in Queen’s Quay, where my good friend Rachel Lim mixes, shakes and pours 100 shooters in 6 minutes, to the service bar at Wayne Gretzky’s restaurant where wet and unpolished glasses are “quickly and accurately” filled with mediocre red wine from Niagara, to the anxious Sommeliers selling quantity and quality bottles from the extensive wine list at Le Select Bistro, while flipping their tables every 1.5 hours. Now that’s speed. In Vancouver, the speed is replaced with science and perfection. “I remember a Bar Manager that called himself a ‘Bar Chef’ – he wanted the same recognition in the front of house as the well-educated culinary master plating dinner service in the kitchen,” says Anonymys, “it was not uncommon for his cocktails to take 10-15 minutes, whether slow or insanely busy.” I wonder what position he held on his business cards. Recognition as a “bar chef”, as I found it in Vancouver, is necessary for some, but unimportant to others. Nick Devine, Bar Manager of the Cascade Room on Main St, is such a sought after mixologist that after reading Alexandra Gill’s negative review in the Globe and Mail on Cascade’s food, people will still flock until the wee hours of the morning to taste Mr. Devine’s signature liquid creations, completely on Ms. Gill’s endorsement. Bartenders are constantly trying to raise the bar of what’s exotic and innovative, and if that means slaving over a science experiment of spirits, syrups and the five food groups, like a mad scientist bringing Frankenstein to life, I suppose it’s worth it. Certain restaurants and lounges are more recognized for their cocktails then others. As Anonymys told me, Lumière restaurant in Kitsilano was the first restaurant in Vancouver to promote the intricate cocktail list. Soon other establishments would follow suit, and before long, bartenders everywhere were putting their best foot-forward. George Ultra Lounge in Yaletown, ironically enough Mr. Devine’s last place of employment before joining the Cascade Room, has a “phone book” of intricate cocktails, the English Martini with cucumber infused gin, pressed apple juice, Pimm’s No. 1 and fresh mint being my favourite “Devine” inspired cocktail. Toronto cocktails are good, but there’s not enough demand for “fluff” in the Toronto industry to make the cocktails as interesting as Vancouver’s. Maybe this will become another innovation that Vancouver foodies will bring to Eastern Standard Time.
Classic Vancouver chain restaurants, like Moxie’s Classic Grill & Cocktail Lounge, Cactus Club, Joey’s, Earl’s and Milestones, are always busy. Any night of the week, anytime of the day, it is a complete phenomenon to me. As Anonymys and I noticed, between Dunbar St. and Cambie St. on or around West Broadway there are 2 Cactus Club, 2 Moxie’s, 1 Joey’s, 2 Earl’s and a Milestones; that’s three stops on the 99 express bus, and about 6 kilometres distance by a car owner’s standards. So, add that amount of chain restaurant with the rest of the budding restaurants on or around West Broadway – Mistral, Feenie’s, Lumière, Transylvania, Ouzeri, Bin 942, Figmint, Banana Leaf, etc… a lot of choice. However, when Anonymys asks his buddies about their dining experience, men and women alike, they’ve most likely gone out to one of the above mentioned “chain restaurants”. The service, food and atmosphere are always just “ok”, but overall, their evening was “amazing”. There was never an indication of “amazing” throughout their experience, but somehow at the conclusion of the evening, it was deemed incredible. I cannot agree with that, as I was at Milestone’s last week, the service was lousy, and the food worse. My evening was less then amazing. Are people seriously blown away by the average night out?
Chain restaurants in Toronto are strategically placed near the tourist areas, and the slightly suburban areas, like on the edge of Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York. In the downtown core, the only place you’ll really find popular chains are in the shopping malls and near waterfront hotels, as they’re near the Roger’s Centre and the Air Canada Centre (both sport stadiums). The most popular chain restaurants, East Side Marios, Milestones, Boston Pizza and Montana’s, are popular for the same reasons that they’re popular in Vancouver. The restaurants are seemingly “fast, cheap and cheerful” but I can recall a very average experience at each of those destinations too.
I guess Vancouver foodies and their Toronto counterparts have more in common then I originally thought. Often, we love to cook, but sometimes it’s more time consuming and strenuous then fun and gratifying, as we’re always trying to raise the bar of what we’re capable of producing in our own homes. We have been known to tradeoff quality for convenience, and pay the price everytime; I mean that literally. Although we are partial to eating at the local chain restaurants, and usually regret it later, we search and search for something on the plate to remind us of a great flavour combination, or we crumble and order the “old faithful” items like the retro chicken ceasar salad or the bacon cheeseburger. We often leave feeling malnourished: an empty wallet paired with gastrointestinal discomfort, but we do it anyway, that’s the norm. One thing we do have in common is this: we are eager to get out and try the new buzz, although Vancouver seems to have a more exciting “buzz” then Toronto, when it comes to food and wine. Although both Toronto and Vancouver offer delicious antidotes to cure the pain of hunger and boredom, it is all based on what the demand is. If the Toronto Financial District craves food that’s a spin on a old classic, perfect for meetings or winding down, where price is of no object, Chef Mark McEwan gives them Bymark. If the public craves the restoration of Leslieville, Chef Brad Clark gives them Fare Bistro. If Vancouver requires the restoration of Gastown, obsessed foodies give us Boneta, Social, and Salt Tasting Room.
It’s not hard to adapt in Vancouver when it feels like home. It feels like the next step through the journey for someone completely obsessed with food and beverage, and those that make it possible. I have learned it’s all based on supply, demand and perception. The economics of food, a universal language that everyone speaks, regardless of where on the planet you reside.