Recognizing how far we’ve come
When Lucy Waverman, cookbook writer, restaurant reviewer and food columnist for The Globe and Mail, migrated to Toronto in the 1960s from Glasgow, she recalls her family being shocked at the lack of good food (both her mother and Lucy attempted to rectify matters by opening their own cooking schools).
Back then, Toronto dining was so fabulously unadventurous that, in 1966, when the legendary Three Small Rooms launched a menu that dispensed with the city's twin culinary "must-haves" – prime ribs and shrimp cocktail – Toronto's dining masses "revolted."
Years passed and things began to loosen up. In 1977, Ontario's Prohibition-era liquor laws were relaxed enough to allow Torontonians to drink standing up. In the early 1990s, thanks to pioneering chefs such as Michael Stadtländer and Jamie Kennedy, Torontonians began to discover fresh, local, organic ingredients from their own southern Ontarian backyard (as opposed to mass-farmed imports). In 2000, Toronto's very first superstar chef, Susur Lee, opened his eponymous restaurant, Susur, whose daring dishes put Toronto on the global culinary map.
Yet even as Toronto's restaurant scene blossomed, it was always – notoriously – a trend chaser as opposed to a trend starter.
"At the beginning of this century, there was a lot of very fancy food," recalls Lucy Waverman. "There were a lot of big restaurants serving luxurious food, not necessarily fun food. And people really liked that. Those kinds of restaurants were beautifully designed. The food was good, but it wasn't in any way different from those kinds of restaurants in New York or other major cities."
Ivy Knight is a Toronto-based food writer and documentary filmmaker who spent years working in restaurants as a line cook. She recalls a restaurant ecosystem that was fragmented and almost feudal, with each establishment being a tiny culinary fiefdom – or as she puts it "dictatorship" – unto itself.
"When I worked in restaurants, the only way you knew anything that was going on in other restaurants was through media," says Knight.
Back then, Toronto still had a robust stable of food critics. "We read the restaurant reviews about what was going on in our city, but most of the real food coverage was coming out of the States and Europe."
Chefs didn't connect or share ideas. Competition and secrecy reigned. Knight recalls working at one restaurant where, after closing, the staff would head to a nearby bar also frequented by the staff from Susur's, next door. "They'd sit in one area and we'd sit in the other and we would never talk. If you talked, it would almost be a faux pas."
To break down such barriers, Knight created industry events where not just chefs but all restaurant workers could get together to eat, drink and hang out. At the time, this was a radical concept – as was Twitter, which had just made its debut. Knight feels that once chefs started communicating, Toronto's food scene really exploded. "It became a lot more creative with chefs becoming more willing to take risks. Anytime you open up and allow the outside world to come in, you're going to change for the better."