This piece was written for the program at Terroir 7, a symposium on food and hospitality in Toronto. It was the topic of a panel I organized with Montreal Gazette critic Lesley Chesterman, Guardian critic and World’s 50 Best co-founder Joe Warwick from England, Toronto chef Tobey Nemeth of Edulis, and husband-and-wife restaurateurs Rae Bernamoff and Noah Bernamoff of Mile End in NYC. The panel and the subject were reported on by Ann Hui in the Globe & Mail.
In the increasingly global world of gastronomy, chefs criss-cross continents like rock stars on tour. As manufactured destinations, Las Vegas and Dubai welcome outposts of famous chefs to help them establish food cultures they can call their “own.” But even cities with dynamic restaurant scenes have become landing pads for gourmet globetrotters building empires of fine-dineries that stretch around the world.
From one perspective, the arrival of an acclaimed chef from another city can validate the local food culture. So important on the world’s dining map is this place or that, an epicurean empire can’t be complete without an opening here or there. But from another perspective, the arrival of a famous chef in town to lay down restaurant roots can smack of culinary patronization.
In the midst of a trend toward local ingredients, how are diners to view the arrival of foreign chefs on the local scene?
In an interview with Food & Wine magazine, French critic François Simon of Le Figaro famously called out the ever-expanding Alain Ducasse, describing the celebrated French chef as “a sleek atomizer—spritzing his brand over you from a plane on his way to New York or Hong Kong.” But long before Ducasse, French chefs found their way abroad, to Japan most notably, a place with an incredibly rich and discerning food culture. None of those chefs lost their luster. In fact, having a deal in Japan came to be a mark of success for certain practitioners of the Nouvelle Cuisine.
Of late, Toronto has received the attention of two famed chefs from New York City, the beloved reactionary Asian-fusion chef David Chang, whose Momofuku empire practically doubled in size with the opening of three restaurants and a cocktail lounge in the new Shangri-La downtown, and Daniel Boulud, who brought his beloved Café Boulud from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the new Four Seasons flagship in Yorkville.
Whether you think these are the greatest restaurants the city has ever seen—as critic Chris Nuttall-Smith deemed Momofuku Shoto in his review for the Globe & Mail—or you think they have a lot of improving to do—as critic Amy Pataki concluded about Café Boulud in her review for the Toronto Star—the question of how to feel about these newcomers is complex.
Toronto’s longtime love affair with New York City complicates matters further. Writing on her blog for Montreal”s Gazette, critic Lesley Chesterman weighed in decisively, “Did it really take a chef based in New York who was handed millions to play with to put the Toronto restaurant scene ‘back on the map?’…To me, the idea…is an embarrassment.”
How do you view these events? An embarrassment or evidence of having arrived on the culinary map? Don’t decide until you hear me, Chesterman, and our other special guests discuss this topic during what is sure to be a fascinating panel conversation.