Thursday, July 31, 2014

REDUX: The Foodie’s Place in the Culinary Pecking Order

REDUX: The Foodie’s Place in the Culinary Pecking Order


Pecking order is the colloquial term for a hierarchal system of social organization. For the record, the original usage referred to the expression of dominance in chickens. With the keen interest in all things culinary, it should not surprise anyone to learn that there is a gastronomic pecking order. At the bottom of the gastronomic hierarchy is goinfre (greedy guts), then goulu (glutton), gourmand, (one who enjoys eating), friand (epicure; one who with discriminating taste takes pleasure in fine food and drink), gourmet (a connoisseur of food and drink), and finally the gastronome (one with a serious interest in gastronomy).  

Let’s not overlook “foodie”, a contemporary term that is frequently and incorrectly used as a synonym for gastronome or epicure. Most people are blind to the fact that there is a distinct difference in their meanings. The foodie is an amateur or hobbyist and a gastronome has the educated palate and refined taste of a professional.

Foodie, like the expression eatery, is a relatively new term in our modern culinary lexicon. Both of those terms have given me cause for pause. The word eatery I am only now shamefully surrendering to after initially finding the term not only loathsome but unappetizing. My complaint is that “eatery” is being used inaccurately; it is an interloper on the culinary landscape, evoking images of cheap, usually inferior restaurants with undiscriminating all-you-can-eat offerings and other unspeakable horrors. Recently, I have begun to hear the term eatery to describe fine dining establishments. I am seeing the expression bandied about in venerated pages of prestigious publications.

With the simultaneous escalation of the food media, food apps and camera phones I try to keep my mind open to change. Expressions that seemed to have no root in our culinary lexicon are suddenly ubiquitous.

Some people self-identify as foodies to avoid being characterized as the type of food snob they associate with old-school gourmets. When people say to me, “You’re such a foodie” it makes my skin crawl. I don’t want to be categorized or lumped in with foodies despite their clichéd glory. The term sounds too much like groupie, and groupie, to my way of thinking, has the implication of being obsessively indiscriminate. For some reason the word “foodie” has always seemed too gung ho, too disingenuous and more about status than anything else. Several people have told me that I am mistaken, that I am a food snob. 

Writing in the Guardian, Paul Levy, who claims paternity of the term foodie with colleague Ann Barr, admits that American restaurant critic, food writer and novelist Gael Greene may have coined the term foodie at about the same time in 1982. “What started as a term of mockery shifted ground, as writers found that "foodie" had a certain utility, describing people who, because of age, sex, income and social class, simply did not fit into the category ‘gourmet’, which we insisted had become ‘a rude word’.”

We can see how far we have come by a legendary satirical sketch on the IFC series Portlandia (you can watch it on YouTube) caricaturing foodies and called, "Is the chicken local?" The episode goes like this:  A waitress approaches a man and woman seated at a table and asks if they’re ready to order. The woman says she’d like to know more about the chicken. “The chicken is a heritage breed, woodland-raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts,” the waitress states. “This is local?” the man asks, leaning attentively on his hand. “Yes,” the waitress replies. “Oregon organic, or Portland organic?” the woman asks. “It’s just all-across-the-board organic,” the waitress answers. The waitress leaves for a moment, and then returns with a file. “His name was Colin,” she says. “Here are his papers.” The questions get more intense and exhaustive, to the point that the waitress says, “I can’t speak to that level of intimate knowledge”. The diners then excuse themselves, promising to return but first they need to see where he was raised and lived, before they eat “Colin”. Although this satirical sketch mocks foodies, as consumers we should be aware of where our food is being sourced.

In my experience, those characterized by the French term goinfre (greedy guts) suffer a ravenous disposition. They are hard to stomach due to their selfish, insatiable appetites. Gluttony is often an emotional escape, a sign that something is eating you. Gluttons indulge their voracious appetites indiscriminately and over-consume to the point of waste.

Gourmand is an all-encompassing term for acolytes who take great pleasure in good food but who are routinely unacquainted with etiquette. They lack the skills of proper refinement while being over-fond of eating.

At the next level, we find the epicure. This term has had a renaissance but is still sometimes used to lampoon those devoted to the pleasures of the table. The Oxford Companion of Food says the term “derived from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who declared happiness to be the highest good, which came to mean, in a food and wine contest, a person of refined tastes.”

Gourmet denotes even more respectability and gravity in culinary matters. This French term originally meant “cultivated wine-taster.” Gourmets tend to be discriminating in their eating habits and sophisticated, with a cultivated and professional interest in culinary matters.

The gastronome has reached the highest level, taking great strides to comprehend the most subtle nuances of taste. It is a pleasing word, gastronome: unfortunately it has become archaic. The gastronome’s discerning palate and quest for illumination have been confused with pretension and snobbery. The fact is that gastronomy is the study of the art and science of food and the relationship between food and culture.

I have noticed that gastronomes and foodies have at least one thing in common: they both seem to have a strong desire to impart their observations to others.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Nouveau Ontario at The Restaurant at Stratford’s The Bruce Hotel

Nouveau Ontario at The Restaurant at Stratford’s The Bruce Hotel

After a delicious lunch at Mercer Hall we made a mid-afternoon reservation for dinner at The Restaurant at The Bruce Hotel. Owner Jennifer Birmingham handles the reservation personally which allows us the opportunity to inquire about the chandeliers in the dining room which I have been thinking about since my last visit. They dramatically recall Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala’s art glass crystal sculptures which are reminiscent of melting ice. Birmingham tells me they were purchased at auction from the Four Season’s Hotel in Toronto. She offers that each glass panel, of which there are many, weigh 1 ½ pounds. In fact, she acquired numerous decorative objects and furnishings from the Four Seasons specifically for The Bruce.

The newly built and handsomely appointed 25-room Bruce Hotel, set on six and a half acres of property and a short walk from the Festival Theatre, is the third hospitality undertaking for Birmingham. The restaurant and the hotel are named after her father, Bruce, a former president of the Bank of Nova Scotia who passed away in 2010.

The hotel is directed by General Manager Paul Gregory. During his tenure with The Four Seasons Hotel Toronto, it became the first hotel in Canada to win both Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond rating.

Word has it that Birmingham wooed Stratford culinary luminaries and owners of Bijou, Aaron and Bronwyn Linley, to join her at The Bruce. Aaron is the Executive Chef and Bronwyn is Food and Beverage Manager.

Aaron’s resume comprises sous chef positions at Rundles in Stratford, Scaramouche in Toronto, Maple Bistro in Halifax with chef Michael Smith, and chef at Le Nouveau Parigo in Toronto. Bronwyn’s pastry chef and sommelier experience includes Stratford’s Pazzo and Down the Street, Pan Chancho bakery in Kingston and pastry chef at Maple Bistro and Biff’s in Toronto.

Returning to Stratford in 2001, the Linley’s opened Bijou. What has made Chef Linley’s cooking unforgettable is the brilliance of his regionally-sourced ingredients paired with multi-cultural elements. For many years his culinary opus at Bijou was the standard for inspired, locally-procured food in Stratford. The Restaurant at The Bruce is positioned to be a contender in the uppermost tier of Stratford fine dining: the venerable Neil Baxter at Rundles and the enigmatic Bryan Steele at The Prune, (which, sadly, is closed for lunch this season), both have restaurant pedigrees that run deeper than Linley’s. The culinary benchmark continues to be raised and another popular Stratford stalwart, Mercer Hall, has just taken its place on a list of the top 50 restaurants in Canada.

There are two rooms that comprise The Restaurant and entry is through the clubby lounge. The dining rooms are white linen, chic and understated with square-backed upholstered chairs and settees. This is contemporary elegance and indeed Linley’s menus are loaded with ingredients that term evokes. Chef has dispensed with the main-course concept and offers a small-plates menu at dinner. Lunch is à la carte. There is an expectation of a particular level of care in a restaurant befitting a well-run luxury hotel. Among the hotel’s amenities are a gym and an indoor pool. (Rooms are $500.00 and “petit” suites are $650.00 per night and include a sumptuous prix fixe breakfast. Some have private courtyards.)  

Chef Linley describes his cuisine as “nouveau Ontario,” using French technique and ethnic influences “applied to the good things of this province.” The menu is prix fixe, offering two Beginnings and Dessert for $58.00, one Beginning and Middle for $58.00, or a Beginning, Middle and Dessert for $68.00. This arrangement is meant to expedite the challenges of pre-theatre dining where theatre-goers arrive and depart simultaneously and later, there is a respite. There is also a 5 course tasting menu available after 7:30 pm for $80.00 per person, and only available to an entire table. The Lounge offers a separate menu.

On my first visit, the restaurant was full and the service under the direction of the consummate professional Dorey Jackson was nothing short of impeccable. This despite the fact that it was our server Dallas’s first night on the floor (weeks later we were fortunate to have her serve us again at lunch). The busboy was well-versed on the menu and attentive, adding to the professionalism and pleasantness of the experience.

On that visit an amuse that began the prix fixe menu one night was a miniature bahn mi (Vietnamese sub) with duck prosciutto, pickled jicama, jalapeno and carrot, cilantro and ancho-chili aioli. On another occasion the amuse was two thin slices of duck prosciutto with tart local feta, slivers of criss-crossed asparagus and dots of kaffir and Szechuan-peppercorn oils.

The menu starts with Hot and Cold Beginnings and Fish and Shellfish. On two occasions we ordered the chestnut velouté and made do with the most delicious velvety garlic velouté imaginable, garnished with scooped apple balls that looked like parisienne potatoes and a mini bouquet of straw mushrooms. Another time, Tariditos of rainbow trout, the Peruvian cousin of seviche, were a mosaic of flattened, thinly- sliced strips of orange-red flesh with a whisper of yuzu (Japanese citrus), Szechuan peppercorn oil and garnished with crispy rice puffs. Perfectly cooked, deep-flavoured rutabaga ravioli with piping hot mushroom-scented turkey broth consommé may seem unseasonable in May, but was a big hit with my dining companions.

On another evening, my nephew raved about the potato trifecta: potato, potato, potato. The delicious confit of duck-fat roasted fingerling potatoes with bonito flakes he anointed the star of the trio. Vegan-friendly dishes such as “On the Streets of Jerusalem” are a trio of deep-fried balls of seasoned chick peas, smoky eggplant purée and with splashes of harrisa aioli, and a dab of hummus hidden under long thin slices of folded slightly-pickled cucumber with pomegranate seeds and sumac. Originally, listed under the Lacto-Ovo-Vego section of the former dinner menu, it remains in the Hot and Cold Beginnings section of the menu, and also debuts on the lunch menu. A composed salad of lightly cooked asparagus “Caesar” style with crispy-sweet, fatty guanicale, savoury crostini and shaved Toscano is a sure-fire hit of creamy garlic goodness at lunch.

For carnivores, the menu offers a Birds and Beasts selection with a variety of fish, poultry and game options. A pan-fried wild salmon is supremely satisfying when Chef combines it with a saffron pistou broth. Skate is cooked deftly. Another evening’s standouts included skirt steak with cubes of potato millefeuille and rich Perth County pork cheeks braised to perfection with strips of crispy melt-in-your-mouth polenta and braised fennel.  

Try the Canadian shellfish: freshly shucked oysters, mussels, escabeche and wild side-striped shrimp with classic condiments are top notch, or the selection of oysters on the half shell, seviche and cold poached shrimp are offered on the more casual menu in The Lounge.

Warm and caramelized chévre cheesecake tart with blood orange sorbet is pleasing as are warm, sugary apple fritters with Moss berry jam and ginger ice cream. Birmingham’s sense of whimsy is evidenced in the dining room when a superior selection of artisanal cheese and accompaniments are wheeled out on a cart designed as an Acme-style mousetrap.

The Restaurant at The Bruce
89 Parkview Dr., Stratford,
855 708-7100

(Lunch is served Sunday and Monday in The Lounge)

The Lounge is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as late night.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Savour Stratford Perth County Grand Tasting Event

Savour Stratford Perth County Grand Tasting Event

Sunday, July 20 1-4pm

The Grand Tasting - Sunday, July 20 afternoon - Our garden party will take place in an elegant tent off historic York Street fronting the Avon River. Pairing 30 local chefs with local food producers and farmers to create seasonal delicacies complemented by Ontario VQA wines and craft brews. Tasting Awards will be presented. Musical entertainment by Jazz vacalist Ori Dagan and The Riley O'Connor Trio featuring Jordana Talsky. Silent auction with proceeds to the Festival's children's entertainment & programming.

24 invited regional chefs paired with local producers
20 + Ontario wineries and craft breweries ALL for one price - $75
VIP gift bags with hand-made wooden cutting board, culinary treats and early entry at noon - ALL for $100
 New red carpet photo booth fun
 Fabulous music, too!
 Silent auction featuring culinary treats, travel, recreational items and more.

Admission: $100 VIP, $75 General Admission + handling fee & HST

Monday, July 14, 2014

Stratford Dining and Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival

 Savour Stratford  Perth County Culinary Festival

The Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival, presented by GE Café Appliances, will take place, on the weekend of July 18–20th 2014. Historically held in September, the event celebrates local cuisine, culinary luminaries, local artisanal producers and farmers and outstanding Stratford chefs. 
This year’s theme is Coast to Coast to Coast and the 30th Anniversary of the renowned Stratford Chef School. Meet some of the top young chefs under 40 from across Canada — from Newfoundland to the N.W.T. to B.C. — all award winners, many trained in Stratford, and others associated with Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Anthony Bourdain. With over 150 chefs, farmers, producers, Ontario wineries and craft brewers, cheese makers and culinary personalities, the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival is one of the largest culinary festivals in Ontario. 

Featured chefs will showcase their culinary expertise creating innovative Canadian cuisine, procured from Perth County farmers and producers.

Some of this years highlights will include: Chef Rich Francis who will be on hand with his contemporary take on modern aboriginal and Northern Canadian cuisine. Chef Carl Heinrich of Richmond Station’s purview is nose-to-tail cuisine while Chef Todd Perrin of Mallard Cottage will showcase his sea-to-table repertoire.  Dale Mackay of Ayden Kitchen and Bar, a protégé of chef Gordon Ramsay, pairs Saskatchewan lake fish with local produce. Paul Rogalski, of Calgary’s Rouge, will give a contemporary riff on the traditional soufflé while James Walt of Whistler’s Araxi, presents sustainable west coast seafood.

“Intimate Tutored Talks and Tastings” have culinary specialists discussing trends from foraged wild edibles to fermentation, preserving seafood, the pairing of craft beers and sampling Ontario wines.
The Taste of Ontario Artisan Alley is an open-air gathering along York Street with an afternoon of tastings along with wines, craft beers and cheese.

The piece de resistance is the Savour Stratford Grand Tasting, a stylish garden party on Sunday July 20th presented by Scotiabank in an elegant tent off historic York Street, fronting the Avon River, pairing 30 local chefs with local producers to create a selection of seasonal specialties accompanied by VQA wines and craft brews