Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Culinary Stage: Is the Food Movement Too Elitist?



The thrust of this column, is to present my thoughts on the seasonal food landscape and the always-changing restaurant scene in Stratford, and London in particular and about what is happening not only regionally but also nationally on the Canadian culinary stage.

When I go out to eat, I am enticed by restaurants that champion farmers, small-scale producers and food artisans by procuring products and featuring local ingredients that are responsibly sourced and presented. Often I come across people whose criticism of the local food movement has centered on the idea that it is elitist. Being a dedicated food professional requires education and connoisseurship, which in themselves are costly to cultivate but not necessarily elitist.

Connoisseurs are distinguished for their judgment and their discerning eye. They also have an innate sense of taste. Connoisseurs are respected because of their aptitude — their talent — for recognizing and appreciating subtle, often unseen attributes. Elitists are individuals who believe they are superior to others because of their interests, intellect, status, or other factors.

Slow Food has been repeatedly criticized as a stronghold of elitism, an insular network of people motivated by the need to justify their ethos as morally and politically egalitarian, even while the cost of some of their events is prohibitive and the narrowness of their philosophy excludes the larger majority. Slow Food has been stigmatized with an elitist label for some time, but I think it has more to do with individual personalities and personal agendas rather than the ethos of the movement. More on that subject at a later date.

To keep well-versed with the culinary world I collaborate with food businesses and enthusiasts that uphold similar culinary values to mine. I’m not exaggerating when I say that in the process of writing two culinary guides in the past couple of months, I have sat down with close to 50 restaurateurs to discuss the food scene in London. One of the more contentious topics remains the London food truck pilot project which I’ll briefly touch upon in this column. Also, I’m sharing some brief opinions about the word “culinary,” the popularity of seasonal farmers’ markets, the Savour Stratford brand and a brief homage to Kantina’s chef Danjiel “Dacha” Markovic.

The Culinary in Culinary Tourism
Interestingly, at the recent Ontario's Southwest Tourism Conference, Director of Product Development at the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance (OCTA) stated that research has shown that the term culinary is perceived as being elitist. Organizations cannot grow and develop without acquiring new members. In order to reach a broader demographic and economic base the term food tourism is now being embraced by the industry replacing the term culinary tourism. Dumbing down language to reach a broader demographic is nothing new. (The original usage of the term dumbing down was used as a slang expression in 1933 by screenwriters to mean “revising the script so as to appeal to those of lower education or intelligence”.

I have always been interested in the origin of culinary terms and the manner in which their meanings have changed throughout history. The term culinary is correctly defined as something related to, or connected with, cooking. A culinarian is a person working in the culinary arts. The word culinary originated in the 17th century from the Latin term culina for kitchen or cook stove. Culina itself derived from the Latin word coquere, meaning to cook. To my way of thinking the term culinary is anything but elitist.

Chef Danjiel “Dacha” Markovic
For the past few years, chef Danjiel “Dacha” Markovic a follower of modern farm-to-table cuisine, has not just been cooking and sourcing local and seasonal, he has ushered in a more upscale and innovative iteration of Balkan cuisine at Kantina Restaurant. Kantina combines Markovic’s training in Serbian cookery with his affection for rustic and down-to-earth food. His realm is a scratch kitchen, and all of his offerings have been crafted in-house and by hand. His repertoire has included thought-provoking takes on iconic dishes imbued with contemporary techniques and quality ingredients. Markovic recently told me that he has decided to take a well-deserved sabbatical, but what he is doing next is a well-guarded secret. Kantina, on the other hand, as owner Milan Karac tells me, is expected to have a complete makeover in the late summer. Expect to see Markovic return to London after his sabbatical.

Seasonal Farmers’ Markets
Every year I look forward to the start of the outdoor farmers’ market season. In warmer weather, I generally frequent farmers’ markets and farmgates which help to sustain economic activity on a local level. The new economic reality is that farmers’ markets have become a source of competitive advantage and the preferred food-retailing operation for many consumers. Studies reveal that most market shoppers are inspired to eat seasonally, which leads to altered buying and cooking patterns. It is important to keep in mind that farmers’ markets achieve an imperative part in local economic development by providing a location for local and small business incubation, generating an economic multiplier effect to neighboring businesses, and redistributing customer dollars within the community.

Food Trucks
Food trucks serve a diverse variety of healthy options and cultural foods in other cities. In fact, food trucks are the new incubators for culinary innovation. I am not talking about corporate food trucks serving commercially produced food. I am speaking about the chef-driven, entrepreneurial, indie food truck operators who tweet their location of the day to those in the know.
Locally, think of the Goodah Gastrotruck whose operators are gearing up to grill up their gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches curbside this summer. London’s recently approved food truck pilot will operate during the summer with plans to appraise its success in the fall. Given all the bad optics around food trucks with the previous City Council it will be interesting to see how many of the eight licences that has been made available will be purchased.

Savour Stratford
For the past seven years, the Stratford Tourism Alliance (STA) has established Stratford as one of Canada’s leading culinary destinations, introducing visitors to its unique food community of chefs, producers and farmers. Since its inauguration, Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival has been an opportunity to meet and engage with a genuine community of talented tastemakers and culinary advocates. A magnet for connoisseurs, culinary enthusiasts and professionals, it became one of Ontario’s most prestigious culinary festivals — if not Canada’s.
In December 2014, the STA brought together local chefs, producers and culinary businesses to form the Savour Stratford Transition Committee. The committee voiced support in promoting the local culinary partners by mounting a new event on a smaller scale. This year, instead of the festival, the STA is focusing on continuing to market the Savour Stratford brand as a year-round celebration of local culinary experiences.

Toronto Culinary Scene
For the last few years, I have spent time reconnecting with and drawing inspiration from the restaurant and culinary scene in Toronto. New restaurants open every week in Toronto, and immigrant neighborhoods still feel culturally and ethnically authentic yet unique. The range of choice, gastronomically speaking, seems endless.
Recently Jacob Richler, food writer and journalist, and former National Post restaurant critic, organized a national panel of judges to decide the 2015 honorees of Canada’s 100 best restaurants. This was good news for Toronto culinary enthusiasts and diners: six of the top 10 are located in Toronto, as are 28 of the top 100.

Two of my favourite restaurants serving farm-to-table Canadiana in Toronto are Actinolite and Edulis. Both restaurants feature seasonal menus comprised of wild and foraged ingredients. The Indie Ale House in the Junction is my recommendation for craft beer enthusiasts who like great food. Chef Wayne Morris and Evelyn Wu’s Boralia on the Ossington Strip tops my most recent favourite of newly opened restaurants. Derived from the Latin word for northern, Borealia was one of the alternate names suggested for Canada during Confederation. Interestingly, at the beginning of April, Boralia ran into a trademark issue with its name. It is now called Boralia instead of the original Borealia.  Boralia offers up-to-date versions of dishes inspired by indigenous peoples and early settlers — think modern riffs on Canadian frontier food. This is another great place to sample a wide-ranging selection of dishes that showcase Ontario farms.

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