Report from Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
For the ninth straight year, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants survey does not feature a Canadian representative. And for the second straight year, no Canadian restaurant is in the next 50. The results were announced on Monday in a live streamed event across the globe, with 500 attendees at London’s Guildhall in a pomp-and-circumstance ceremony that crowned Rene Redzepi’s Noma as the No. 1 restaurant in the world for a third consecutive year. New York’s Per Se was the best in North America, finishing sixth, while its owner, Thomas Keller, was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
There was no Canada, though, and here are five reasons why I think our nation continues to languish in the rankings (as an fyi: I’m a judge for World’s 50 Best and started the Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada List in order to spotlight the great things happening on the Canadian culinary scene).
1. Toronto’s dining scene underwhelms.
If you’re in Toronto, the best dining experiences, in my opinion, are an hour outside of it. Langdon Hall and Eigensinn Farm (where a prix-fixe dinner is $300 per person) offer outstanding dining experiences and extraordinary creativity. Within the city, The Black Hoof, the top restaurant in Toronto according to the inaugural Vacay.ca restaurants survey, comes closest to a unique experience you can’t find anywhere else. But too many of the city’s most noted restaurants and chefs play it safe, in part because it’s expensive to do business in Toronto. Menus need to appeal to the masses in order to assure solvency. So, you’ll find steak and potatoes, chicken breast, and grilled salmon offered at many places where chefs have the talent to be more innovative. The Black Hoof, located on Dundas Street, away from the Financial and Entertainment Districts, and not in the middle of Queen West or Little Italy, is able to save on real estate costs and can let its chef de cuisine, Brandon Olsen, have plenty of creative freedom. A visitor would expect the nation’s largest and most visited city to also be home to Canada’s most dynamic and exciting food scene. That’s not the case in Canada. When judges for the World’s 50 Best come to our nation, they’re going to come to Toronto and they may not be wowed. That experience reinforces the notion that our cuisine is still developing and it prevents our restaurants from making the cut.
2. Lack of promotion.
Culinary travel has exploded throughout the world and it brings in big dollars. Canada should be taking better advantage. If tourism boards hosted culinary-focused travel writers and judges then word might get out about our strengths and we might improve our reputation.
3. More food tours needed.
Quebec and Newfoundland & Labrador have such distinct flavours that foodies around the world would certainly be interested in exploring these provinces, and if they did, they might come across a Raymond’s in St. John’s or an Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal that might help those restaurants build a broader reputation. Also, chefs will often say you’re only as good as your product and few places in the world have better product than Canada’s west coast. Vancouver and Vancouver Island have dining experiences that are mind-blowingly phenomenal. I’m sure The Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn would impress many of the 837 judges on the World’s 50 Best List if they were able to make it to Tofino.
[Btw, if you’d like a culinary tour of Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal, send me an email and Vacay.ca will offer suggestions for you and even try to organize one.]
4. Canadian inferiority complex.
Canadians continue to undervalue our country when it comes to its merits as a cultural and travel destination. Truth is, few, if any, nations have managed to integrate so many different cultural influences into their cuisine and lifestyle. Whether it’s at Vij’s, the No.1 restaurant in Canada, or Bao Bei, a Chinese fusion restaurant also in Vancouver, or Toronto’s Origin, whose menu features flavours from around the globe, the blend is evolved. Our palates are more adventurous and accepting than most. While French cooking techniques will always reign, the influence of Asian, African and Caribbean recipes is strong, and more and more restaurants are turning to our First Nations for ideas, too. There’s lots to celebrate here and we should all aim to tout our culinary stars when we venture around the world.
5. A “safe” reputation hurts Canada’s restaurants.
As mentioned, Canadian chefs, especially in Toronto, play it “safe,” and judges and foodies want to see restaurants being inventive and risky, and pushing the limits. To hit the World’s 50 Best List, a Canadian chef will need talent, big money to back that talent, effort from supporters to get the word out and resolve. It’s a bold risk and the restaurant business is tough enough without stretching for lofty goals whose achievement you can’t control. Luckily, we have our own list now, and it was created to celebrate how well Canadian chefs are doing, not to focus on where they might fall short.