Column by Adrian Brijbassi
[pullquote_right]Top 10 Restaurants in Canada, 2012-14 (based on cumulative votes over three years)
1. Vij’s, Vancouver
2. Joe Beef, Montreal
3. Langdon Hall, Cambridge
4. Atelier, Ottawa
5. Hawksworth, Vancouver
6. Raymonds, St. John’s
7. L’Abattoir, Vancouver
8. Canoe, Toronto
9. Araxi, Whistler
10. CHARCUT, Calgary[/pullquote_right]Martin Picard has done more to define Canadian cuisine than any other chef. So, how does neither of the two restaurants he owns rank among a guide for the best places to dine out in the nation?
That’s a question that some in the passionate chefs’ community are asking after the release last week of the 2014 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide. Picard’s good friend, David McMillan of Joe Beef, expressed his concerns – and those of chefs he knows – to me in a conversation on Friday. McMillan is a guy with a lot of credibility in the restaurant community for good reason. He and business partner Frederic Morin have built a culinary empire consisting of three outstanding restaurants in Montreal’s Little Burgundy neighbourhood and an award-winning cookbook. Beyond that, he cares. In the few conversations I’ve had with McMillan the one thing that rings true is his sense of justice. He has stood up for his friends in the culinary community more than anyone I know. He even stood up for Vacay.ca and what we are trying to accomplish a couple of years ago. On Friday, he stood up for Picard when he talked to me.
“How can you rank the best restaurants in Canada and not have the most polarizing chef in the history of Canadian cuisine on there? I don’t understand it. A lot of people are criticizing you and I think it’s a shame because you had a chance to do something really great here,” McMillan said to me. “Somebody has to make an executive decision to not leave Martin off.”
We did discuss omissions, particularly the exclusion of Picard’s Cabane a Sucre and Au Pied de Cochon, which both ranked among the nation’s Top 50 in 2012 and 2013. Also missing were Calgary favourites Teatro and Muse, both of which ranked among the Top 50 in 2013 when the public was involved in the voting but dropped to runner-up status this year. Michael Stadtlander’s Eigensinn Farm is also deserving of more recognition than it has received in the Vacay.ca rankings (it’s No. 63 this year).
But the “executive decision” was made to do what we’ve done the last two years, which was to leave the rankings as we received them. To do otherwise would compromise the integrity of the process and also eliminate the transparency that anyone who consumes media covets these days. It would also have bumped a chef like Duncan Ly, whose Raw Bar ranks No. 50, out of the Top 50. Ly is a chef on top of his game and he’s accomplished something unique, redefining cuisine from his ancestral home of Vietnam similar to how Angus An at Vancouver‘s Maenam has changed Canadians’ view of Thai.
The judges for this year include chefs Vikram Vij, Connie Desousa, Patrice Demers, Dale MacKay, Marc Lepine, Martin Juneau, Geoff Hopgood, David Hawksworth, Jonathan Gushue, J.P. Pedhirney, Michael Howell, Jesse Vergen, Matt Basile and others. That’s a dynamite group and it’s a group of peers selecting peers. Of the 59 judges, 43 are chefs or restaurant owners and the others are well-travelled writers or connoisseurs, several of whom also judge for the World’s 50 Best List. In fact, all of the judges for this year’s Vacay.ca list have been invited to vote for the World’s 50 Best List in 2015, which is a potentially magnificent thing for our nation’s cuisine.
If you’re dining out and you could ask the opinion of anyone where to go, it’s likely you would take the recommendation of the finest chefs in the country over rankings from just journalists or the public. That’s what’s great about the 2014 list and why I think Vacay.ca got it more right than we ever have. We’re extremely proud of the rankings and the entire roster of judges who helped put it together. It’s a thoughtful, well-conceived guide to dining out in Canada.
The Future of the Top 50 Restaurants Guide
My vision of the Top 50 Restaurants ranking has been to have an annual celebration of Canadian cuisine, with an awards show, live broadcast feed over the Internet, and public tastings of some of the best food in the nation. Vacay.ca’s goal has been to seek sponsors and involve corporations who love Canadian cuisine as much as we do. If you care about the culinary scene in Canada, I encourage you to help Vacay.ca attain that sponsorship by reaching out to your corporate contacts or reaching out to the email@example.com email account with ideas of who might be an interested sponsor. To be clear, I don’t make any money from Vacay.ca (I have a full-time employer and have been instructed that I cannot receive payment for anything I write for Vacay.ca; my wife, though, is a part owner of Vacay.ca). The sponsor would receive the benefit of all the social media and traditional media attention of the Top 50 list, the culinary community would receive a great annual celebration, and Vacay.ca would be able to focus more time and resources to the marketing of the rankings. While Vacay.ca’s business team pursues a title sponsor for the guide, the ownership group is also creating a separate website to house all of the culinary-focused content Vacay.ca produces, including each year’s Top 50 guide.
I have a ton of respect for McMillan. I have a ton of respect for many of the nation’s chefs – and many in Canada’s tourism and hospitality business. To them, I want to underscore that Vacay.ca is an independent publication. It understands and empathizes with many of the independent business owners in the country. It cares more about the culinary scene (and tourism industry) in Canada than any other publication and has done more to advocate for Canadian cuisine in recent years than any other media outlet. Similar to how independent restaurants care more about the food they serve than corporate chains, Vacay.ca puts more care into the content it publishes than larger mainstream media outlets, several of which are downsizing at a rapid rate and can’t maintain quality control.
When I’m in Montreal this summer, McMillan and I will have a Foie Gras Summit where we aim to determine how best to honour the nation’s food scene. One thing I think he and I will agree on is a Lifetime Achievement Award that praises the likes of Picard and Stadtlander. I also have in mind a special and fitting honour for Picard that we’ll keep under wraps for now.
The Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide was meant as a democratic exercise. It’s why we had a public vote the first two years. This year, we turned it over to leading chefs. We had three main reasons why we chose to shift away from the public vote for 2014:
- We wanted to give the many restaurant owners and their public relations teams a break; they were instrumental in getting the word out about the voting in 2013 and we didn’t want to tire them of the process;
- We thought the chefs deserved special recognition and didn’t want to dilute their voice;
- Vacay.ca is working on an innovative app that will make the results personalized based on each user’s social network, easily organized by price point and cuisine type, and more exact. That app is scheduled to debut in 2015 and it will be fantastic, but in the mean time Vacay.ca is reinstituting the public vote through the firstname.lastname@example.org email address.
If you want to have a say, I encourage you to send in an email in support of your favourite restaurants and your community’s culinary scene.
Omissions from the 2014 Rankings
We asked McMillan to be a judge for 2014 and he initially said yes and then didn’t submit a ballot. Did that make much of a difference? Well, yes. His vote would have pushed one or both of Picard’s restaurants higher and if McMillan was engaged it may have led me to reach out to him to ask his opinion about what we should do to address the omission.
Edmonton’s foodie community has also expressed dismay about the absence of any of its restaurants among the Top 50 (though five restaurants from that city placed among the 50 runners-up, which can be viewed on the Top 50 Restaurants webpage). The city would have done better had its citizens participated in last year’s public vote, which Calgary dominated. A vocal outpouring from Edmonton would have urged Vacay.ca voters to make a visit.
As for Quebec City, I think it’s an oversight that not one of Panache (which ranked 31st in 2013), Le Laurie Raphael (No. 84 in 2014, No. 63 in 2013), Restaurant Initiale (No. 88 in 2013) or L’Affaire est Ketchup made the Top 50.
That said, we do take steps to improve. In 2012, Raymonds was the most significant omission from the Top 50. I made it a point to get to St. John’s and to select more judges from Newfoundland & Labrador. In 2013, Raymonds ranked 10th and this year it’s the new champ — and deservedly so. Raymonds is the Canadian restaurant that best combines great food, service, wine choices and setting into one establishment.
The 2012 list was criticized for being too focused on the nation’s two large cities, Toronto and Montreal. We made an effort to get to smaller centres and recruited judges from regions that were less well travelled. We also ramped up our efforts to recruit public votes, rewarding a Foodie of the Year prize that included a round-trip flight to the restaurant of the winner’s choice. The result was a flood of 10,000 votes and a campaign that resulted in Top 50 entrants from Fredericton, Saint John, rural Newfoundland, Saskatoon, and small-town Ontario.
In 2013, we published a video that addressed some of the omissions for that year. The biggest concern was over Toronto’s Splendido, which just missed making the cut at 51. After we tweaked the voting criteria for 2014, it’s at No. 38 overall.
“I think if you can keep this going, then four or five years from now you’ll have a really great thing,” McMillan told me.
That was my idea from the beginning. The first three years in this process is to see what works and what doesn’t, where the voting process can improve and what do people actually want out of the list. While the list celebrates Canadian cuisine, it is meant as a resource for diners. From what Vacay.ca has seen, the public wants what’s uniquely local and what’s exciting now.
“I’ve never been to St. John’s, but because of this list I want to go and I want to check out Raymonds,” Liane Faulder, an Edmonton Journal food columnist and Vacay.ca voter, said during an interview on AM 630 CHED Radio on Monday.
One idea McMillan brought up that I think has merit is to have a public vote and then an executive committee who identifies where the gaps are in the outcome and debates who should be included. As long as the process is transparent and there is equal regional representation on such a board, I think it might be a good option.
Other Points About the 2014 Top 50
As some followers of the list have noted, the rankings also included some dramatic position shifts from previous years. But some of that movement can be explained.
- Langdon Hall, which was No. 2 for two consecutive years, fell to No. 27. That’s attributable to a change in chefs and the lack of familiarity with new executive chef Jason Bangerter’s cuisine. Once people have tasted his food, Langdon Hall should climb higher.
- Les 400 Coups fell out of the Top 100 after ranking in the Top 10 for two straight years and Rouge in Calgary and Toronto’s revered Black Hoof also dropped out. Recent changes in the leaders of those establishments’ kitchens led to the omission as voters felt unsure about how to vote for them, even though by all accounts they remain strong contenders.
- New Brunswick is the only province that didn’t place a restaurant, after the public drove both The Blue Door and Saint John Ale House into the Top 50 in 2013. Without the public vote, Savour in the Garden (No. 72) and Rossmount Inn (No. 82) ranked among the runners-up in 2014.
What I don’t like about the Top 50 ranking is what I have always not liked: the lack of extremely pricey and hard-to-reach restaurants like Eigensinn Farm, Fogo Island Inn and Sonora Resort. Not enough members of the public, culinary world or media will make it to these places to get them listed. In the past three years, I have dined at more of Canada’s great restaurants than probably anyone and I’ve only been to one of these three since 2012.
Restaurant rankings are more subjective than any other form of ranking because everyone’s palate is different and so much of what you like has to do with your cultural background. Still, the human mind wants an order of things. Simply listing 50 restaurants in no particular rank isn’t actually giving audiences the information they want. If so, then the Academy Awards could just list the nominations without ever handing out an Oscar. We want to know what’s No. 1 and then we want to debate the selection and then we want to bet on who will be No. 1 next time around. It’s what we do with just about anything in life and that fascination is a part of these and any other restaurant rankings.
What I Will Do
My recent trips to Montreal and Quebec have been focused on coverage of cultural events, not the food scene. Save for a visit specifically to Les 400 Coups in 2012, I have not made it a point to dine at any restaurant in the city since 2010. Next time, I’ll visit Pastaga, Van Horne, Les 400 Coups, the Joe Beef restos, Maison Publique and Au Pied de Cochon, where I haven’t been in years. The influence of Vacay.ca always amazes me and getting these establishments some more national (and international) attention will draw diners there as well as some judges. Vacay.ca articles on Winnipeg and Saskatoon restaurants helped boost them into the rankings for this year as other judges made trips to visit too.
I will also travel to Edmonton in the fall for the same undertaking. Vacay.ca will expand its voting academy to include even more chefs. Chef Shawn Soole of Victoria‘s Little Jumbo Restaurant has already joined up. Despite the fact not one member of the Edmonton food community has reached out to join Faulder as a judge, we have added another member to the voting roster who is familiar with that city. Tarquin Melnyk, who helped me win a media bartending competition in 2012, is on board. He has mixed cocktails at Manor Casual Bistro in Edmonton and now writes for Culinaire Magazine and JustCocktails.org while spending time behind the bars at West and Bambudda in Vancouver, where he recently moved.
Vacay.ca understands there’s a bottom-line result for those restaurants that make the Top 50 ranking. More business will come through your door if you are on the list. But being excluded isn’t an indictment. It’s proof there’s a lot of competition in the country and that’s a good thing for all of us.
[NOTE: David McMillan of Joe Beef read this article before it was published and said it was “cool.”]