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Food by VICE

Toronto Chefs Are Fighting the City's Middle Child Syndrome

Toronto has a touch of little man syndrome—it wants to be a great city—but its got to stop shitting on itself to grow.

by Matty Matheson
Aug 1 2014, 8:39pm

Photo courtesy of Parts & Labour.

Toronto is a very young culinary city that is building itself up by its own bootstraps.

People have been going to Montreal for forever because they've considered it the jumpoff: You can get trucker speed, fuck a hooker, or go to a strip club AND eat at amazing bistros. Montreal is held by their cultural roots, but when their chefs come to Toronto, they're blown away by what they discover. I think a lot of it is in part to Montreal's specific identity, which can cause some culinary restrictions. I think Toronto is free of that cultural heritage in a good way, which allows us to create any kind of restaurant here.

Rob Ford is one of the biggest national embarrassments in the history of Canada— who happens to be internationally associated with Toronto—and I think he's a fool. He's also what's fucked about Toronto. If you want a guy who smokes crack—literally—to run our city, continue to vote for him, because he's going to win the next election, too. Food wise, he's a fucking idiot who stays in Etobicoke—he crushes all the restaurants around there, but at least there are actually some hot ones in that neighborhood.

People have been going to Montreal for forever because they've considered it the jumpoff: You can get trucker speed, fuck a hooker, or go to a strip club AND eat at amazing bistros.

Toronto also has a touch of that little man syndrome—it wants to be a great city—but its got to stop shitting on itself to grow. Torontonians always want to be like New York, so people visit there to buy things to be able to say, "I got it in New York." People need to be happy with what they got. I feel like it's embarrassed by itself. To be a Torontonian—in my opinion—is to be a polite asshole who thinks he's better than he should be. We're the middle brother that's trying to figure it out. All the provinces around us have their specific identities so that all the pressure's on Toronto to try to be something. We need to be the big brother to Canada because we're the biggest fucking city, but we're putting a lot of pressures on ourselves, so the result is a lot of growing pains.

What's really exciting about what's currently happening here is the massive insurgence of smart, young talented chefs who are doing amazing things in food, but it's going to take time for them to hold on. It's a privilege to be a part of that scene right now. Last night, for example, I had the opportunity to go eat at Splendido, a friend's restaurant, and it's one of the best fine dining experiences I've ever had. It was a Michelin-starred meal.

When I first arrived as a 19-year-old culinary school student in 2000, the Toronto food scene was weird because there were only six big chefs around town. About six or seven years ago, the restaurant scene exploded, and it is continuously exploding right now.

To be a Torontonian—in my opinion—is to be a polite asshole who thinks he's better than he should be. We're the middle brother that's trying to figure it out.

Some food people have gone on to say that we're a world class city that has the infrastructure, finance, and the architecture, but "the food's not there yet." I think the food will be there in another ten years. There's got to be growing pains and a lot of failures for a real city to become its true self.

With the amount of talent that we've got right now, from Grant van Gameren and Brandon Olsen, Scott Vivian, Chris Brown, Bertrand Alépée, Rob Gentile, Graham Pratt—it's an endless line of people, and it's a really special time to be here. Hopgood's Foodliner is a phenomenal restaurant because Geoff Hopgood is a psychopath, his food is really good, and people are coming to see that. Anthony Rose of Fat Pasha, for example, has three restaurants now, which are all very different. You don't always have to settle for tacos and chicken wings.

I often hear a lot of people refer to Toronto as the fourth-largest city in North America, but Toronto isn't even as big as Brooklyn. There's six million people in Brooklyn, and there's three million people in Toronto's GTA, and maybe one million people in downtown. Everyone needs to stop comparing Toronto to New York, because they're not similar. Our food history is 50 years behind.

In order for this city to get placed onto the international culinary map, we need a middle ground between high and a low cuisine. We need bistros, pasta shops, taco shops, burger joints, shawarma places, and game-changing bars like 416 who really changed everything for us because they made a space where you could have the party vibe until 2 AM, order shots of whiskey and eat raw oysters, beef tartare, or their legendary hand rolls. They started that party vibe because no one was doing it since most restaurants used to close at 11 PM.

Whenever a rad restaurant successfully opens, other food people think that they can replicate that. Five more of that version will open up, but maybe two will survive. A restaurant will hit some success as soon as it opens, and then all of those fucking hipsters, foodies, and bloggers will fly over to that new pile of shit and fuck everything up. Then they fly to the next piece of shit. But after about nine months, that's when you see and understand the identity of what your restaurant is supposed to be, mainly because you've had some time to breath, tighten up, and dial it in. You have to keep doing what you're doing and make your restaurant the real culture. That's what Toronto is really good at.

I opened my first restaurant when I was 26—what the fuck did I know about opening restaurants at that age? Not much. Now kids have the access to learn more because of the internet. With your iPhone, you can read Wikipedia and understand the entire history of food within a few days.

Toronto food is a very good amalgamation of the people that live here. It's not like Quebec where they have poutine and sugar shacks and cook with wild game. Toronto is very diverse. We're a land-locked city with a lot of immigrants which makes this place amazing. There's a Chinese-Jamaican dude who opened up a new restaurant called Patois that is incredible. I have maritime roots so I tend to cook hearty meats and seafood. Spanish cuisine is huge right now. It's really eclectic. There's more Tibetans in the Parkdale neighborhood than anywhere else in the world except Tibet. To the world, we don't have a signature dish, except maybe the peameal bacon sandwich—peameal bacon is cured pork loin that's been smoked and rolled in cornmeal to give it a crispy outer layer—at the St. Lawrence Market. All my buddies from Vancouver always want peameal bacon when they visit because "that shit's crazy."

In five years, I want the culinary pockets to be filled so that there's ten really good Korean restaurants, five Spanish restaurants, whatever. I also want to see more concept restaurants where more money has been invested, and for those chefs to go to the bank, get a fucking loan, and see what they can do. I don't want people to keep opening up $50,000 bars that serve five menu items to their customers. That's not a fucking restaurant. I want people to spend money, and execute it correctly.

I'm not trying to say, "hold strong, Toronto"—that shit's stupid—but cooks here need to keep creating the restaurants that they want to be doing. I think we can achieve that.

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