Do you know this man? Have you seen him recently in a food service capacity, either as a server or a chef/cook? Or possibly making your morning coffee? Do you live in a backwoods logging camp, hundreds of miles from the nearest town? Because that’s the only reason why we should be eating food served and prepared by lumberjacks. No, really, take another look at him. Minus the axe, he could pass for any Toronto barista, hipster server, or chef at a place that serves “rustic” fare.
Yes, yet another “rustic” Italian restaurant is opening in Toronto (4 since the new year). We’re still desperately trying to find more things to put on poutine. Late night comfort food now has its own cross-border trend – “stoner haute cuisine” for the after club crowd (back in my day, all we had at 2am were donairs, and we were happy to have it! /end old geezer Haligonian rant). And while all those things are good and tasty… I can’t possibly be the only person longing for a little bit of elegance and sophistication on my plate occasionally.
This rustic comfort food thing – it made sense two or three years ago when a recession loomed over our heads. The world was a scary place, high-end restaurants were shutting down with some regularity (RIP Perigee), and we just wanted something familiar on the plates in front of us. Nonna’s spaghetti, plenty of fries, some “of the people” pulled pork, piles of game meat to assuage our inner wannabe hunter, and bacon on every damn thing in sight. Like our pioneer forefathers and mothers, we ate all the parts of the animal, preferably off a slice of log, complete with bark around the outside. We canned and pickled and imagined ourselves as a modern day Laura Ingalls (or Catherine Parr Trail if you want to keep it local and Canadian). We lumbered through the spring growth of local woodlands stomping down (or over-harvesting) the very jewels of the forest we claimed to prize and revere. We rejected anything that wasn’t “local”, which meant we ate an awful lot of “white people food”, in the process making many immigrant citizens feel that their cuisine was second class.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s all been very tasty. And homey and comforting and… rustic. But man, isn’t it getting boring?
Roast chicken, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, pulled pork, Sunday roast, charcuterie plates – on every damn menu in the city. They’re becoming interchangeable. Likewise for that rustic Italian stuff. Again, it’s all good, perfected to taste just like what Mama might make at home. But that begs the question – why aren’t we just eating it at home?
I ordered roast chicken in a restaurant the other night. It was great – no complaints. But I roasted a chicken at home last week that was just as good. Same goes for mac and cheese. Why am I ordering food at restaurants that I can make at home, where it costs less and often tastes better? Sure, not everyone can cook, and everyone is comforted by rustic comfort food. But remember when going out to a restaurant was a reason to try something new and exciting? To dress up? When you tried NOT to look like a lumberjack? When you took your goddamned hat off?!!
Remember when food was art, and drama? When chefs took risks instead of playing it safe by cooking food that you’d eat at home? I’m not talking about our short, sad romance with molecular gastronomy, but a time when chefs were actually trying to make the experience of eating out something sophisticated. A beautiful room, professionally-trained servers who melted into the background but were ever at the ready, food that was breath-taking to look at and mind-blowing to eat because the chef had taken risks and played with flavours and pushed boundaries.
I’m not suggesting we bring back “tall food”. I don’t want silly fronds on every plate like weird green antennae. I just want to be able to go out and have a meal that I wouldn’t have eaten at home when I was eight years old. I want a reason to dress up, instead of feeling like I’m overdressed because my server is wearing Converse sneakers and a toque that stinks of dirty hair.
I want new restaurants to stop working from the same menu playbooks as the last 20 restaurants that opened in this city and do something different and interesting. I want more restaurants from under-appreciated cultures (Kenyan food, Peruvian cuisine, true Persian food -as opposed to generic “Middle Eastern”) instead of yet another menu full of “look at us, we cook LOCAL!” Canadiana clichés. Because it’s ALL becoming a cliché.
Our country cruised through the recession. For most of us, things are good. We’re welcoming hundreds of thousands of new citizens to our country every year. Yet most of our city’s top restaurants are serving the same damned (white people food) dishes based on what people were eating in this country 200 years ago. It’s gotten to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised to see pemmican and bannock on a rustic, local restaurant menu.
Chefs of Toronto – I am not a lumberjack. Please stop making me eat like one!
This post originally appeared on TasteTO.