From Away

You’ve gotta give Marco Pierre White credit – his whole career has been about stirring things up and being in the spotlight, even if it hasn’t been all positive. He was in town last month to promote Knorr stock cubes, a product that he’s shilled in the UK for a few years. When challenged on their use, he gets defensive, insisting that he uses the product in all of his restaurants. Okay, whatever.

The fuss this time around comes from a piece in The Atlantic that basically skewers a couple of Toronto food writers for gushing about White and his stock cubes when he was in town, making the writers (newspaper writers, mostly) out to be bumbling hicks. My opinion of newspaper food columns is not what I’m on about today, though. In defense of the individuals – it *was* Marco Pierre White. And whether you like stock cubes or not, there’s no arguing that he’s the original rock star chef. It would be like a bunch of music writers being invited to a private jam session with the Rolling Stones. Even if you hated their last album, you’re not going to pass up the experience to meet them. You might have less respect for them because of that last album, but you overlook it compared to their lifelong body of work.

Because I’m sure the gushing wasn’t about the stock. I don’t know a food writer who hasn’t sucked it up and wrote a puff piece about a product, restaurant or event that was abhorrent to them, simply because they attended and promised they would: to keep a PR person happy, or because they had column inches to fill, or because they had high hopes for the event that didn’t pan out. Or because they were getting paid for the gig. Sometimes we all sell our souls a little bit.

What concerns me more is the fact that Toronto foodies put so much more emphasis on chefs and restaurants “from away”. Rene Redzepi from Noma was in town last weekend. He did a talk. Toronto foodies fell all over themselves to meet the chef from the “best restaurant in the world”. At the exact same time, many great Toronto chefs had gathered for an event called Soupalicious and the place was nearly empty. How quick we are to abandon our own when something more glamourous comes along.

I had a writer once at TasteTO who pitched me a restaurant review of The Fat Duck in England. “Is Heston Blumenthal opening a franchise here in Toronto?” I asked. Because our mandate is to write about, and I can’t make it any more clear – FOOD IN TORONTO. No, was the reply.  But the writer was going on vacation in the UK and “all restaurants in Toronto suck”, so they wanted the opportunity to review some “good” places.

I like food, I like to learn about it and read about it. But I don’t travel much. I’m probably never going to eat at Noma or El Bulli or the Fat Duck. As such, I’m considerably less interested when some far away celebrity chef come to town and does a talk. If they come and actually cook, so I can try their cuisine without having to be subject to airport security checks, then I’m much more enthusiastic. But the snobbery associated with these great Michelin-starred restaurants is a real turn off.

Kate at Accidental Hedonist wrote a great piece recently about how foodies equate eating at the world’s best restaurants with some kind of social scale. As if restaurant receipts are like medals that we wear to show off our own importance. You only have to visit sites like ChowHound to see that this attitude is true. And for some people, the food is the most important thing. But as Kate points out, a memorable meal is more about who you share it with than what’s on the plate.

Here in Toronto, where we are notoriously lacking in civic self-esteem (remember how chuffed everyone was when the city got mentioned in the Huffington Post twice in one week??), we pay lip service to supporting our local chefs. But the next time a rock star rides into town with stock cubes or a cookbook, we abandon our own chefs to ogle the toque from away, under some kind of whacked out theory that the restaurants and chefs that we have here aren’t good enough.

I don’t blame those food writers for falling under White’s spell. Heck, I don’t even blame people for being interested in chefs from away who are winning awards and changing the way we look at food. But just as I can’t afford to travel to Europe to see a band on tour, I can’t afford to traipse over there for dinner. So for me – personally, and in my own writing – local chefs will always come first. The rock star chefs might be an interesting novelty, but I’d rather put my time and effort into supporting the many amazing chefs here in my own community.