Macleans, Restaurants and Whiny Temper Tantrums

For anyone in the restaurant industry, this week the buzz is all about Maclean’s Magazine and their Canada’s Best Restaurants edition, in which a team of food critics led by Jacob Richler picked the Top 50 restaurants in the country.

Richler knew what he was getting into – the first line of his introduction makes it clear:

However much work goes into such things, they are seldom praised and always attacked – and gleefully.

What has been surprising is just how vehement those attacks are. I’ve seen no glee, just a level of childish pettiness that is embarrassing for the entire restaurant industry.

It would be idealistic to hope that food writers and the chefs and restaurateurs they write about would aspire to a level of maturity and professionalism in their interactions. That they would approach the work of the other with a realization that the “enemy” is just trying to do their job to the best of their ability with fairness and integrity, and that other factors (editors and readers in the case of writers; business partners and staff in the case of the restaurant owners) sometimes come into play. A restaurant review should never be personal, and should never be taken that way. At its best, a review is the perfect example of a symbiotic relationship where food writer and chef help and promote each other’s businesses (a review – good or bad – gives a restaurant publicity, and a popular review helps to sell copies or push traffic to a website).

During my time covering the Toronto restaurant scene, I’ve seen a food writer be stalked and harassed by a chef for a bad review, and witnessed a chef publicly name-call a local critic for not making it onto their end of year Top 10 list. I’ve also seen plenty of food writers, both professionals and bloggers, who did a grave disservice to the restaurants they wrote about through a lack of knowledge about what they were eating or even poor writing skills that failed to explain a dish. (WTF does “perfectly cooked” mean, really?)

Paring down all of the restaurants in Canada to a Top 50, and then blatantly including a mix of high- and low-end, pricy and cheap, AND ensuring that all parts of the country were included, cannot have been an easy task. I don’t for a second envy Richler. The list was destined to make everyone unhappy except for the 50 who were included. But the vitriol being spewed is shocking and unfair.

You could ask 500 people and none of them would have the same top 50 list. Probably not even the same top 10. “Best” is subjective, based on your personal likes and dislikes, or what you’ve had exposure to. Not having been to the west coast for many years, I couldn’t offer any commentary or critique on which restaurants in Vancouver are better than others. There are the ones that get listed in tourist guides, sure, but there are undoubtedly some hidden gems that are under the radar.

And it seems that Richler and his team made an effort to go under the radar. Sure, it’s a little confusing to see a list of Canada’s top restaurants and not see a mention of Stadtlander, Kennedy, or Vij. But having been to Chantecler a number of times, I am so pleased and proud for Jonathan Poon and Jacob Wharton-Shukster for their inclusion in this list. Chantecler is hip (in a good way), vibrant, laid-back, and the food is brilliant.

Indeed, most of the griping has been about which restaurants didn’t make the list. Even food personality Anthony Bourdain has joined in, with his usual array of insults:

Omitting Joe Beef AND Au Pied de Cochon from any list of top 50 Canadian restaurants (or even a top ten list) is like writing a history of British rock and roll and willfully neglecting to mention either Beatles or Stones. It speaks of a personal agenda so deranged or corrupted as the throw the entire enterprise into disrepute. Both restaurants are in fact, Canada’s best and most Influential cultural ambassadors. I can’t imagine what kind of spongiform bacteria might have caused [Maclean’s food writer] Mr. [Jacob] Richler to neglect one or the other.

Let’s go back to that whole idea of “best” as subjective for a moment, shall we? Bourdain has spent time in Montreal, he is friends with Martin Picard of APDC. Certainly, he has the absolute right to be offended at the omission of his friend. But unless Bourdain is secretly visiting Canadian cities on the weekend, checking out restaurants in different provinces just for fun, I would question his expertise on Canadian cuisine. (And go ahead – ask someone from Alberta if APDC is a “cultural ambassador” for them, I dare ya.) Because maybe, just maybe, the Tide and Boar Gastropub in Moncton is a “better” restaurant than Joe Beef. Maybe Model Milk in Calgary is “better” than Au Pied du Cochon. I’ve never been, so I can’t say for sure, but they could be. But because I’ve never been, I don’t have any point of comparison. And I certainly don’t have any right to insult Richler’s choices.

Finally, all of this bitchy griping – wah, wah, my favourite place isn’t listed, that guy is a poopyhead! – takes away from the fact that Richler and his team picked some really fantastic places. Complaining about who is not there takes away the glory from the folks who are. It’s bitter and it’s petty and it’s stupid.

Yes, there are places we all expected to see on the list that weren’t there – Langdon Hall, for one; and The Tempest in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, for another – but oh my god, people… The Grove… SO, SO, SO deserves to be best new restaurant.

But that’s my opinion, and you may not agree with me. And that’s cool, because as Maclean’s has made clear, Canada has some really amazing restaurants, and there is something for everyone out there. Not to mention that a publication like this helps to promote the whole industry, not just the places that made the list. In their disappointment at the omission of Langdon Hall, I bet a bunch of people will make reservations there, just because they’re reminded of how great the place is. Likewise at Joe Beef, or Vij’s or APDC.

In such a geographically broad publication, I can’t see this list hurting anyone. Rather we should all be happy for the folks who were included – I don’t doubt for a second that they deserve to be there.

PS to Richler ( who I have never met and don’t know at all, btw) – apparently Bourdain can be disarmed and guilted into not being a loud-mouthed ass with a nice fruit basket.