Do you appreciate it as well? Something is cooking in town; I can smell it, can you?
By Carmen Gómez-Cotta
“There are a lot of things happening in the city these days,” says Jen Agg, owner of The Black Hoof.
Just look around… see? Toronto nowadays looks like a hot spring of condos and houses, people and businesses, shops and restaurants. The urban landscape is changing in many ways and, in terms of gastronomy, “it’s living a transition from fine restaurants, with a conservative narrow cuisine, to casual places open to new ways of doing and cooking,” Agg adds. She also owns Rhum Corner and Cocktail Bar.
It is like a new culinary wave; a food culture evolution that is consolidating as the new city’s signature.
Almost a decade ago, the gastronomic scene was far from the kind of restaurants we’re used to these days spreading all over the city: small places, casual atmosphere, short and pretty cheap menus, bricks and chalkboard as a characteristic decorative element and, of course, the no-reservation mania. “That’s part of the culture of a casual downtown restaurant,” Jen Agg states. First come, first served. Ok, then I’m next in line.
Walk around the town and you’ll see it (yes, the places and their lines of people waiting to be seated), especially in the West side, which is crowded night and day and seems to be the ‘it’ place to go dining. This is where you’ll find The Black Hoof.
Do you know this restaurant? Dundas West stronghold: it is still one of Torontonian’s favourite places to dine, hang around and eat a tasty and mildly spicy horse tartare. This casual local, with a brick façade and menu written on blackboards, and where everything is made from charcuterie, is the perfect example of what Toronto’s cuisine evolution is about. And the place has been around long enough (since October, 2008) to know what is going on in this city when it comes to the business.
Jen Agg knows a great deal about the gastronomic and culinary landscape. She’s passionate about what she does and she likes talking about the Torontonian food history. While enjoying her wine, she tells me what she considers is the beginning of this new trend. “More than a decade ago, chefs such as Susur Lee, Jamie Kennedy or Michael Stadtlander broke molds with simple things so delicious and great presented, changing the way Torontonian used to go out’. Particularly, they changed the way they used to spend money on dining.
At the time of these chefs, Toronto was used to expensive and exquisite places that offered a limited and yet sophisticated menu that wasn’t pleasing to the (younger) urban people. So these new minds brought up this fresh dining concept based on small restaurants, short and affordable menus designed to encourage sharing, and keeping local food, good quality and a great casual service “formed by a bunch of professionals.”
Stadtlander and Kennedy (who both worked together at Scaramouche) were the first in Ontario to practice the philosophy ‘from farm to table’ that now is so characteristic of the gastronomic scene and setting up that slow food movement using just local products. Kennedy was also the first to introduce the now-so-common menus written on chalkboards as a decorative element at his Wine Bar. Meanwhile, Susur Lee was the one creating those tasting menus from lightest to heaviest that you can now find in so many places.
A great number of successful chefs have come up from the kitchens of these three pioneers -mainly from the one of Susur Lee, most of whom have their own restaurants or are chefs at highly regarded restaurants.
Tobey Nemeth, chef and owner (with her husband, Michelle Caballo) of Edulis, came from Kennedy’s team; or Tom Thai, chef and owner of Foxley; Jason Carter, chef and owner of Dandylion; Ben Heaton, former owner of the Grove and now the chef at Cittá (lastest Charles Khabouth’ restaurant), were all part of Lee’s crew.
Closed to Agg’s triangle, also on Dundas West, you’ll find Lee’s sons (and wife, well and him, because it’s a family business) restaurant, Bent. While passing by, I think of Lee’s international reputation… and how Toronto is changing its culinary scene… and then a thought came across my mind: could Toronto be considered a food destination?
In a future post I’ll tell you what chefs like Jason Carter and Guy Rawlings have to say about this. Pretty interesting!