Toronto through the eyes of James Chatto
James Chatto knows a lot about food. As Toronto Life's scribe for two decades, he rivaled Joanne Kates as the pre-eminent food critic in this town. After he and the magazine abruptly parted ways a couple of years back, Chatto didn't disappear from the printed page but instead started wearing many hats. He's Editor of Harry Magazine, Senior Editor at the LCBO's Food & Drink magazine, restaurant columnist for Zoomer and food and culture columnist for ROM magazine. Not busy enough? He manages to find time to work with Gold Medal Plates as National Culinary Advisor, helping put together events across Canada that raise funds for Canada's Olympic and Paralympic athletes. And in whatever free time Chatto has left he writes for his own site, jameschatto.com, where (as he puts it) he can "write exactly what I please".
Up next, Chatto will be making some public appearances talking up the new, updated version of his restaurant book and hopping across the pond to England where someone is re-publishing his 1998 ode to classic Greek Cuisine A Kitchen in Corfu. On April 23rd he'll take on the role as Master of Ceremonies at the annual Terroir Hospitality Industry Symposium at the Arcadian Court in Toronto. Here, I connected with Chatto about the event, his worst-ever Toronto meal and what restaurant trend needs to end now.
What are you most looking forward to at this year's Terroir Symposium?
Listening to challenging ideas. The line-up of guest speakers is very intriguing. Some I know; others I've never met, though I'm a big fan of The Spotted Pig in New York (the best gnudi ever), so I'm looking forward to meeting Ken Friedman. Not to mention Ben Shewry from Attica in Melbourne and Barton Seaver. And there are dozens of other movers and shakers I'm eager to hear. This year's theme - the New Radicals - the idea of fine dining without fuss, of first class gastronomy without pomp and circumstance, describes the life we're living in Toronto and I want to hear how different exponents explain it.
Something else I can't wait to experience is the lunch line-up Ivy Knight has put together. It reads like the culinary manifesto of some chefs' fantasy league. Getting people re-energized for the afternoon may be an issue.
Who are three young chefs working in Toronto that you're most excited about?
It's great that Tobey Nemeth is back and I can't wait to see what she and Michael Caballo are going to do with the Niagara Street Cafe. I like the way Alexandra Feswick's imagination works. I still haven't been to taste her food at Brockton General, which is unforgivable, but we collaborated on an event at the Glenn Gould Studio with the Amici Ensemble and she blew everyone, including me, away. And I have a lot of time for Matt Blondin at Acadia. Some really original thinking there.
What's your favourite restaurant in Toronto right now?
I love Sushi Kaji, in Etobicoke. It's some of the best sushi and Japanese kitchen dishes I have ever tasted, anywhere in the world. For my last meal on earth it's a toss-up between Kaji and Stadtländer. Meanwhile, I suppose my current favourite restaurant is probably Starfish. That's where I end up taking friends from out of town. One reason is the owner, Patrick McMurray, who is the most genial of hosts and who always has some delectable new treat on his raw bar alongside the best oyster presentation in the city. It's a casual place but also great for a business lunch if you don't mind running into your publisher or a couple of off-duty chefs.
You're well known as the former restaurant critic at Toronto Life. Were there any hard feelings how things ended up there?
More a sense of mutual relief, I think. Twenty-three years was a good long run but it was time to part company. The magazine was turning in a new direction with a new agenda and a new tone of voice. We were no longer compatible.
Do you anticipate you'll write for them again?
What sources do you turn to for finding out about new restaurants or food events in Toronto?
I have a network of friends and acquaintances in the business who keep me well informed. For hours and addresses and things like that The Grid is pretty reliable. And I enjoy CityBites and Good Food Revolution. And blogTO, of course.
What's one restaurant trend that needs to end?
I'm pretty easy-going when it comes to the ways in which restaurants see fit to behave. If a guy's playing a hand, let him play it. But I'm not a fan of the no-reservations game. It's self-indulgent and unhelpful to customers. It has little impact on me, though, as I just go somewhere else where the attitude is a tad less venal and arrogant.
How would you assess Toronto's restaurant offerings on a global scale? What's the Toronto restaurant scene currently lacking?
We're going through a reactionary, recessionary phase where simplification is the order of the day. Burgers, pizza, mac 'n' cheese... Childish stuff. Toronto's gastronomy isn't as multi-faceted as it used to be. It's casual and comfortable and there's lots of good food but it's missing a lot of the old originality and any sort of intellectual risk. I used to brag that we were one of the top three cities in North America for food. That's no longer true. Not just because of the dearth of traditional fine dining - Scaramouche and Langdon Hall would attract Michelin's attention but that's about it - but because so much of what's new falls within the same narrow focus.
We have a really talented, really committed group of young chefs who are now entering their prime, but so many of them are painting the same picture with the same small spectrum of pigments and the same repetitive patterns. It's strange that they grew up eating from 100 different cultures within the GTA but all they want to put on their menus is charcuterie and home cooking from the Italian diaspora. Yes, thank Sooty and Sweep, there are exceptions, but why play checkers when you can play chess?
A part of the problem is the rampant neophilia that grips our media and the current 30-something generation of restaurant-goers. The only thing that matters is what's new. No one has any words to spare for places of proven worth or even for last month's hot spot. It makes for a disturbingly shallow swimming hole.
And many of the chefs who built Toronto's reputation have opted out. I love Cava, but it's no Avalon. Marc Thuet is concentrating on his bakery. Jamie Kennedy is busy at Gilead Cafe....Toronto is becoming cosy and provincial again when we could be dazzling, eclectic and serious.
What's the worst restaurant dining experience you've had in Toronto?
Ever? Twenty years ago, Toronto Life sent me to review a Russian restaurant at Finch and Steeles. The name escapes me. There was a live cabaret and a wedding going on. We were told they could seat us at 6:00pm. By 9:00 we still hadn't been served. My wife went home in a taxi. I stayed for the zakuski - deli Russian salad and blinis with lumpfish roe - and the flaming shashlik (napalmed chimpanzee) - and the tempting kulebiaka of canned salmon in papier maché - and the refreshing coupette of warm, flat, sweet, Eastern Bloc "Champagne"...Got home around midnight. Thanks so much for making me remember that.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
What neighbourhood do you live in? Chinatown, College and Spadina.
Favourite place in the city for inspiration? The Four Seasons Centre, Koerner Hall, Mazzolini Hall.
Favourite Toronto building/landmark? Will Alsop's OCAD building always lifts my spirits.
Subways or LRT? LRT.
Favourite annual Toronto food event? Empty Bowls.
Globe, Star, Sun or Post? Star
Dogs or cats? Cats
Ford or Miller? Miller. Ford is a bully and a buffoon, an embarrassment and a disgrace.
Favourite Toronto food critic? Sasha Chapman.