When I heard that a distinguished panel of food industry insiders, including venerable food writer Marion Kane would be speaking at the University of Toronto on a “You Are Where You Eat” panel, I was intrigued. Cooking school founder, cookbook author and TV host Bonnie Stern was present as was celebrated chef Mark McEwan (of Toronto’s Bymark and North 44), Yannick Bigourdian- the co-owner of Splendido- one of the city’s best restaurants, and Mitchell Davis- the evening’s moderator and VP of communications at the James Beard Foundation in NYC. And last but not least, there was Marion Kane- food columnist for the Toronto Star, now based in Stratford, Ontario with over three decades of experience and a lively wit to match.
Mitchell Davis started the evening by asking the panel how much of the restaurant experience is really just about the food. Mark and Yannick agreed that the experience has as much to do with the food, as it does about the atmosphere. Both men’s restaurants are geared at pleasing the eye as much as the palate. Bymark and North 44 are known for their modern yet timeless design, while Splendido is the epitome of classic European sophistication.
Besides increasing noise levels and torturously uncomfortable dining chairs (comprising Marion Kane’s two biggest dining out beefs), she added that a good restaurant experience apart from the food, is also about who you’re with and the attitude or vibe a place has. One of her favourite haunts to this day, isn’t a five star boite in the trendiest neighbourhood. It’s a little Portuguese restaurant where good food and wine prevails at fair and reasonable prices. The name? Amadeu’s on Augusta Avenue in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Marion used to be a Kensington Market resident until the noise and the 24/7 buzz got too much for her and she chose quieter, quainter Stratford instead. But when she feels like a good plate of steak cooked in a Madeira sauce with thinly sliced chips, she knows just where to go. I’d add Mario’s BBQ in Mississauga to that roster myself.
The panellists were also asked to comment on the statement: “Restaurants are about sex.” All answered that question by way of saying that the five senses come into play at a good restaurant, including the “wow” factor of plate and presentation (from service, linens, art/architecture and comfort) are key in attaining the best possible of experiences. From there, the conversation evolved to the ever-increasing public’s appetite for more inspiring cookbooks, inspiring TV shows, amazing food magazines and food from around the world. Marion and Bonnie Stern recall a time in Toronto when finding a good meal in the city (about 30 years ago), meant having to go to one of the best hotel dining rooms and paying top dollar for it. That’s certainly changed now.
With our growing multi-cultural face here in Toronto, you can find food from just about every corner of the globe, and good food is no longer the domain of four and five star hotels. “Food is the universal connector,” says Marion. There is as she says, always something about food that we can all relate to, discuss or enjoy in each other’s company. So apart from reaffirming the many virtues and uses of Canadian maple syrup, a great hamburger and the joys of a lobster poutine (a french fry, gravy and cheese curd dish from Quebec- truly wonderful I might add if prepared well), I think it’s safe to say that on a minus 30 degree Celsius winter’s night in a packed auditorium, only food’s universality is what successfully brought us all together in a discussion regarding the fellowship of “breaking bread.”
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