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Why have Michelin stars evaded Canada’s top restaurants?

Delhi News-Record 2019-10-10 17:31:58

It rarely happens that the great Canadian chef Normand Laprise of the perennially acclaimed Montreal restaurant Toqué! cooks for a group of culinary high-achievers, including kitchen superstars even more celebrated than himself.

That unique occasion happened in early 2015, when he traveled to Lyon, which some regard as the best city in France in which to eat. There, at Lyon’s city hall, Laprise was one of five chefs preparing dishes for a grand, 250-person banquet in honour of the legendary Lyonnais chef Paul Bocuse.

“We cooked for all the two- and three-starred chefs in France and Italy,” Laprise recalls, referring to the much-coveted ratings of the Michelin Guide, the time-honoured international reference for gastronomes.

“It was so stressful. But at the same time, it was so stimulating. You represent yourself, Toqué!, Canada and Quebec.

“We need this to happen more to other Canadian chefs, so that Canadians get more international recognition,” Laprise told this newspaper in a translated interview from French.

That’s a patriotic sentiment, but also easier for Laprise to say, given his accomplishments that preceded his trip to Lyon.

Normand Laprise, chef and co-owner at Toque in Montreal, on Friday, December 7, 2018. Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

Opened in 1993, Toqué! rose to become widely regarded as Quebec’s best restaurant and an incubator for the next generation of chefs after Laprise, who is now 58. The restaurant has been accepted into two distinguished France-based culinary organizations, joining the Relais & Châteaux group in 2006 and the Les Grandes Tables du Monde association in 2014. Laprise says he raised Toque!’s game to qualify for this prestigious membership in an effort to attract more international diners.

Since the annual Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list debuted in 2015, Toqué! has ranked first, second or third in the country. This year, Laprise became the first Canadian chef to crack the World’s 100 Best Chefs list (in fact, he ranked 100th).

Still, Toqué! does not have a Michelin star, never mind two or three. While the Michelin Guide assesses restaurants in more than two dozen countries, Canada is not one of them.

Effectively, Canada’s culinary scene is in Michelin’s blind spot, and is similarly out of sight as far as other international culinary rankings are concerned. Laprise is arguably the exception that proves the rule, and the lack of recognition for Canadian restaurants from Michelin may well mean there’s a hurdle for the country to surmount when it comes to wooing culinary tourists, who make up a growing segment of the tourism sector.

The Michelin Guide is not the only reference that globe-trotting gourmets consult. The World’s 50 Best list of restaurants, which occasionally mentions a Canadian restaurant, has considerable stature. It relies on a panel of judges — I am to join that group this year — each of whom submits a list of 10 restaurants. La Liste, which was launched in Paris in 2015 and is sanctioned by France’s Foreign Ministry and tourism board, offers its list of the world’s 1,000 best restaurants, based on an aggregation of pronouncements of hundreds of guidebooks and millions of online reviews. The Opinionated About Dining (OAD) lists, which debuted in 2013, are compiled from the surveys of almost 6,000 elite contributors.

Gwendal Poullennec (R), international director of the Michelin Guide, speaks with three-star chef Patrick O’Connell, of the restaurant The Inn at Little Washington, during the unveiling of the new edition of the Michelin gastronomic guide at the French Ambassador’s residence in Washington, DC, on October 1, 2019. ERIC BARADAT / AFP/Getty Images

However, as far as Canada’s restaurants are concerned, the Michelin Guide is most conspicuous precisely because of its absence.

Asked what consideration, if any, the Michelin Guide has given to assessing Canadian restaurants, a spokeswoman offered a response that did not mention Canada.

“We are always evaluating exciting new destinations for the Michelin Guide,” said Lauren McClure, a public relations manager for Michelin North America. “However, we have no news to announce at this time.

“The No. 1 consideration before we go to any country is the importance of a thriving culinary scene. Globally, we are adding new titles every year,” McClure wrote. Michelin just announced its 2019 guide for California, which joins sister publications in the United States covering New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

“As a restaurant, your primary objective should be to fill your restaurants with happy customers and to cook for your patrons, not for Michelin. If you do this well and consistently, Michelin inspectors will find you,” McClure wrote.

McClure does not delve into what the Washington Post reported in 2017 — that Michelin Guides can be commissioned for a price.

Claire Dorland Clauzel, then Michelin’s executive vice-president overseeing the guides, told the Post two years ago: “Some countries and some governments that want to . . . attract tourism, they are very interested in having a guide, and so they sponsor a guide to have the ability to communicate around their gastronomic landscape.”

Dorland Clauzel told the Post that guides in Seoul, Macau, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore were commissioned. Korea’s Yonhap News reported in the fall of 2017 that the government-run Korea Tourism Organization subsidized the guide for Seoul to the tune of two billion won, or about $2 million CAD, for four years.

Destination Canada, the Crown corporation that was formerly the Canadian Tourism Commission, “is currently not involved in any formal discussions about bringing the Michelin Guide to Canada,” said spokeswoman Emma Slieker.

James Chatto, the co-founder and head judge of the Canadian Culinary Championships, wonders if Michelin’s focus on fine dining in a classic vein would be “rather old-fashioned and out of sync with the way Canada builds restaurants these days.

“Many of our leading restaurateurs prefer a much more casual and idiosyncratic approach that wouldn’t tick Michelin’s boxes for linen, stemware, wine cellar and so on.”

Chatto says he could see several restaurants in Toronto receiving a single Michelin star, as well as two in Montreal and one or two in Quebec. In Ottawa, though?

“I have had stellar meals at Atelier and Beckta,” Chatto says. “But is Michelin open-minded and sophisticated enough to understand what they do? I’m not sure.”

Seared Bay of Fundy Scallops with crispy sweetbreads and late summer vegetables at Beckta. Tony Caldwell / Postmedia

That said, my impression is that Michelin does practise cultural relativism when it visits different destinations. For example, in Chicago, it has awarded a single star to Band of Bohemia, a brew pub, and to Longman & Eagle, a gastropub. In Singapore, Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodles, a street-food stall, has a Michelin star.

Stephen Beckta, who before becoming one of Ottawa’s leading restaurateurs worked at the top-notch, Michelin-starred New York restaurants Café Boulud and Eleven Madison Park, says that Canada’s top restaurants deliver admirable, and comparable, fine dining and service, if not over-the-top extravagance.

“While we don’t have the concentration of wealthy guests that dine out nightly as a city like New York City or Chicago does, I think many of Canada’s best restaurants stack up very well with the best of American destinations,” Beckta says.

“Where I think we excel is in the depth of our hospitality, even though we might not feature as many luxury products like white truffles and caviar as often, or have 10 unpaid apprentices in the back to prep many of the super-fussy dishes that the top spots in the States do.”

Jacob Richler, editor-in-chief of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants magazine, says that Canadian restaurants are “not playing at the same price point” as their Michelin-starred counterparts abroad.

He cites the example of Alo in Toronto, which has been top-rated in his magazine for the last two years. There, tasting menus cost $135 and $165 per person, before wine. At a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in the U.S., comparable meals would be twice the price, he says.

Individual servings of Wagyu Beef cooks over a burner at Thru. Wayne Cuddington / Postmedia

In Ottawa, Atelier’s tasting menu is $125, while the tasting menu at its new sister restaurant THRU is $200 per person, including beverage pairings, taxes and tip. Beckta’s tasting menu is $98, and at Alice, chef Briana Kim’s new restaurant, the tasting menu is $95. In Chicago last month, I ate at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Smyth, where the tasting menu was $155 US and non-alcoholic pairings were $70 US.

Canadian chefs work “really, really, really hard” to keep their prices low, Richler says. He wonders: If Michelin were to rate Canadian restaurants and make them more alluring to international diners, wouldn’t the prices go up?

Toqué!’s Laprise, too, says that ostentatious, blow-the-bank meals at three-Michelin-starred restaurants in France or New York don’t jibe with Canada’s fine-dining scene.

“If you had a restaurant in Montreal or Toronto and you charged $500 per person, no wine, it wouldn’t work,” he says.

“We can’t afford the same things. We don’t have old money like in Europe. We can’t offer the same luxury. We have to stay who we are.

“Michelin is changing, but they would really have to adapt to our reality,” Laprise says. Further, he asks: If Michelin were to come to Canada, but decline to award three stars to any restaurants, what would that say about fine dining in Canada?

Anne DesBrisay, an Ottawa-based retired restaurant critic and cookbook author, says she is very keen to have Canada’s food and drink scene recognized more internationally, but that we need to do a better job of selling it abroad.

“It doesn’t help that we don’t toot our own horn of plenty; that we still write about poutine and BeaverTails and Screech; that our national airlines are still serving French wine to passengers when Canada has a kick-ass wine industry,” DesBrisay says.

Server Alison Hussey serves Alex and Erin Anderson at the small dining room called Thru. Wayne Cuddington / Postmedia

Laprise points to other countries whose culinary stars are celebrated far more than their Canadian peers.

Peru, to name one, is a hot culinary destination now, although no one was talking about its unique cuisine 20 years ago, Laprise says.

Indeed, according to Ireland’s Food and Drink Strategy for 2018-2023, a document meant to bolster its culinary status internationally, Peru is a role model. In the first half of the 2010s, the World Travel Awards selected Peru as the world’s leading culinary destination for five consecutive years, the Irish document notes, while Italy, France, Spain, and Japan were runners-up. Since he opened his restaurant Astrid y Gaston 25 years ago, chef Gastòn Acurio has promoted Peruvian cuisine in his country and abroad, with support from his government, Laprise says. Two restaurants in Lima — Central and Maido — are among the Top 10 in the world, according to the 2019 World’s Best 50 Restaurants list. (Fun fact: Central’s chef Virgilio Martínez is an alumnus of the Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa culinary program.)

The Nordic countries are celebrated for their cuisine and top-rated restaurants such as Noma in Copenhagen, Laprise continues. “They’re really strong when it comes to branding. They created what we know as the famous Nordic cuisine,” Laprise says. “But in Canada, we’ve had Nordic cuisine since the 1950s. We never marketed it or made it trendy, but they did the branding expertly, supported again by their governments, to become known gastronomically.

“You can eat as well in Canada as you can eat there, as far as I am concerned, but they knew well how to sell their image to the world and get recognized internationally.”

In Canada, culinary tourism is “in its infancy,” says Greg Klassen, the Vancouver-based principal at Twenty31 Consulting, which several years ago prepared a report on culinary tourism for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.

Culinary tourism, Klassen says, is one of the most significant areas of tourism growth around the world. It refers to not only the pursuit of fine dining, but rather of good eating and everything from food trucks to farms to picnics.

Briana Kim with some of her dishes at Alice Restaurant on Adeline Street in Little Italy. The dish seen here is Summer Bouquet. Wayne Cuddington / jpg

This year, several projects related to culinary tourism have received funding, says Parmar, a media relations officer for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. Grants include $625,000 to the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, as much as $500,000 to the Métis Nation of Alberta to develop a culinary experience at Métis Crossing, and $193,000 to the City of Temiskaming Shores, Ont. to develop a culinary strategy.

Meanwhile, Destination Canada this summer partnered with the World’s 50 Best Restaurants to have Ontario featured in a “50 Best Explores” initiative, in which the global gastronomy brand would feature several Ontario and globally recognized chefs on its social media channels and website. Previously, a “50 Best Explores” initiative visited Peru.

Richler from Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants feels that in Canada, Montreal is tops when it comes to attracting international fine-dining lovers and American gourmets in particular.

“Montreal, having been the longest established, and simultaneously having a more readily identifiable culinary culture than a lot of other places, does attract more culinary tourism,” he says.

Under the Tourisme Montréal event called MTLàTABLE, 150 restaurants offer discounted set-menu dinners between $23 and $43 during the first two weeks of November. Each winter, the Montréal en Lumière includes a significant culinary component, in which chefs from Laprise down offer special menus and splashy dinner events.

The prestige of Montreal’s restaurants fits within a larger frame. Overall, Quebec celebrates its culinary successes with the fervour of a distinct society. Since 2010, the Radio-Canada TV show Les Chefs! has crowned culinary champions. (Of the show’s roughly 100 contestants, none has been from Gatineau.) Last year, the awards called Les Lauriers de la gastronomie Québécoise debuted, honouring restaurants, chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, mixologists, servers, farms and food trucks. Last year, Laprise won the prize for promoting Quebec’s culinary culture outside of the province.

Taste of the Cayman event on the great lawn of the Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman, at the 2019 Cayman Cookout. jpg

In mid-January next year, the Toque! chef will continue to wave the flag when he jets to the Caribbean to take part in the Cayman Cookout, which despite its no-frills name is one of world’s most posh and alluring culinary festivals for well-heeled gastronomes.

On the pristine white sands of Seven Mile Beach outside of the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, Laprise will share the story of Toque! and serve small bites at a cooking demonstration. He is to prepare a fancier Quebecois lunch in one of the Ritz-Carlton’s restaurants. On the event’s final night, Laprise will cook with such world-famous chefs as Dominique Crenn and Clare Smyth at its grand, $950 US-a-seat gala.

“I’m very excited to cook with all those great chefs,” Laprise says, noting that he knows and has cooked before with New York chef Eric Ripert, the host of the Cayman Cookout. “It’s very stimulating … I go to learn, to spread my culture, to see a different vision, to compare, always to learn,” he says.

On Grand Cayman, Laprise will also rub shoulders with such globally renowned chefs and fellow headliners as Jose Andres, Daniel Boulud and Emeril Lagasse. But of course, he will be the only Canadian chef present.

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How Canadian restaurants rank:

The World’s 50 Best restaurants lists (with honourable mentions, the list extends beyond 50)

Alo, Toronto (90 in 2019, 94 in 2018)
Joe Beef, Montreal (81 in 2015)
Rouge, Calgary (60 in 2010)
Langdon Hall Dining Room & Terrace, Cambridge (77 in 2010)
Eigensinn Farm, Singhampton (28 in 2003, 9 in 2002)
Susur, Toronto (49 in 2002)

La Liste 2019 list of “1,000 remarkable restaurants” (scores out of 100)

Alo, Toronto (98)
Toqué!, Montreal (84)
Edulis, Toronto (83.25)
Initiale, Quebec City (82.25)
Langdon Hall Dining Room & Terrace, Cambridge (82)
Raymonds, St. John’s (81.25)
Buca Osteria & Bar, Toronto (81.25)
Le Baccara, Gatineau (80.5)
Montréal Plaza, Montreal (80.5)
Le Hatley, North Hatley, QC (80.5)
Canoe Restaurant and Bar, Toronto (80.25)
Café Boulud, Toronto (80)
Maison Boulud, Montreal (80)
Joe Beef, Montreal (80)
Le Mousso, Montreal (80)
Scaramouche, Toronto (80)
Kissa Tanto, Vancouver (80)

OAD 2019 of top 100+ North American restaurants

Raymonds, St. John’s (8)
Alo, Toronto (29)
Atelier, Ottawa (80)
Actinolite, Toronto (81)
Hashimoto, Toronto (89)
Hawksworth, Vancouver (98)
Joe Beef, Montreal (107)
Canoe Restaurant and Bar, Toronto (116)
Edulis, Toronto (129)
Europea, Montreal (131)
Toqué!, Montreal (132)
Scaramouche, Toronto (140)
Opus Restaurant, Toronto (151)
Eigensinn Farm, Singhampton, ON (181)
Buca Yorkville, Toronto (186)

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