Just Keep Swimming

Michelin Stars Arrive in Canada, But Has Anything Changed?

On Tuesday, I was excited, but also a bit worried.  For the first time, the Michelin star would be making its way to Canada and awarding restaurants in Toronto with the much coveted recognition that comes from winning its prestigious stars.  For years I have felt that the food scene in Canada as a whole has been getting better and better, and I was interested in seeing what would be honoured by the food guide.

My fear, however, was that the choices would be exclusive and pretentious offerings that didn't mean anything to the average Canadian.  Others were sceptical as to how this would play out, as they saw the Michelin Guide generally leaning toward Japanese and Western European cuisines, especially ones that offered tasting menus.  There is a feeling that the awards are elitist and don't recognize that great food can also be found in family style restaurants.

A few years ago, the Michelin star was awarded to two street vendors in Singapore, a sign that perhaps the system was evolving to reflect modern times.  I had hopes that the pretension was being shed, that a greater realm of dining was ready to be recognized, and not the typical fine dining that the guide was known for.  It was this that had me excited, and I kept refreshing my Google search until an article in the Toronto Star popped up last night revealing the winners.

My excitement disappeared almost instantly.  Those who pointed to the focus on Japanese kaiseki menus, Western European restaurants and tasting menus as being the golden children of the Michelin Guide turned out to be prophets.  Out of the thirteen restaurants to acheive star status, ten had tasting menus, and the only restaurant that was 'accessible' to standard customers was a Mexican restaurant where the meat and seafood entrees start at $30, far below the other restaurants that cost hundreds per customer.

I'm not bashing fine dining.  That's not my intention at all, and I have no issue with those restaurants getting recognition for hard work and transformative dining experiences.  They deserve what they got, and good on them.  My problem here is that the selections by the Michelin Guide only solidified my belief that the stars, while very impressive to get, really are out of date and not in tune with Canada's diners and restaurant scene.

On Tuesday, the BBC had an article titled, 'Canada Has It's First Michelin Guide. Does It Matter?'  The piece looked at both points of view, but the overriding feeling was that no, it does not matter.  For the mayor of the city and the tourism industry, it is important.  For everyone else, it may be less so.  It quotes food writer Suresh Doss who said, "If we needed outside recognition, it would have maybe 10 to fifteen years ago," and the late Anthony Bourdain who told McLean's Magazine during a visit to Toronto in 2016, "Who needs that kind of validation?!  I think it's meaningless."  He also indicated that it was a good thing that Toronto restaurants didn't have a Michelin Guide.

There is so much more to dining than just ultra high end experiences, and I have a hard time believing that a random mom and pop shop isn't out there serving food that will blow diners away.  There's a reason why people in food tourism shows try to find the places that the locals eat and not the more recognized and renowned establishments.  It's because this is where the heart of food is, where some of the best meals on the planet are being prepared.

My opinion that the Michelin Guide is a relic from the past that doesn't offer any relevance to us 'ordinary people' was sadly reinforced last night.  The guide has been referred to the Academy Awards of cooking, and there is a sad commonality between them.  They both have a 'type' that they uphold as being the best, and don't reflect the wider range of what is being offered.

There is a reason why certain movies are called 'Oscar bait.'  It's because people know what voters like, and they can play into that by creating dramatic biopics or other such things.  The Academy has attempted to become more relevant (sadly more out of fear of viewership numbers than wanting to properly reflect the greatness of the cinematic landscape), and last year it had some shamefully bad fan voting that only strengthened the fact that they are out of touch.

Do the ten best films of the year all have to be dramatic?  Nope, not at all.  Comedies, action films, family films, animated features, horror, and every other genre imaginable can produce art that deserves to be recognized as the best of the year.  The fact that there are up to ten best picture nominations from a previous five is because they wanted to reflect more than just what people would consider to be 'typical' Oscar fare.  That experiment has mostly failed.

Awards are great, and recognizing talent is important.  The problem is when those handing out the awards have a perceived attraction to only certain options.  Food and movies are not for the elite, they are for all of us.  Once again, I'm not saying that those restaurants offering tasting menus don't deserve the stars they earned, but that there is much more outside of that.  I've had fine dining and loved it.  I've also stumbled into a hole in the wall restaurant that provided just as great of an experience of the fine dining.  There is a lot more to Canada's food scene than food that is gated behind outrageous prices, and I don't believe the arrival of the Michelin Guide represents what is out there.  It had a chance to change my view of its relevance, and I'm just left wondering why I expected anything other than what we got.