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Model Milk executive chef and co-owner Justin Leboe’s octopus dish at his restaurant in Calgary Nov. 13, 2012. (Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)
Model Milk executive chef and co-owner Justin Leboe’s octopus dish at his restaurant in Calgary Nov. 13, 2012. (Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)

How we ate: 2012's most important ideas in food and drink Add to ...

From the end of authenticity (so overrated), to the rise of the chef-neurologist, to the advent of a two-tier (in a bad way) Canadian food system, we pick the year’s most important ideas in food and drink.

Authenticity is so over

Remember when “It’s so authentic!” was the greatest compliment you could pay a restaurant? Some of the best food these days is wildly, willfully inauthentic, with tradition as the starting point and deliciousness the ultimate goal. In Vancouver, chef Robert Belcham crossed Asian and Southern U.S. barbecue into an intriguing hybrid at his restaurant Fat Dragon Bar-B-Q last year, and in Toronto, at Banh Mi Boys, the sons of a traditional Vietnamese banh mi empire filled their submarine sandwiches with tomato and hoisin meatballs, and stuffed tacos with kalbi beef. In the United States, Danny Bowien, of the white-hot Mission Chinese Food, traffics in “Americanized Oriental food,” as he calls it: his kung pao pastrami was the most consciousness-altering (that’s a good thing) dish I ate last year.

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Call it Fusion 2.0 if you have to. What these examples – and scores of others – all have in common is that instead of viewing food and cooking as stagnant and untouchable, they treat them as what they are: products of time, place and personality, subject to cross-pollination and new ideas. To my mind that’s the most authentic take of all.

Robert Parker has finally left the restaurant

When the planet’s most powerful wine critic announced in December that he was stepping down as editor-in-chief of The Wine Advocate magazine, a new generation of wine drinkers simply shrugged. Parker, who often championed high-alcohol, highly manipulated and high-priced trophy wines, wasn’t fashionable of late with younger, less moneyed drinkers. And many of Canada’s better restaurants had already moved on. “It’s much less about trying to sell a $500 bottle of wine these days and then high-fiving the restaurant GM in the backroom,” said Lauren Mote, a Vancouver sommelier and mixologist who co-owns Kale & Nori, an events and catering firm.

“What you see much more of is sommeliers telling clients, ‘I discovered this wine on a beach in Sicily – there’s only 12 cases in the world and it’s the best $80 you’ll ever spend,’” Mote said.

Interesting is in: wines with story, character and lower alcohol, ones that actually work with food. That shift has forced more and more wine professionals to look beyond a bottle’s Parker score, and to scour the globe for unsung treasures. It makes drinking well somewhat more affordable – and a hell of a lot more fun.

Smaller centres = good restaurants

Big cities once held a monopoly on good eating, at least in the minds of many big-city foodist types. But thanks to the popularization of food culture, smaller centres across the continent have become hotbeds for great new restaurants. Nashville is perhaps the best North American example: Once derided as a culinary hick town, the Tennessee capital became home last year to The Catbird Seat, suddenly one of the most celebrated new restaurants on the planet. Atlanta, Portland, Ore., and Charlotte, N.C., have seen similar transformations.

Here in Canada, Raymond’s, in St. John’s, holds its own – and then some – against some of the country’s most celebrated spots. In Calgary, chef Justin Leboe has opened four casual new places in the last year, including Model Milk, which took the No. 2 spot on enRoute magazine’s list of Canada’s best new restaurants this fall. Smaller centres’ lower rents mean ambitious chefs can aim high with less fear of failure. “I don’t even want to tell you what I pay per square foot here compared with what I’d have to pay in Vancouver or Toronto,” Leboe said.

Service matters (whatever service is)

The service pendulum swung a long, long way after the much-publicized death (read: the swing through rehab) of fine dining. At the most extreme, we traded white linens and all-pro servers for junkyard furniture and surly staff. Restaurant service has begun to find its equilibrium again, but it’s a long way from settling on a perfect approach. The result: plenty of experimentation and dozens of models for what it means to get served when we go out.

At Bar Volo, a craft beer room in Toronto, the management has ditched tableside food service altogether; customers now order via checklists at the bar. David Chang of the Momofuku company has incorporated elements of Chinatown-style service at many of his restaurants, from heaping, family-style platters to the order in which the food arrives. “We’re all guilty in North America and Europe of thinking that the French model is the Platonic ideal,” Chang said in an interview. At Model Milk in Calgary, Leboe deliberately bypassed seasoned servers for newbies, valuing warmth and genuineness above cool professionalism. It’s backfired at times, he acknowledged, but the norm is a feeling of genuine welcome, he said. That’s a radical prospect compared to your average restaurant experience of just a year or so ago.

Chefs want into your head

On the program of speakers for a gathering of the world’s top chefs in Copenhagen last July, the talk by Paul Rozin stood way, way out. Rozin is not a chef but a psychology professor; his talk was titled “The Psychology of a Meal and How to Make a Meal Memorable.” (A few take-aways: Portions don’t matter much in building positive or negative perceptions of a meal; new foods are more memorable than tried-and-true; most diners don’t remember appetizers.)

Elsewhere, top chefs are hanging out with medical researchers, studying such subjects as gastronomy in the brain.

Large food companies have long researched how the human brain responds to taste, texture, colour and smell, and they’ve harnessed that research to create what they hope are irresistible foods. (To wit: Cheetos Crunchy Flamin’ Hot Cheese Flavored Snacks.) What’s new, however, is that independent chefs are getting in on the game.

Late in 2011, the restaurant Romera New York opened in Manhattan with a neurologist-turned-chef in charge. On the menu: “gastronomic waters” meant to signal fullness in the brain to prevent overeating. (Shockingly, the restaurant closed last spring.) Expect more nuanced examples in the coming years, however – your local chef may some day have the keys to your amygdala. If they ever discover the will-crushing potential of Cheeto-crusted fried chicken and pork-belly ramen tacos, we’re all doomed.

The food movement is a political force

When a U.S. company announced plans in 2011 to turn an enormous chunk of farmland north of Toronto into a quarry, it probably didn’t count on furious opposition from a coalition of chefs, slow foodists, farmer’s market patrons and downtown gastronomes. Their message: The destruction of rural farmland directly affects urban lovers of fresh and local food. A rally and eat-in against the quarry drew an estimated 30,000. When the quarry company cancelled the project this fall, the foodies took credit, and rightly, too.

There are other examples of food-centric battles, particularly the fight in California this fall for mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods.

Canada’s two-tier food system is official

The downside to foodies as a political force: While rich, urban epicures rallied against that quarry, they were mostly silent during the XL Foods Inc. E. coli crisis, as tainted, factory-processed feedlot beef was recalled across Canada, and the federal government made clear that its first priority is protecting Canada’s agribusiness – as opposed to Canada’s people.

I don’t blame the foodies – you can take on only so many issues, and many will argue, correctly, that a rising good-food tide eventually lifts all boats.

But the silence made sense for another reason: Rich epicures, with their love of small producers, artisanal butcher shops and pastured protein, don’t eat factory-processed feedlot beef. The plebes, meantime – the vast majority of Canadians – had better learn to fend for themselves.

 

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