On Wednesday morning this week I wandered the halls of the George Brown Chef School in downtown Toronto. I went to see what sort of people want so badly to toil in kitchens that they’ll bet two years of their lives and tens of thousands of dollars just to get a foot in the minimum-wage door.
What I found didn’t surprise me; apart from their uniforms of chef whites and pinstriped cotton-poly pants, the students at George Brown looked a lot like the students at other GTA colleges and universities. From what I saw, well more than half of them were Asian or South East Asian, Indian, Sri Lankan, Arab or Latin American. I heard a fresh-faced young guy and a smiling young woman speaking a casual mix of English and what I think was Farsi. I counted a dozen black students. That is roughly ten more black people than I’ve seen working the lines of mid- to high-end Canadian restaurant kitchens in all of the years that I’ve been writing about food.
Those future chefs were a cross-section of Toronto. They looked like Canada. I would like to say that witnessing that gave me hope.
This weekend, just a few blocks from George Brown, the eighth annual Terroir symposium, a gathering of “the innovative and creative influencers of Canada’s hospitality industry,” according to the conference program, will convene in the historic Art Deco ballroom called Arcadian Court. The conference is billed as “Canada’s leading hospitality event.” The theme for 2014: “Community building and creative collaboration in the world of gastronomy.”
But all that undersells what Terroir actually is. In just eight years it has become one of the most power-packed food-world parties on the continent. An invitation to Terroir’s VIP reception or to one of its private bacchanals means access to the very most respected and powerful chefs and restaurateurs on the planet – people who can make careers with a single phone call.
Being a panelist or friend of the organization means face-time with the world’s most influential food writers and editors; guests last year included the Chicago-based regional organizer for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants competition and the head of New York’s all-powerful James Beard Foundation.
One of the conference’s organizing committee members is an operating partner at Lecours Wolfson, a pre-eminent hospitality industry headhunting firm. Arlene Stein, Terroir’s chairwoman, is special projects co-ordinator for Cook It Raw, a gathering – and this is not overstatement – of “the world’s most avant-garde chefs.” Invitations to Cook It Raw are among the most coveted prizes in professional cooking.
Terroir is a club; membership brings outsized privileges. And if history is any guide, once again this year that club won’t look like what I saw at George Brown College. This weekend, the Arcadian Court will be one of the whitest rooms in town.
Of the 89 presenters named on Terroir’s 2014 program, I count just eight who might not check the box for “white” on a census. It’s worse if you look at the contingent of Canadian chefs. Of the 28 listed, by my count there are no blacks, no Arabs, no Filipinos, none of the Sri Lankans who staff at least a third of the kitchens in this city – the list could go on and on and on. That program has just three non-white Canadian chefs on it. Only two of them, Torontonian Scott Vivian (his mother is from India), and Duncan Ly, a Vietnamese-Canadian chef from Calgary, have been given speaking roles.
I suppose it’s important to say here that none of what follows should be seen as an indictment of the people who are invited. To have Daniel Boulud and David Chang – who, no, it is not lost on me, is Korean-American – as headliners, as Terroir does this year, is a coup for any culinary gathering; they are two of the most innovative and inspiring chefs anywhere.
I’d say the same for Albert Adria, who’s coming in from Barcelona, and Joe Beef restaurant’s Frédéric Morin and David McMillan, and Amanda Cohen, an enormously intelligent and talented chef from Toronto who owns and runs Dirt Candy, a vegetarian restaurant in New York.
The organizers have also lined up the This Hour Has 22 Minutes actor Shaun Majumder. Mr. Majumder, whose father is from West Bengal, is working to turn his hometown of Burlington, Newfoundland, population 350, into a tourism destination. Nice catch.
And so this isn’t about who’s coming. It’s about who’s not. It is not so hard to find top chefs and restaurateurs with stories and skills worth sharing and who also happen to not be white, especially not when you’re sourcing guests from around the world. It’s not hard at all if you look.