After 38 years as the restaurant critic for The Globe and Mail, retiring tastes bittersweet. I remember fondly the day in February, 1974, when I called Cameron Smith, then the Globe’s assistant editor, responsible for features coverage, and suggested he hire me as restaurant critic. Cam said he didn’t have a restaurant critic, and didn’t need one. I convinced him otherwise, sent a sample column on a spiffy new place called Noodles, and it was game on.
Back then, the Globe did not address itself to the subject of food. It wasn’t news. The newspaper I leave today has morphed into a food savant, breaking and making food-news in a town gone nuts about dining.
But in the seventies, when I first started covering the scene, food was of no interest to Torontonians. When people at parties said: “What do you do?” and I told them, they always did a quick exit … not like today. In those days there were barely enough restaurants of interest to review, and you could count the serious chefs and waitstaff on the fingers of one hand, all of whom worked in expensive, fancy formal places – hardly the normal stomping grounds of somebody (then) my age or income.
I always worried that they knew I was an imposter in those fancy places. Winston’s? La Scala? Julie’s Mansion? Centro? I had neither the wardrobe nor the requisitely dressed date to pass for someone who belonged in those palaces of high-net-worth gourmands. It was stressful trying to pass – but never as tough as taking notes was.
I tried everything: Tiny notebooks in the lap (oh, the ink stains on skirts I couldn’t afford in the first place). I tried going to the bathroom to scribble some thoughts down. I even had a jerry-rigged tape recorder for a while, with a mike in my sleeve. (That works better on TV.) I am thankful that with the advent of handhelds, nobody notices me taking notes because everybody’s texting at table these days – or snapping pics of their dinner.
We have become a city-state of foodies – we flock to the latest resto, we have to be in the know. We need to make acquaintance with the new vegetable nobody has met, the previously unheard-of cuisine or cooking technique. Sous vide! Twelve-hour smoking! Nine-hundred-degree Neapolitan pizza ovens! Torontonians now sound like New Yorkers, easily able to distinguish between shiitake and shimeji mushrooms, critically savvy about the texture of gnocchi, the quiver of panna cotta and the seasoning of the aioli on our fresh-cut frites.
But a weekly column becomes a bit of a grind. It’s a lot of going out for a person who adores cooking and has a great kitchen at home. I have grown children who visit often, and our favourite thing to do together is cook. My idea of heaven is four hours in the kitchen with three or four apprentices (they get snippy when I call them slaves) and some very dry martinis after the mise en place is ready. Believe it or not, having to go to dinner at least twice every week, year after year, gets routine. What if you feel like staying home in that snowstorm? And if there isn’t an interesting restaurant to write about in a given week, I have to make some dog at least sound interesting. And really, how many ways can a writer parse sushi? Or describe broccoli?
Remaining anonymous has also presented its own set of challenges. A critic cannot be impartial if she knows the restaurateurs. If I meet them, empathy rears its head and I shy away from dishing the truth lest I hurt their feelings – or even worse, their bottom line. So I’ve refused to get to know any of them, and have done everything in my power to prevent their knowing me.
Which has meant reserving tables under a false name and paying with credit cards bearing the same nom de plume. To make reservations, I use *67 to block my line at work and have an unpublished number at home. But making reservations has become harder of late. Half the new restos don’t pick up their phone; they want you to leave a message and they’ll call back – not ideal for someone in my situation. One time, in a panic of tardiness, I phoned a resto on my cell to say we were running late. They didn’t pick up but clearly did “call return” and got my cell voicemail. Busted!