And then they knew my false name, so that one had to be retired. I have tended to get a new fake-name credit card every year, and I favour bland WASP names, often from my beloved Victorian novels, so as to fade into the woodwork.
That part is easy (as long as you remember what your new name is). The hard part is the camouflage. Although I never went as far as Ruth Reichl, who adopted elaborate and bewigged disguises during her tenure as the New York Times critic, I have always adopted “protective mimicry” in restaurants – meaning that, when on Ossington, I wear a lot of black, and uptown I’ll put on the pearls and heels. It’s about trying to fit in, to disappear into the customer crowd. People dining with me are never allowed to complain, send food back, or sound too food-smart.
Have they always obeyed? Fat chance. There have been guests who draw too much attention to themselves, or say my name aloud (especially after their second glass of wine). I usually kick them under the table for that. There have been guests who refuse to order the dishes I want to sample. They’re on a diet or they don’t like red meat or cream sauce scares them. These people are not usually my guests again, because I require flexibility in my epicurean research assistants.
My goal has been to be “everyman,” that ordinary customer who gets treated as average, not special, for that restaurant – in order to discover how they would treat you, my reader.
Still, it’s been a great ride. Reviewing for the Globe has been, in so many ways, a dream job: There was the three-star tour of France in 1982 (10 Michelin three stars in 10 days). There have been breathtaking dinners from Michael Stadtlander at Eigensinn Farm, and at Lotus from Susur Lee. And through it all, I’ve gotten paid to eat (mostly) fun food, a task that has been the dominant form of entertainment for my entire adult life. What a long, tasty trip it’s been, Toronto, and you’ve been riding shotgun all the way.
Which is what makes it so hard to say goodbye to you, my readers. When we first met, perhaps as long as 38 years ago, you didn’t know a hollandaise from a béarnaise – and likely did not need to, because there was precious little of both in our unsophisticated town, and not much of anything else worth eating here either.
From bland to smoking hot: The evolution of a city food scene
My first review for the Globe appeared on Monday, April 22, 1974. Noodles was Toronto’s first Italian restaurant that broke the mould of checked tablecloths, spaghetti and candles in Chianti bottles. People with money were really still going to the Benvenuto or the Park Plaza to eat shrimp cocktail and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding in those days. Those of modest means went to Swiss Chalet, Fran’s or Murray’s, but mostly stayed home. Cheese was Kraft slices and veg were often canned peas.
In the seventies, French cuisine came to town: Cream and butter grabbed our attention. The Westbury Hotel (where Susur Lee cooked for a time, and Franco Prevedello served) made food headlines (diminutive at the time) for chef Tony Roldan’s “Scampis in Love” (an orgy of cream and white wine), but never on Sunday because that was a day on which restaurants weren’t allowed to serve alcohol. Gaston’s on Markham Street broke ground with French onion soup; people who had been to France flocked there. We fell hard for quiche lorraine, crepes Suzette and chocolate mousse.
The most important restaurant in Toronto was Three Small Rooms (really three restos) opened in 1966 by George Minden, a gifted amateur who went so far outside the box that he profoundly changed Toronto dining. The cooking was French and fabulous. Chefs Dante Rota and then Herbert Sonzogni taught Toronto to take food seriously (and incidentally trained a kid called Marc Thuet).
Mr. Minden hired two young cooks named Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtlander to cook at his ski chalet near Gstaad in Switzerland. Mr. Minden’s friend Morden Yolles, owner of the Benvenuto Hotel and a passionate gourmand, came to visit him, fell for the food, sent the young cooks on an eating tour of Europe to broaden their horizons, and then hired Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Stadtlander as co-chefs to open Scaramouche in 1980. That changed the landscape, both because Scaramouche’s kitchen trained and inspired cooks and eaters, and because Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Stadtlander between them, in their various cooking incarnations, trained a generation of chefs.