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JANIS NICOLAY/Burdock and Co

This past fall at chef Andrea Carlson’s Burdock & Co in Vancouver, just days before she became the first female chef in Canada to see her restaurant win a Michelin star, I was greeted by a bowl of steaming hot congee.

The comforting rice porridge was a little bit chef-ed up with seasonal pine mushrooms and complemented with a sip of a sake made from the same rice used in the bowl. Everyone sighed with pleasure as the creamy rice warmed our rain-chilled bones. It was one of those magical communal culinary moments that is only possible when everyone is eating the same thing at the same time.

Ten tasting menus from across Canada to try

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Chef Andrea Carlson.HAKAN BURCUOGLU/Burdock and Co

The experience was remarkable because I did not come in looking for congee. If given the choice, I likely would have passed it over for something with a flashier description.

In this case, the congee was part of a chef’s tasting menu, the requisite first course for everyone who ate at the restaurant that month, whether they thought they liked rice porridge or not.

Burdock and Co, like an increasing number of good but laid-back restaurants across the country, has taken on an all-tasting menu model, a smart move which assists chefs as they face challenges surrounding food costs, labour shortages and sustainability measures.

My congee lovefest (as well as Burdock’s hearty bread service and soul-warming dishes such as savoury radish cakes topped with scallops and sake butter and slabs of dry-aged duck breast in a lingonberry jus) is not the kind of scene typically associated with restaurants that offer chef’s tasting menus.

Traditionally the domain of the most revered restaurants around the world, multicourse set menus have recently won much ridicule for their sky-high price points, stifling air of pretension, and rarified and often unappetizing ingredients.

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Caramalized sunchoke, leek, heidi cheese cream, porcini jus.HAKAN BURCUOGLU/Burdock and Co

This sentiment has been driven home with the announcement that Copenhagen’s Noma – a restaurant famous for a $500 tasting menu featuring dishes made with reindeer brain, duck bills, and live ants – is slated to close in 2024 owing to an “unsustainable” work culture and methodology.

That, coupled with the film The Menu, a deliciously horrific and bitingly funny satire of fine-dining culture, has led food lovers to question if these marathon menus that force customers to spend hundreds of dollars on food they don’t choose themselves falls into Emperor’s New Clothes territory.

But let’s not blame the tasting menu itself for this over-the-top and uncomfortable restaurant culture. While many celebrated Canadian tasting menu restaurants do specialize in fussy and excessive white tablecloth fine dining, a growing number of others, like Burdock & Co, shed light on a more relaxed and convivial approach.

The new world tasting menu embraces and invites guests to interact with a chef’s vision and values, rather than treating them like spectators watching an orchestrated piece of culinary theatre.

Burdock & Co adopted a tasting-menu-only model upon reopening after the first round of pandemic restrictions.

Carlson was previously operating a shared-plate concept, but as that style became a potentially germ-laden no-no, she searched for a new way to facilitate the communal experience of enjoying food. Her guests still get the experience of trying multiple dishes together along with everyone else in the restaurant, without the potential awkwardness of fighting over the last bite of scallop or pork belly on a family-style plate.

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Chef Julian Bentivegna.Maude Chauvin/Handout

As an added bonus, Carlson gets to control the flow and balance of dishes, eliminating the risk of guests who misorder, walk out of the restaurant hungry or don’t consume a single vegetable.

“One of the biggest benefits is we’re able to craft a menu that we think is going to give people a great experience,” Carlson says. “You’re going to have different types of proteins, different types of vegetables, some rich things, some lighter things. We’re trying to really hit a balance.”

While VIP tasting menus might be killing restaurants like Noma, which serves 20 courses of labour-intensive extravagance and exotic hand-harvested ingredients, chefs in modest fine-dining restaurants are serving five to 10 dishes that reduce food waste while creating a more sustainable and predictable evening for staff.

Chef Julian Bentivegna is the force behind Ten, a vegetable-forward (not entirely vegetarian, fresh fish is featured too) tasting menu concept in Toronto that only accommodates 10 guests per seating. He says he wouldn’t be able to execute his vision of sustainability and fair labour practices with a standard à la carte menu. To reduce waste and cost, he’ll often use the scraps from one element of his menu to create another.

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Sablefish-crispy salsify, perserved dill seed cream, side striped shrimp.HAKAN BURCUOGLU/Burdock and Co

“In fine dining you’re often actually creating more food waste than in a typical restaurant. I wanted to use the tasting menu to reimagine that,” Bentivegna says.

“We currently serve a Kanpachi Tartare with red cabbage. The tartare consists of the loin of the fish and then we take any belly/skin/trim from the fish, cure it, smoke it and then fry it with ancho chilies, shallots, ginger and dried tomatoes to make our version of a XO sauce. This XO sauce then helps to dress the cabbage.”

Provided the restaurant is popular enough to be fully booked out, chefs know exactly how much food to buy, and they can adjust their menu accordingly, based on what’s in season or most cost-effective. Prepared ingredients aren’t left to linger or spoil on nights when one dish is inexplicably unpopular and well-organized chefs can preserve kitchen scraps for future menus.

As an up-and-coming chef running his first restaurant of his own, Bentivegna’s dedication to sustainability extends to labour. Ten’s petite size requires running a tight ship with four staff in the kitchen including Bentivegna himself, a sommelier and one server.

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Chef Tracy Little.Silckerodt Photography/Handout

With a set price per person, he can estimate exactly what the total guest cheque will be before drinks and an automatic service charge (in lieu of a voluntary gratuity), which means he can offer a consistent and predictable income.

Much like Carlson and Bentivegna, chef Tracy Little values how the tasting menu streamlines her service and allows her to explore her creativity. Specializing in foraged ingredients and local flavours at her restaurant Sauvage in Canmore, Alta., she appreciates the intimate relationship that develops between the guests and chef, as a result.

Diving into a tasting menu requires a fair amount of trust, which means customers need to either be adventurous by nature or the restaurant must develop a reputation strong enough to justify the gamble, which can cost around $100 for a multicourse menu per person before drink pairings.

Little finds that her guests are willing to put themselves in her hands, and often rave about dishes they never would have ordered off an à la carte menu. Recent dishes that received applause include a pine flour sourdough bread course and bison with bone marrow and haskap berries.

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Brown butter aged tenderloin tartare, cheddar waffle.Silckerodt Photography/Handout

“Chain and smaller à la carte restaurants have to cook for what they think is going to get ordered,” Little says. “The chef doesn’t get to have fun. They need a pasta dish on the menu or will try to mimic something they’ve seen successfully sell somewhere else, whereas we don’t have to do that. We’ve positioned ourselves in a place where people can trust us to do something they’re really going to enjoy.”

There’s no doubt that fine dining is changing – inflation, climate change and the public’s awareness of labour issues is forcing it to. But even as restaurant culture shifts, chefs will be looking for ways to delight guests while exercising their creativity. Eating out is supposed to be fun and a little bit thrilling. A well-executed tasting menu can help achieve that on both sides of the plate.

“The tasting menu is a means to an end, to help us express our creativity through food,” Bentivegna says. “There is value still in fine dining – if it’s done right, it can be a tool for sustainability and to make people feel taken care of for the night.”

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